The Month of Fitzgerald

Has Anything Now Been Left Unsaid? Reflections on The Great Gatsby

To celebrate the ninetieth anniversary of the publication of The Great Gatsby  we collected comments from writers on how Gatsby has influenced their work. Here, we share our favorite and most unique responses to Gatsby‘s legacy. 

I don’t remember a passage—it has been forty years since I read it—but I remember, distinctly, thinking: God protect me, all my life, from women like that.

—Rick Bragg, author of All Over But The Shoutin’

Sometimes you get it in music—a seamless relation between singer and song, or between instrument and melody. In poetry, it happens too; there are stanzas or, more rarely, whole poems in which rhythm and subject seem to merge or become effortless in their enriching of each other. It is as though the words have not been chosen, but appeared naturally, found a space that equaled their shape and settled into that space, like a wily and comfortable cat. In prose, however, it is always harder to achieve this ease. In fiction, there is an imperative to let the reader know who and where and when, and that offer of information has a way of disrupting rhythm, cutting across the tone. The strange thing about The Great Gatsby is how easy and natural the sentences seem, how perfect the undertones of comedy and wisdom and close observation work with each other, how the voice of the narrator seems natural, like the best singing voice, and the phrases appear to be made for easy breathing, as phrases in a Schubert song. The narrator suggests his own perfect and personal tact in how much he notices and how acutely he observes and then how much he leaves out. He knows when to move fast and when to move slow. He has a lovely way of suggesting that he is both out of his depth in this world and fully alert to its shades and intricacies. He is both innocent and implicated. Nothing is lost on him. Tact here is a sort of style, and a failure of style—a failure, for example, to create a sentence or a paragraph ending with full sonorous control—is as close to a moral question as Fitzgerald will allow. The rest is life, life as its most complex, its most strange, life whose story is worth preserving, retelling. The novel lets us know that it is worth finding a tone and a structure to do life’s richness and its sadness full justice.

—Colm Tóibín, author of Nora Webster

Has anything now been left unsaid about The Great Gatsby? (And oh, Fitzgerald would have loved to know that his book is still written about by scholars and alluded to by poets—to say nothing of its absorption being a rite of passage into literature itself.)

Just to sputter a bit on the sidelines: perhaps one of its oddities is that it was (or might even be) the wrong book, written by the right writer, or, conversely, the wrong writer, writing the right book. The latter, I think, because it seems a case of someone writing a novel that was beyond him; in that, he was lucky, but also brave.  He didn’t just write it, he gave up on his own bad ideas, so that in revising, and in what he accepted of his renowned editor’s editing, and also by the grace of whoever or whatever saw to it that it was not published with any of the dreadful titles Fitzgerald considered . . . it came out the other side of the tunnel full steam ahead: a noisy, odd, brilliant book, on somewhat shaky tracks, blasting forward whether America was ready to hear this story or not (it was, and remains entirely fixated on everything contained in it, major and minor), headed for the distance, green-lighted forever.

—Ann Beattie, author of The State We’re In

It seems a case of someone writing a novel that was beyond him; in that, he was lucky, but also brave.

Gatsby’s plot is a Rube Goldberg machine. By which I mean that each event is simultaneously random and an inevitable link in the chain: if Nick hadn’t moved next door to Gatsby, he couldn’t have arranged his reunion with Daisy, and if those two hadn’t, as a result, relaunched their affair, they wouldn’t have all fought in the city and sped back and run over Myrtle, and Wilson wouldn’t have come after the wrong man and shot Gatsby in his pool. Move one scene, and the whole machine crumbles.

And who’s to say my whole life hasn’t been a Rube Goldberg machine from eleventh grade on, from the time I read this book in the darkened living room of the mansion where I was babysitting, the sounds of the garden party outside soundtracking Chapter 3? Because I was enchanted with that book I picked it apart, and because I picked it apart I grew to love structure, and was seduced even further into writing, and I’ve spent two decades reaching toward Gatsby’s unattainable perfection. Another way to put it: the book was my green light. Green light meaning I’ll never get there but I can’t help trying. Green light meaning go.

—Rebecca Makkai, author of The Hundred-Year House

The book was my green light. Green light meaning I’ll never get there but I can’t help trying. Green light meaning go.

People in The Great Gatsby are remarkably inept at taking care of their dogs. Nick’s dog runs away when he moves to West Egg and never gets mentioned again. And then we’re introduced to Myrtle’s puppy, who spends her first night with her new owners sitting on top of the table, “looking with blind eyes through the smoke, and from time to time groaning faintly.” After that night she disappears, leaving only the giveaway collar. But what happens to her? Where does she go? The first time I read the book, I was so caught up in its people that I didn’t think twice about the fate of its canines, but there’s a whole sad world of lost and forgotten animals hovering on the outskirts of The Great Gatsby, accusing us of not paying attention.

—Louisa Hall, author of The Carriage House and Speak

Why stop at having The Great Gatsby be your favorite book when it can also be your favorite nineties-style Nintendo Entertainment System video game? Play for yourself at http://greatgatsbygame.com. It might not be what Fitzgerald had in mind, but art lives on.

—Diane Cook, author of Man V. Nature

I could never look at the East End the same way again.

—Richard C. Morais, author of The Hundred-Foot Journey

Paramount asked me to do the screenplay. I agreed because I love the book, though I hadn’t read it for many years. I did complete a script that was faithful to Fitzgerald and fast-paced. There were three producers on the picture, and finally one of them told me, “The difficulty is your script is The Great Gatsby. It’s just too literal.” I said that in that case they should get someone else to do it.

—Truman Capote, author of In Cold Blood

I was crazy about The Great Gatsby. Old Gatsby. Old sport. That killed me.

—From Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger

Elegiac and intoxicating, The Great Gatsby contains some of the most perfectly formed sentences in the English language. This novel length romantic prose poem deals with one of the biggest themes of the twentieth century – the lure and dangers of self-reinvention – and at its heart is one of the greatest characters of modern literature: poor James Gatz of North Dakota who turns himself into the fabulously wealthy Jay Gatsby. Each reading promises new delicious pleasures and fresh heartbreak.

—Andrew Wilson, author of Alexander McQueen: Blood Beneath the Skin

The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby

By F. Scott Fitzgerald