Excuse me – I have a little note here I need to review. “Spell Nick Carraway’s dang name right.” Got it.
Readers, I said yesterday, have to buy into the conceits of a writer. The writer may occasionally put a potted plant over a stain in the book’s carpet. Is it rude for the reader to lift the pot and point out the stain? Probably. How about the critic? His responsibilities may be a bit different, and what good reader is not also a good critic?
Nick Carraway is writing a book. How many readers of The Great Gatsby remember, or ever notice, that he’s writing a book? He says he is, on page 2 (I’m going to need the first sentence later):
When I came back from the East last autumn I felt that I wanted the world to be in uniform and at a sort of moral attention forever; I wanted no more riotous excursions with privileged glimpses into the human heart. Only Gatsby, the man who gives his name to this book, was exempt from my reaction – Gatsby, who represented everything for which I have unaffected scorn.
And then there is exactly one more reference to the idea: “Reading over what I have written so far, I see I have given the impression that the events of three nights several weeks apart were all that absorbed me” (55). That’s it. Nothing else all the way through the end on p. 180. Question 1: Is this an idea Fitzgerald tacked on and then forgot to develop? Seems odd to just drop it.
Question 2: What kind of book is this book? Nick Carraway’s The Great Gatsby is a memoir, subjective but still non-fiction. Is it like other non-fiction of its time, other memoirs about spending a summer hanging out with a – anybody here not read Gatsby? – with a gentleman as interesting as Jay Gatsby? It certainly does not look much like, to pick some well-known contemporaries, Twenty Years at Hull House (1910) or Eminent Victorians (1918). But what do I know about the memoirs of 1925? Nothing, nothing. Maybe Nick is writing a novel. That would destroy the book for me, so let’s please forget that option.
How do I know what fiction or non-fiction looks like, anyways? I recently read Elif Batuman’s The Possessed (2010), ostensibly a collection of essays, ostensibly non-fiction. Except that it was obviously fiction, obviously! What a relief when, on page 94, she baldly describes her own book as a novel. Also, keep an eye on the apples – there are three of them, just like in
real life a novel. So how do I know? I recognize conventions, style, voice. Who knows. The Great Gatsby has too much dialogue, too much immediate precision, and way too much Nick Carraway. Also, Nick directly accuses a (fictional, but not to him) living person of vehicular manslaughter and other assorted crimes, so too much libel and slander.
I wanted to see if Fitzgerald scholars had looked at contemporary memoirs. I quickly chewed through ten volumes of Gatsby criticism (criterion for selection: on the library shelf), many of them collections of essays. No help. Lots of comparisons, good ones, to fiction, like Heart of Darkness (1899). No answer to Question 2, though. How about Question 1?
I found only two critics who even seem to notice that Nick is writing. Mary J. Tate, author of the Critical Companion to F. Scott Fitzgerald, Facts on File, 2007, who, in fairness, has a lot to do in her book, has nothing but this: “Fitzgerald strengthens Nick’s role as narrator by giving the impression that Nick is the author” (91). I don’t see how. If the two references, to the book and the writing, were excised, the narrator’s “role” would be just as “strong,” whatever that means.
George Garret takes the issue more seriously.* He sees a useful tension between written and spoken language, and identifies a number of particularly deft places where Carraway slips from one to the other – Nick’s a great writer! The “poetry of intense perception” (written) is mixed in with “a hard-edged, implaccable [sic] vulgarity” (spoken, all of this on p. 111). This is a real insight into the crackliness of Gatsby’s prose, and it tells us why we need the conceit that Carraway is writing, and not, for example, that we are eavesdropping on his thoughts. Doesn’t really explain the book, though.
I know why it’s a book. Tomorrow - this has already gone on too long - I’ll explain the book. I lifted the plant to discover not a stain, but an intricate pattern.
* George Garret, “Fire and Freshness: A Matter of Style in The Great Gatsby.” In New Essays on The Great Gatsby, ed. Matthew Bruccoli, Cambridge University Press, 1985.