Thursday, September 23, 2010

"See!" he cried triumphantly. "It's a bona-fide piece of printed matter. It fooled me." - an original idea about The Great Gatsby. Plus: Nick Carraway's second book

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.

“About what?”

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.”

“The books?”

He nodded.

“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.


  1. I think this is an exciting post and hope someone rises to the challenge, and eagerly await AR's Next Post. If I were in a better mood, I'd go through Gatsby with precisely your points in mind.


  2. Yes, this is an exciting post, especially for someone who's had Gatsby on the to-be-re-read pile for a while now.

  3. Your article is intriguing and mostly correct.

  4. One point:
    Jordan Baker isn't "a golf pro" There probably weren't any woman professional golfers in 1922. She is a "tournament player"- supposedly an amateur golfer- which makes her dishonesty in golf and elsewhere worse in contemporary eyes. A guess for "the truth about Gatsby"; like Daisy and Tom, she's old money (she is contemptuous of Nick because he lives in West Eggwhen first she meets him) and her parents died in the 1919 'flu' epidemic and left her yo herself.

  5. Sorry- posted too soon;
    One similarity between Jordan and Nick is that they are both amateurs as golfer and writer respectively but they do not have an amateur's attitude to what they do. An amateur did something for pleasure and did not do it for money or full-time (the Olympic definition of "amateur" then was someone who did not have a job involving physical labour and who was not permitted to trasin for their sport for more than two hours a day). In fact, Nick's attitude to the bond business is nearer to an amateur's attitude in a way that his attitude to writing is not. We know that Jordan does not behave as an amateur should, but is that true of Nick? The book we have in front of us is evidence that when he stops being an amateur writer he adopts the good aspects of professionalism and not the bad.

  6. You've got me on the edge of my seat. Just because it's a frequently used convention of narrator-as-author doesn't explain why it hasn't been more carefully examined in this case. I love your question about whether Nick's memoir resembles other contemporary memoirs. Or whether he's published his book at all.

    But, how does it end up in our hands, then? There MUST be a story there.

  7. What fascinating thoughts on Nick's purposes to writing. I love the idea for the second book.

  8. Very interesting train of thought. I'm in a devil's advocate mood, though, and I'm wondering how this train differs from the one that delivers the notion that Nick Carroway is Scott Fitzgerald. I'm not saying your idea isn't original--I've never read this particular tack on GG before, that a key to understanding GG is to recognize that Nick is the author of the story, which is different from the narrator of it.

    Great food for thought. Excellent post. (BTW - I deleted my earlier comment because I typed in the wrong word...arggghh!)

  9. Ah, what wonderful comments.

    Roger, thanks for the clarification of my shorthand on Jordan Baker's golf career. I love the idea about the contrasting amateur statuses. I wonder if one could argue the other way, that Nick at first hopes to be a Professional (this the book) but as he writes becomes a true amateur. Really interesting.

    Marieke, that's another good convention, the "discovered manuscript". At this point I guess I'm assuming that the novel exists in the real world, and the memoir exists only in the fictional world. But maybe Fitzgerald knows Carraway, and acquries the manuscript after Nick's suicide. No, that's too depressing. Nick lives!

    For an idea like this, Jane, devil's advocacy is angelic. I'm actually radically separating Fitzgerald and Carraway, blocking Fitzgerald out (just as I need to separate Jane Eyre and C. Brontë for that project). I'm trying to move the center away from the actual author into the fictional world, even to the point of pretending that it is real. The actual author does ends up getting credit for anything I discover!

    Sparkling Squirrel is paying me the high compliment of invoking the greatest piece of critical writing in book blog history.

  10. Thanks for the flattery!

    "maybe Fitzgerald knows Carraway, and acquries the manuscript after Nick's suicide."...or murders Nick so he can pass it off as a novel.

  11. Or Zelda murders Nick, and Scott covers it up! I want to read this novel, too.

  12. I thought that Nick-as-writer was all part of the set up of the novel as a Bildungsroman. The relationship with Gatsby is a formative part of Nick's self-development in the world beyond the scope of the narrative, and if he stops gesturing towards the actuality of writing, it's because he wants us, the reader, to focus on what he is learning.

    But I could be being dense here and missing the point of what you're saying. Particularly as the Bildungsroman reading is a very common one and I imagine you will have already come across it. An easy internet search brought me to this site which mentions the writing as item 4 (all of which makes me think you mean something I am not quite seeing, if so, mea culpa, apologies, etc):

  13. I don't see how "It's a Bildungsroman" explains why we need the "book," or even the writing. Bildungsroman-type stories are told with every class of narrator - third-person, eavesdropping, everything. Maybe Fitzgerald picked it arbitrarily, just one of many possible devices. I'm arguing that he did not.

    A properly written memoir would avoid the problem of distracting us from "what he is learning" by never mentioning the writing at all. Nick intentionally distracts us. Why?

    Fitzgerald is actually complicating and enriching "what he learned" by creating two levels. 1. Nick experiences the events of the books and learns something. 2. Nick writes about his experiences and learns something else, possibly something quite different.

    Careful with litlove's link, by the way. It goes to a hideously ugly study guide website that is crammed with bizarre ads and who knows what else. The undergraduate who wrote the piece notices that Nick is writing (good!) but does nothing to develop the idea.

    Here's an article (Barbara Hochman, Style, Spring 1994) that's closer to what I'm seeing. Hochman makes useful points about the psychology of writing (see the page I linked and page 12), the distance it gives Nick, but does not recognize Step 2. The writing of Gatsby is then just the considered documentation of Step 1. I'm suggesting that a lot of the considerin' is being done in Step 2.

    Is there a way to read the novel that can distinguish between the two levels? I don't know. Maybe they're too entangled to be separable. But now, I wonder.