Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Yellow cocktail music - Nick Carraway is a great writer

This post is about Charlotte Brontë.  Try to guess how.

For fiction to work, the reader has to willingly buy into its conceits.  We mostly do so reflexively, which is part of the power of fiction.  Kevin, at Interpolations, recently chose to step back while reading Ethan Frome (1911), where he noticed that the electrical engineer telling (by writing?) the story sounded surprisingly like Edith Wharton.*  Anyway, he was certainly unusually talented.

Humbert Humbert (Lolita, 1955), Charles Kinbote (Pale Fire, 1962), and the narrator of Despair (1936) do not resemble each other so much as they all resemble, and write like, Vladimir Nabokov.  They are better writers, actually, since their unrevised first drafts are as well-written as Nabokov’s agonizingly polished novels, and they were all writing under difficult conditions – prison, mental breakdown, police pursuit.  Amazing.

And then there’s Nick Carraway, a bond trader, admittedly “rather literary in college” (4),** whose first book, The Great Gatsby (1925?),*** is a masterpiece.  It’s extraordinary, as good as F. Scott Fitzgerald.  No, better.  I haven’t read The Beautiful and the Damned (1922), but the author of the college lark This Side of Paradise (1920) was hardly in Carraway’s league.  I don’t even know why I thought to make the comparison.  And The Great Gatsby is also a first draft (this requires evidence – tomorrow).

On the one hand, this fine writing from unlikely sources is implausible.  On the other hand, the proof is right there on the page.  Carraway says he’s writing the sentences we’re reading, and there they are.  Should I doubt my own eyes?  I think this is the strongest special effect available in fiction.  I know that Superman does not exist, and that people cannot fly, but I have seen Superman with my own eyes, flying all over the place.  That’s how movies work.  But Nick Carraway is somehow, without having seen him, even more real.  I’ve read his prose:

The lights grow brighter as the earth lurches away from the sun, and now the orchestra is playing yellow cocktail music, and the opera of voices pitches a key higher. Laughter is easier minute by minute, spilled with prodigality, tipped out at a cheerful word. The groups change more swiftly, swell with new arrivals, dissolve and form in the same breath; already there are wanderers, confident girls who weave here and there among the stouter and more stable, become for a sharp, joyous moment the center of a group, and then, excited with triumph, glide on through the sea-change of faces and voices and color under the constantly changing light. (40-1, at Gatsby’s party)

What addle-pated reader, in the name of empty verisimilitude would want to dispose of the word “yellow” here?****  So we readers, if we’re not fools, swallow it all, collaborate with the writer to make the fiction work.  The writer has his responsibilities, but so does the reader.

At the same time, though, I can try to tear apart what the writer is doing – I can read both ways at once.  Is that voice doing what it’s supposed to be doing?  How far did the author really think through his decisions?  For example, doesn’t that wonderful passage sound a little odd in a memoir?  Not impossible, on its own, but as the book goes on like this, a little odd.  Maybe a little more like something one would find in a novel?  What, exactly, is this book Carraway is writing (he says it’s a book – p. 2)?  Fitzgerald is writing a novel, but Carraway is writing non-fiction, isn’t he?  Aren’t the two things different, shouldn’t they look different?  Tomorrow: Nick Carraway’s strange first book.  A preview: Fitzgerald is playing a marvelous little trick here.

Page numbers from the Scribner paperback, 2004 of Fitzgerald's novel, not Carraway's book.

* An ensuing argument with D. G. Myers pushed me in useful directions.  As usual, the argument began because one of us (me) was actually arguing about something else.

** What did he write?  “[A] series of very solemn and obvious editorials for the Yale News” (4).  But he is certainly a great reader, yes?  “And I had the high intention of reading many other books besides.”  Besides “a dozen volumes on banking and credit and investment securities”!  Someone, Nick or Scott, is having some fun here.

*** F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel of the same title was definitely published in 1925.  I’m not so sure about Nick Carraway’s memoir.

**** The word actually tells us something, that Carraway might be, like Nabokov, synesthetic.


  1. Aren’t the two things different, shouldn’t they look different?

    Ooh, ooh. When I start writing again, I'm going to have something to write about this too, about Scott, and Melville, and that passage I discovered ages ago in Benito Cereno, and other stuff. Soon.

  2. I always like Scout Finch as author/storyteller/narrator--and how she is the eyes and voice of a child as well as the eyes and voice of an adult. Of course, I'm not sure how Harper Lee would write it since she didn't write anything else...

