Monday, May 30, 2016

Another Memorial Day With Gatsby

Every Memorial Day weekend, I find a sort of tender curiosity in trying to repeat the past.

This morning's rain in New Jersey made for perfect weather to hunker down and re-read "The Great Gatsby" to celebrate the start of another summer.

It's hard to fathom how a slight, 91-year-old book by F. Scott Fitzgerald never fails to renew my love for great writing and the power of imagination.

The book is still more vivid than any of the familiar video marathons that might have entertained me on another weekend -- James Bond on AMC, "Jaws" on IFC, the black-and-white war movies on TMC, or even tonight's "Roots" simulcast on A&E/Lifetime/History.

You'll never see a "great" Gatsby movie. Video can't capture the imagined sight of Gatsby holding out his trembling arm to the green light, or the grand artifice that Gatsby built to try to reconnect with Daisy.

It's not a plot-driven thriller, either, like "The Girl on the Train." I find it episodic, and dream-like. So I took exception to a tweet I saw this afternoon from Jon Winokur (@AdviceToWriters). He quoted this advice from Lisa Cron, an accomplished writing instructor: "Storytelling trumps beautiful writing, every time."

As Maureen Corrigan wrote recently in her own book about the benefits of re-reading Gatsby, "Anytime you try to explain to someone who hasn't read it what 'The Great Gatsby' is 'about,' the book fades into just another novel about love gone horribly wrong... Flailing around, you fall back on the truth: that maybe it's not so much the plot of 'Gatsby' that makes it great but the way it's told, that incredible language."

In literature, style matters. Otherwise, you can dismiss this book as about a guy who's been obsessed with a woman, now married to another -- and he's rich now and trying to win her back. I'm sure he's got a great Facebook and social media profile too, with plenty of party photos.

No, there's something uniquely American about this book... and something uniquely resonant about a tale that begins right as summer begins and ends right as summer ends.

Once, in driving my daughter home from college in Washington DC, I suggested that we listen to the book during the car ride. She loves "The Great Gatsby" as much as I do, and we thought we'd be able to hear the whole thing in one sitting.

But traffic was light, and things abruptly ended in the smouldering hotel suite at The Plaza. At that point, there was still the possibility Gatsby might end up with Daisy -- and my daughter was just as happy that the story ended right there.

"As far as I'm concerned, Gatsby never went for a swim before they closed up his pool," she said.

We laughed. While barreling up Route 95, we had just seen our share of real life passing by. But that's no matter. Listening to "The Great Gatsby," we both knew that America is still a land where happily ever after is still remotely possible.

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