In preparation for not watching the latest cinematic attempt to turn perfection into something less, I reread the novel. If you haven’t read it, either look away now or carry on reading – like Nick by the end, I don’t really care either way.So, applying the rule of five:
1. What’s great about him? He and Daisy are in a child-child relationship, mediated by a controlling parent/child (Tom) and several powerless adults (Nick, Jordan, even Myrtle). He’s an infantile manipulative wimp, who collapses under the least pressure. He cheats even when he doesn’t need to. He doesn’t even bother to make an appearance until page 54 (out of 188). So what’s to love?
2. Answer: precisely those flaws. Scott proves – and remember, this was 1923 – the fragility of America. Bubbles are designed to burst. The genius is to condense that fragility into a single person, conceal him behind his own defences, and then prick him in such a way that you end up not even sure if there’d been a bubble in the first place.
3. The strand of the novel. It opens with ‘In my younger and more vulnerable years, my father gave me some advice …’ and ends with ‘borne back ceaselessly into the past.’ Although the peroration is impersonal, I like to think that Nick himself is being borne back; indeed, that the story is his as much as Jay’s or Daisy’s.
4. Indeed, the more I reflect the more I think this is a fictional autobiographical narrative. But then I have to admire Nick Carraway’s skilful ducking and weaving in and out. Now you see him, now you don’t. We don’t know what happens to him afterwards (did he marry that Midwest girl, who never gets a name?) The others all end up either dead or gone; Nick himself fades away, in the last chapters, like a green light in the fog.
5. The words. Oh, the beauty of the sentences! We all know the famous quotes, so just a couple of examples of perfection:(page 101): ‘The rain was still falling, but the darkness had parted in the west, and there was a pink and golden billow of foamy clouds above the sea. “Look at that”, she whispered. And then after a moment: “I’d like to just get one of those pink clouds and put you in it and push you around.”’
And (page 159): ‘He stretched out his hand desperately as if to snatch only a wisp of air, to save a fragment of the spot that she had made lovely for him. But it was all going by too fast now for his blurred eyes and he knew that he had lost that part of it, the freshest and the best, forever.’
Oh, and all right, maybe the most poignantly banal phrase in literature, where Nick makes his peace with Tom, despite himself: ‘I shook hands with him; it seemed silly not to, for I felt suddenly as though I were talking to a child.’