  3. Charlotte Bronte: Jane, the great writer (though a mere governess, educated to Lowood standards) writing her book Jane Eyre? Reader, I mochaed him?

    Nah, knowing you, it's probably something completely different.

    My favorite bit in The Great Gatsby is that wonderful drunken modernist portrait of Gatsby: not Singer but Picasso. His shoes, his pants, an ear, an eye. Lovely.

  4. Jenny - That's right! First step, at least. Jane Eyre (and Lucy Snowe, author of Villette) are themselves extraordinarily talented writers. If I try to figure about what they are doing with their writing, does that get me anywhere? I think it does.

    Just as it does with Gatsby. I hope. There are plenty of other good books where the idea is just a curiosity that gets us nowhere. So, nicole, yes, please, add to the list.

    Now, I have not read Harper Lee. I know that many of her readers truly love the narrator's voice. How does Lee frame the story - is it meant to be a real memoir, a book? Or something more vague? Most first-person narrations are deliberately vague about exactly what the text is supposed to be.

  5. I really like this post--thought provoking. One of the thing I really liked about Incident of the Dog in the Night (or whatever it's called) is that the narrator is so distinctive and not the author, which is a rare feat. I personally think Jane Eyre is pretty much wish fulfillment on the part of Currer Bell :)

    I have always loved Nick Carroway, though Fitzgerald I have issues with...

  6. Reading The Gold Bug Variations, I spent a great deal of time wondering what I was reading. I'm not sure I've read anything else that I didn't find out whose story I was reading until the last page. A combination of Jan O'Deigh's unemployment self-improvement notes and Franklin Todd's dissertation-- who'd have guessed? Both Franklin and Jan have some writing issues, never thought to try and determine if they were there's alone or shared with Robert Powers (the novel's author).

  7. Isn't it Nick Carraway actually- or is that another instance of his unreliability as a narrator?

  8. I've never read Powers, but its Modernists like him - much earlier than him, actually - who trained me to keep an eye on the narrator. Although they didn't invent any of this.

    Jane, what does that sideways smiley face mean? I don't know how to read those. I only know Currer as a writer.

    Is the Haddon book meant to be written? Meaning, is the kid writing? Talking? Just thinking?

    Roger - what have I done? Do you know how many times I have looked at that name in the past two days? Pathetic! Thanks much.

  9. Peculiar how one person's memoir so much resembles another's novel... hmmm!

    Brings to mind many of Toni Morrison's books -- especially Love. One of the trickiest, weirdest narrators I can think of. (I won't give it away.)

  10. Not just you, looking at Carroway and half-wondering, but not bothering to check.

    Only noting here that I was reading about Capote last night, a George Plimpton oral history of sorts, and some one was talking about the question of whether Capote did substantial work helping out Lee in writing Mockingbird (her only book). Ironically enough, for this comment thread and post, the statement was about the possibility that he was able to adopt the narrative voice of the book.

  11. I've never read Morrison, either. I love tricky narrators, perhaps a bit too much.

    It is peculiar. Fitzgerald (who was real) wrote a book called The Great Gatsby which is fiction, and Carraway (who is not real) wrote a book of the same title that is non-fiction, and the two books have the same words in the same order, yet are not the same book.

    That Capote-wrote-Mockingbird business seems so belittling. Is there any actual evidence for it? Why wouldn't the reverse be just as likely - that Capote's assistant, Lee, wrote some of his stuff?

  12. I read GREAT GATSBY in high school and I remember I was fascinated by Nick Carraway. He was my paper subject. I don't remember much else (i.e., why I was so fascinated). I should reread the book.

  13. Yes, do, Rebecca. You won't believe it's the same book. In some sense, it won't be.

  14. >I personally think Jane Eyre is pretty much wish fulfillment on the part of Currer Bell :)

    :) means I made a joke and that's me smiling at it.

    I'm reading The Life of Charlotte Bronte, and Gaskell tries to keep the distinction between Charlotte Bronte, the woman, and Currer Bell, the author, though they inhabit the same body. I was just trying to be funny by suggesting that Currer Bell, not Charlotte Bronte, identified with her heroine, Jane Eyre.

  15. Thanks, Jane - dense of me. The reference to Currer should have been a good enough signal, but no, right over my head.

    How's the Gaskell book? She doesn't come up with my idea, does she, that we need to read Jane Eyre etc. as fictional non-fiction? I suppose I had better look for myself. I'm so suspicious of biographical interpretations, maybe too much so.