Would you believe I at first thought I could pack all of this Gatsby business into one post? Idiocy.
The problem is that I’m trying to make what might actually be an original point about The Great Gatsby, which does not happen every day.* The standards of evidence are different.
A summary, for those who have, wisely, not been following too closely:
Nick Carraway begins to write a book called The Great Gatsby, about an unusually interesting fellow he met one summer. We know this from page 2. On page 55, Nick, “[r]eading over what he has written so far,” decides he has not given the right impression. We’re one third through the book. The idea that Nick is writing a book, is writing anything, is never mentioned again.
Now, I think we’ve learned something already. One response to finding problems in what I have written is to revise. Nick instead writes an addendum, a curious one. The problem he finds in his first three chapters of his book about Jay Gatsby, in which Gatsby is only barely introduced, is that they do not have enough Nick Carraway in them. So he tells us about his work, what he eats for lunch, his imaginary stalking (p. 56), and his romance with a golf pro. The chapter ends with:
Every one suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues, and this is mine: I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known. (59)
In a typical novel with an unreliable narrator, if there is such a thing (The Tin Drum, Lolita, The Good Soldier), an avowal of honesty is a signal that the narrator has just been or is about to be outrageously dishonest. I’m not sure that’s true here. I’ll set that aside, and just keep the new piece of information that I need, that the text we’re reading is Nick Carraway’s draft of the story. He is not revising.
One more clue: back on page 2, again, Nick tells us that he “came back from the East last autumn,” and later we learn that he means the autumn when Gatsby ends, in 1922.** So “now” (page 2 “now”) is sometime in 1923. Chapter IX (p. 163) begins “After two years I remember the rest of that day, and that night and the next day…” meaning that Nick is "now" writing in 1924. In another novel, I might dismiss this as the author’s sloppiness, but not here. We’ve learned that it has taken Nick a year or more to (almost) finish his – not his book – but his unrevised manuscript.
Adding up: Nick began writing what he had hoped to be a book. He even had a title picked out. At some point (when?) in the long process of composition, he abandons the book, but not the writing. He has some other purpose, a private one. Looking over the critical work, the main interpretive problem of Gatsby has been to work out Nick’s role in the book, or to properly weight the places of Nick and Jay Gatsby. If my idea is right, Fitzgerald, using no more than four pieces of information, is telling us that Nick is in fact working on the same problem, and that the mechanism is his writing. I’m making Gatsby sound more than a bit like The Good Soldier (1915). Yes. There’s a reason Carraway’s non-fiction “book” doesn’t look like other non-fiction books. At some point, it is no longer meant to be a book.
To pursue the idea, I should look for changes in Nick’s ideas, tone, or attitude that are somehow signaled in the writing itself, signals that he hears or understands only by writing them. That’s for my next time through the novel. I am deeply suspicious of this passage, from the man with “enormous owl-eyed spectacles,” surely a client of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg:
“What do you think?” he demanded impetuously.
He waved his hand towards the book-shelves.
“About that. As a matter of fact you needn’t bother to ascertain. I ascertained. They’re real.”
“Absolutely real – have pages and everything… See!” he cried triumphantly. “It’s a bona-fide piece of printed matter. It fooled me.” (45)
And in fact, books – non-fiction books, in particular – are treated as objects of suspicion throughout the novel.
I have come up with another novel I would like to read. It’s a sequel to The Great Gatsby called Nick’s Next Book. Nick in fact has published his manuscript, but in such a revised form (with all of the libel and slander scrubbed out) that he barely recognizes it as his own. It is recognized as the great piece of writing it is and makes some money, so Nick wants to write another book. But about what? So the novel is a picaresque, Nick’s comic adventures as he searches for his next subject.
Or: the draft we read is actually published. It’s a huge smash, but almost all of the money goes to settle the lawsuits brought by Tom and Daisy Buchanan. Nick is crushed, so he needs to write another book, etc. In the beginning, set in the 1960s, Nick has just retired (or has died?) from a position in a creative writing program, an acknowledged pioneer of creative non-fiction.
Please write this novel for me. The Great Gatsby is still under American copyright, I believe, so you may have to wait a few years to publish it. That’s fine; I’m patient. Thanks.
* If someone who studies or teaches Gatsby were to stop in and say, “Original? You know, pal, one out of seven undergraduate papers is on exactly this subject,” he would be doing me a favor.
** The chronology of the novel seems well-established. See the chronology appendix in the 1991 Cambridge University Press edition of The Great Gatsby, p. 215.