THE BOOK OF ILLUSION

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"The Great Gatsby" is a story of a romantic outsider, high rollers and wrecked lives. For Lee Siegel, it's a portrait of contemporary America ... 

Special to MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE

First published in 1925, “The Great Gatsby” has never lost its allure. Last year “Gatz”, a six-and-a-half-hour stage adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, was a sell-out hit at New York’s Public Theatre. Everyone is now buzzing about Baz Luhrmann’s screen remake of “Gatsby”, now being filmed in Australia with Leonardo di Caprio in the title role that was once Robert Redford’s (pictured above). A musical adaptation of the novel is set to premiere on September 30th at the New York Musical Theatre Festival in Manhattan. Professor friends of mine tell me that no American work of literature excites their students so much as Fitzgerald’s rueful romantic taxonomy of American dreams and fantasies.

The lasting power and beauty of “Gatsby” is rooted in the story’s mix of illusions and self-delusion. Jay Gatsby lives in fabulous wealth in a magnificent mansion on Long Island. He throws glamorous, exclusive parties and excites admiration and envy. Yet his wealth is the product of some shady bootlegging. Gatsby swans about in a stainless white suit, yet his glow is tarnished by his foolish obsession with Daisy, the shallow, callous wife of brutish Tom Buchanan. His rise to riches would seem to illustrate the chimerical proportions of the American dream, yet he dies—brutally, senselessly—at the hands of a garage mechanic, who mistakes Gatsby for his wife’s murderer and so shoots him in his swimming pool. Such mercurial luck and weird violence is the unexpected underside of the American promise.  

The poles of dreamy ideal and grimy real are represented in the novel by the colours gold and yellow, threaded through the book like a Schubertian leitmotif. “Behind every great fortune is a great crime,” Balzac once shrewdly observed, and this was not lost on Fitzgerald. Gatsby is ultimately an exemplary American, driven by a hunger for more. He keeps his illusions till the end, even as they blind him to the way his futile pursuit of Daisy is eroding his life. Fitzgerald’s worldliness was European, but his wistfulness was uniquely American. “Can’t repeat the past?” Gatsby cries incredulously at one point in the novel. “Why of course you can!”  

No wonder the tale of fatefully deluded Gatsby still resonates at a time when the collision of illusion and self-delusion has so injured American expectations. America is now full of millions of bankrupt Gatsbys who bought their dream homes with no money down. Meanwhile, the derivatives market was the very embodiment of American fantasy and self-deception, built on as flimsy a foundation as Gatsby’s wealth. The promised gold of the Reagan years, burnished to a shine in the new millennium, has turned a grimy yellow. 

Along with Gatsby, the novel’s other characters seem like they stepped out of today’s news. In Tom and Daisy Buchanan, Fitzgerald created the very image of callous, upper-class destroyers. “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy,” Fitzgerald writes, “they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.” They were the moneyed id in action, blind to social reality and simple human decency. “Her voice is full of money,” Gatsby marvels about Daisy. 

Among many Americans the past few years have instilled a sense that a thin stratum of people act with similar recklessness. The country’s dishonest bankers and shady mortgage-brokers never seem to be touched by economic cycles that grind other Americans down. As unemployment numbers have risen, these callous beneficiaries have seemingly “retreated back into their money.”  

A romantic outsider, Gatsby is both admired and mistrusted. As Nick Carroway—Gatsby’s tenant, new friend and the novel’s narrator—tells us, rumours depict Gatsby as related to Kaiser Wilhelm, a German spy during the first world war, a bootlegger and a murderer. Outsiders like Gatsby are quintessential figures of American democracy, a system designed to welcome outsiders by elevating individual will over group affiliation. They can redeem, but they can also unsettle. Gatsby had to escape his humble origins in order to conquer society, yet in remaking his life he generated an aura of mysterious menace. Everyone attended his parties. Hardly anyone came to his funeral. 

And here we are, in a time of unsettling flux, in which one enigmatic outsider after another vies for political leadership. Sarah Palin, Donald Trump, Michele Bachmann, the scores of obscure Tea Partiers suddenly thrust into Congress. Then there is the epitome of outsiderness himself, Barack Obama. No one had the audacity to ask Gatsby for his birth certificate as proof of who he really was. But until Obama produced his, he was mythologised as wildly as Gatsby had been: as socialist, communist, revolutionary, conspirator, traitor.  

In Gatsby’s case, the mysterious stranger in the immaculate white suit was really a cipher named James Gatz, who lucked his way into fame and fortune because of his looks, charm and the way he could imitate the gestures of confident success. The disenchantment with Obama among some of his most passionate supporters finds an echo in Fitzgerald’s portrait of Gatsby’s social dynamic. Gatsby had: 

one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life…It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey. 

Yet because of the inadequacy of those who were taken in by Gatsby, or because of his own deficiencies as a person, reality intrudes on illusion: “Precisely at that point [the smile] vanished,” observes Nick. “I was looking at an elegant young roughneck, a year or two over thirty, whose elaborate formality of speech just missed being absurd. Some time before he introduced himself I’d got a strong impression that he was picking his words with care.”

Europeans are too disillusioned ever to be disappointed. But Americans cannot forgive any figure who, having invited them to project their dreams onto him, steps out from behind them. Undeterred, they will keep rushing right past him toward other illusions; toward, as Fitzgerald writes in his famous final lines, “the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms further...And one fine morning—”. 

Lee Siegel is a New York writer and cultural critic. His latest book "Are You Serious?: How to Be True and Get Real in the Age of Silly" is published by Harper. His last piece for More Intelligent Life was about culture after 9/11

Picture credit: Paramount Home Entertainment