The 1920s: Jay Gatsby has a palatial residence on Long Island Sound where he hosts fabulous parties for people who, in the main, he does not know. Or, in narrator Nick Carraway’s beautiful phrase, he ‘bought a mansion where he dispensed starlight to casual moths’. No-one is sure who he is, let alone who he was and how he has arrived in this exulted position. Scott Fitzgerald is daring, revealing much of the mystery at the heart of the story halfway through and then continuing to let things play out over three summer months. Gatsby fails to believe that it is not possible to relive and change the past, and cannot understand that his dream is simply unattainable: this dream, after all, is a relatively simple one, involving the girl he has convinced himself is his one true love. But he is investing the green light on the dock of the house on the opposite headland with too much of his ‘heightened sensitivity to the promises of life’. At the centre of it all is…what? Not a lie, really. Perhaps the closest thing to an answer comes from a heartbreaking childhood Hopalong Cassidy book. Foreshadowing Scott Fitzgerald’s Hollywood work, the denouement is described in longshot, perfectly cinematic – as are, watching over everything from the ash heaps, near the tawdry garage, the indifferent eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg. Given the wondrous fantasy, the artifice of the beginning, it’s very easy to forget what an unholy, terrible mess – perfectly constructed – the story becomes, how rampantly self-obsessed and strange James Gatz of North Dakota actually is, how entranced by wealth but oddly moral he is and, in the end – perhaps the finest final few sentences ever* – how perfect the whole thing is. The first work of genius I have read this year. All in 170 brisk pages. Even if – and maybe because – there is no such word as ‘orgastic’.
* Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter – tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms further…And one fine morning –
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.