Tonawanda News

May 19, 2013

Fitzgerald's 'Gatsby' a ceaseless classic

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The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — I’m slightly embarrassed to admit I somehow had never read until last week one of our seminal works of literature, read by most in high school English class, “The Great Gatsby.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s spellbinding tale of the origins and opulence of one Jay Gatsby is a really, really good book. Maybe perfect. If there are flaws, a reader more attuned to such criticism than me could make the case. I won’t.

The only thing more embarrassing than admitting I’d never read it was the reason: I wanted to see the movie adaptation done by director Baz Luhrmann. 

As I turned each lush page I fell under the spell so many have before me — engrossed in the over-the-top imagery, extravagant parties and the towering love story between Gatsby and his femme fatale, Daisy. 

The book captures the Roaring Twenties in all their glory but it wasn’t until the film adaptation that I realized just how much it speaks to my time.

Lurhmann smartly juxtaposes the glitzy classic New York images of Gatsby’s world with a modern score including a 1990s hip hop anthem by the rapper Jay Z, one of the film’s executive producers.

It was watching Gatsby, depicted cooly by Leonardo DiCaprio, driving that crazy yellow car set to Jay Z’s “100$ Bill” that I realized just what a modern adaptation would look like — and how much it says about how we live today.

By today’s standards, Jay Gatsby is a pimp. Not a literal one in the sense he forces women into prostitution — though there’s no shortage of material along those lines in the book or the movie. 

Gatsby is a pimp in the sense there’s nothing too over the top not to try. Swap out the flapper girls for some strippers, make the champagne Cristal instead of Dom Perignon, turn the yellow roadster into a tricked out Escalade. Instead of West Egg, Long Island, the story probably takes place in the OC. In less than five moves you get from Gatsby to “The Real Housewives.”

If you prefer, change the imagery to fit the Lehman Brothers narrative. It works just as well.

I was most interested in seeing the movie to determine what kind of “great” Gatsby was portrayed as. Was he great in the literal sense of the word? If that had been the case it would have been a real shame. 

Gatsby is great in many respects — a self-made millionaire whose outrageous ambitions are made real by his own sheer force of will. 

But the title is really sardonic. Gatsby is a vessel for ambition, a dream existing in a world where fake people don’t possess the ability to discern between the unlimited heights of a cloudless blue sky and solid ground. Gatsby lives in — he creates — a universe unto itself where the only sin is a life not lived sufficiently large.

Daisy is a clueless wanderer who, thanks to her millions, has never had to answer for actions. She and her husband Tom are, as the book’s narrator Nick adeptly points out, “careless people.” She’s Kim Kardashian minus the sex tape.

Even the erstwhile Nick, Gatsby’s neighbor of humble means has a modern day counterpart. Like the sheepish narrators that pass for a working press corps today, Nick sets out to objectively tell a story but quickly finds it’s more fun to be one of your own characters.

Luhrmann’s film isn’t this harsh on Fitzgerald’s characters. In truth, to call Gatsby and his band of brothers hedonists is only partly correct.

They are victims of their own cavalier caviar lifestyles. But intertwined in that morass of amoral indefatigable individuals is the story of American idealism. We value the pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps narrative perhaps more than any available to men. It is a mark of respectability when an American stands proudly atop the mountain he’s created out of meager molehills. 

And as much as we celebrate individual accomplishment, there’s only one thing prized higher: That individual’s fall from grace.

It is in this moment where there’s equal measure genuine sorrow and self-righteous gloating when Gatsby is exposed as a vapid creature of his own imagination. He chases the ideal Daisy with a passion that knows no bounds, emotional or financial. But it’s only when a man who can never reach high enough achieves his life’s only goal we realize he’s the dog who finally caught the car driving down the street — and has no clue why he was chasing it in the first place. 

In a story that is as literary as it is literally about money and wealth we’re left with the ultimate question: What’s it all actually worth?

It doesn’t matter if the central character is Jay Z or the former Jay Gatz. It is still being told, over and over again.

As Fitzgerald so brightly put it in Gatsby’s closing line, So we beat on, boats against the current, borne ceaselessly into the past.

Eric DuVall is the managing editor of the Tonawanda News. Contact him at eric.duvall@tonawanda-news.com or follow him on Twitter, @EricRDuVall.

Eric DuVall is the managing editor of the Tonawanda News. Contact him at eric.duvall@tonawanda-news.com or follow him on Twitter, @EricRDuVall.