The Modern Enigma Of Gatsby

1 Jun , 2013  

I first read Fitzgerald’s work, The Great Gatsby, when I was fifteen years old, in a sophomore English literature course. I enjoyed the novel, although, at the time I couldn’t have told you much more than that. It held all the necessary topical components that encouraged my enjoyment as a young man: booze, violence, women, honesty, deception, and enigmatic heroes. At least, that is how I interpreted Jay Gatsby at the time, as some peculiar, brilliant, successful, wealthy, infatuated, love-struck bootlegger. The fifteen-year-old version of myself easily fell for Jay Gatsby in the same manor I fell in love with the (imagined) mellifluous voice of Daisy Buchanan, and the self-prescribed honesty of Nick Carraway. This adolescent me also barely noticed the omnipresent classism, the constant racist comments of Tom Buchanan, and the unyielding sexism. At the time, it made sense to me that such a novel was canonized—the significance seemed tacit.

I read the book once more shortly after turning twenty-one, and again for a third time, in one sitting when I was locked in an apartment three years later. However, while I found myself enjoying the novel with equal tenacity every time, I also found my initial reasons were misled and naïve. The true brilliance of The Great Gatsby lies in the specious nature of every character, and the risk we take in trusting a narrator who claims to be infallibly honest. Moreover, those same motifs I glanced over at age fifteen became apparent and important upon further reading. Fitzgerald meant to illuminate some major societal flaws, despite doing so by writing about excruciatingly entitled white socialites. 

            Quick aside: I haven’t seen the recently released, Baz Luhrman glamour-stuffed film adaptation.

The reason a seeming cult of Gatsby has appeared presently is the result of a pop assembly of Roaring Twenties culture and one blaring, blatant, striking fact—Gatsby can no longer exist. The enigmatic Jay Gatsby of the 1920’s no longer has the privilege of privacy. Pushing aside the apparent transcendence and continued classroom implementation of the novel, Gatsby remains relevant and present, because a generation of struggling millennials can relate to the dreams of power, notoriety, and the attempt at mystery. Hence, the recent obsession (a word of much significance to this work of literature) with Gatsby comes not only from the film adaptation, but also due to a newfound, hip interest in speakeasy culture, and the simultaneously dwindling possibility of social privacy.

Cocktail culture as of recent has become fashionable, providing many young people with the knowledge to go out and order a Pimm’s Cup or Old Fashioned with a confidence that once seemed intrinsically bourgeoisie. Speakeasy themed haunts seem to hide in any vacant basement or back alley, and local nano-breweries and liquor distilleries are burgeoning quickly[i]. This has inspired a generation of “mixologists”, a term I choose to use loosely, because one or two of your friends probably call themselves this when they make a rum-and-coke at a house party. In reality though, young people have a higher volume of knowledge on alcohol at their fingertips at all times (e.g. I can Google “How to make a Devil’s Dishwater”) and thereby expect more of their bartenders. It’s becoming more common to see bartenders doing work that seems felicitous to mad scientists with homemade bitters, fresh fruit, eggs, a hodgepodge of tools and utensils, and oddly shaped beakers. So when I go to a place like “The Last Word” in Ann Arbor, “Sugarhouse” in Detroit, or “Tavern Law” in Seattle, it doesn’t surprise me that the drinks take a little longer to make it to my table. Consequently, it’s also not surprising to find some yuppie two tables over trying to sound like Arnold Rothstein, talking about acquiring some rare, expensive brandy wearing a bowtie and a bowler hat. After all, one must act the part. Also, if you’re thinking “Hey, Arnold Rothstein is the New York gangster from Boardwalk Empire”, it might be worth reading that he was in fact a real life, notorious, 1920’s gangster, and that the character Meyer Wolfsheim in The Great Gatsby is very transparently based on him. This knowledge of libations might seem unrelated to the interest in Fitzgerald’s work, however, popularizing one aspect of 1920’s culture seeps into the other parts of our quotidian, social existence, i.e., if you drink Sazeracs and listen to Cole Porter at a speakeasy because it’s cool, then likewise reading literature from The Lost Generation and learning how to Charleston must be cool too right?

Although, the retro-cultural, flapper-filled, Roaring 20’s movement is only a small part of the absorption with this classic piece of literature. While book sales gained momentum as Luhrman’s film neared release[ii]—a typical effect of adapting books to film—Gatsby has seen a much larger boost in sales than expected[iii]. Many sources are directly attributing this boost in book sales to the movie, but I think to do so is overlooking the remarkable nature of the novel’s endurance and appeal. Specifically, the relevance of having a protagonist that remains mysterious and unreachable. In the contemporary realm of continually having social status updated, quantified, liked or disliked, maintaining any iota of mystique seems unfathomable. Can you imagine Gatsby inviting people to his parties via Facebook, tweeting subtle messages about staring at a green light across the water. There would be no clandestine aura to his desires, social inquests, or true intentions. Instead, Jay Gatsby would be some creep Internet-stalking a former lover, baffled over a keyboard, hoping for people to comment on his mopey, brooding thoughts. Somewhere we lost any ability to remain surreptitious and enigmatic, and people are reclaiming that, whether it be through the pages of a printed book, the grotesque infinite page of an electronic reading device, or a pair of 3D glasses at the movie theater.                





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