Before seeing Ensemble Parallele's production of John Harbison's opera The Great Gatsby, I took the time to reread F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel.
I last read Gatsby as an impressionable teenager, and went on to read the then-current Fitzgerald bio, his short stories, Tender is the Night, and goodness knows what else. I had forgotten some of the sad details of his life - such as drinking himself to death at age 44 - but remembered some of the others (talented but mentally ill wife spending her last decade in an asylum before dying tragically in a fire). Thank you, Wikipedia, for the reminders.
I had also forgotten a whole lot about Gatsby, as in, almost all of the plot details. It's a compact novel and a quick read, which I knew because I'd picked up a used hardcover copy some years ago.
It's always interesting to reread a book you haven't touched in a few decades, especially a book with Gatsby's huge reputation. The book may be called The Great Gatsby, and the events of the novel may center around the mysterious Jay Gatsby, but from the reader's perspective, the central character is Nick Carraway, the narrator, who is the only character we see grow or change during the novel.
I understand why it's typically read by adolescents, though evidently not everybody does read it in junior high or high school. At that age, it's easy to identify with Gatsby and his dream of reunion with Daisy Buchanan, his longing for her and to be accepted in the upper-class society in which she lives. He's also, apparently, a self-made man who has risen to ostentatious wealth from humble beginnings.
But seriously. Past adolescence, it's just very hard to take much about this book seriously. The writing is sometimes beautiful but just as often awkward. The dialog is shallow and so are most of the characters. At my age, I have absolutely no sympathy for the 30-year-old Gatsby's adolescent longing and failure to understand that Daisy has moved on. I simply cannot swallow the impossible coincidence that brings on the final tragedy, or sympathize with how Gatsby protects Daisy.
It's easy enough to believe the shallow Buchanans and Tom's affair with the vibrant Myrtle Wilson, and to believe that observing all of this, Nick rejects NY society and goes back to the honest midwest. But it's hard for me to swallow Gatsby as a major American novel.