I was eight years old the first time I heard of The Great Gatsby.
My mom took my two teenage sisters to see the movie as soon as it was released. I was jealous my sisters got to go and I didn’t; they lived on a mysterious and sophisticated plane where they had boyfriends, embroidered their jeans, wore halter tops and painted their nails. They came home from the movie oohing and aahing about everything 1920s: the house, the cars, the clothes, and (swoon) Robert Redford and Mia Farrow. I had no idea what they were talking about, but I remember the glamour and romance, both theirs and that of the film they couldn’t stop talking about.
When I first read the book in high school, Gatsby’s beautiful shirts and the sharp ache of longing as he watched the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock appealed to my teenage Romantic sensibilities. A late bloomer and a bookworm, I fancied I knew what it felt like to long for someone unattainable, out of my league. Even as the tragedy unfolded and the illusion fell apart, I remained hopeful that he and Daisy would wind up together. When they didn’t, and worse, when Daisy conspired with Tom to run away, I didn’t appreciate the crushing inevitability of the ending, or how Tom and Daisy were perfect for each other. I thought the tragedy was that Gatsby and Daisy hadn’t wound up together; I didn’t yet know it was all a mirage from the start, a house built on sand.
As an undergraduate, I was finally able to see past the love story to what doomed the lovers from the beginning. In my survey of 20th century American lit (of course), we talked about the difference between class and money, between East and West “Egg.” I understood Tom’s contempt for Gatsby’s pink suit, the subtle anti-Semitism and sinister implications of Meier Wolfsheim’s cufflinks, and why Daisy wished for her daughter to be a fool. Or, at least I understood what my professor told me. I was a sorority girl at a big Midwestern school. The only class warfare was between the kids on financial aid and the ones whose parents were footing the bill. I didn’t know anyone who went to prep school or who came from old money; there was no such thing in Indiana that I knew of. I got an A on my paper about Gatsby as a portrait of the Jazz Age, but then, I got A’s on all of my papers. I don’t think I ever wrote anything I thought up on my own.
Still, by the time I was teaching high school, I figured I knew all there was to know about Jay Gatsby. I dissected that book with forensic precision, laying it open and neatly sticking pins in its organs, labeling its pieces for my students’ edifcation. I wrote study questions about the eyes of T.J. Eckleburg, the gray ash heaps, the whiteness of Daisy and Jordan, the famous green light and the green breast of the New World. I lectured about the Jazz Age and prohibition and showed pictures of New York in the roaring twenties. I told my students about Zelda and Scott, their tempestuous relationship, their tragic bacchanalian excesses. I blathered on about the American Dream. Meanwhile, I was buying a house in the suburbs, complete with an actual picket fence. I was marching in lockstep down the path Margaret Atwood calls “Happy Ending A.” Everything was going according to plan. I talked about The Great Gatsby all day from a pleasant academic distance, then went home and lived a life about as far from it as one could imagine.
By my early thirties, I was knee deep in babies and playgroups. The only time I took my brain from the shelf and dusted it off was to go to book group, and when we decided to reread a classic, I was delighted to read Gatsby again. But I have almost no memory of what we talked about or if and how I read it as a young wife and mother. The days ticked by in long swaths of routine, punctuated by the occasional milestone or recital or minor family crisis. There was something deeply satisfying in the simplicity: the schedule, the predictability, the sameness provided comfort and order amid the exhausting physical demands of parenthood. My world shrunk, for a short time, to a pinpoint. I remember those years the way I remember a dream; I wake up feeling happy or fond or comforted, but the details escape me when I try to retell them. But I dimly remember a book group discussion about Gatsby’s Platonic conception of himself, a phrase that troubled me for years with its slipperiness–like a wriggling fish that kept sliding out of my grasp the harder I squeezed it.
But reading it for the fifth time, in the fifth decade of my life (which is only my forties, if you’re keeping track), I have a firm grip on that fish. I have watched a marriage or two disintegrate because someone married an idea of someone else. I know people who have invented and reinvented themselves, only to come crashing up against their true selves time and again–against the inexorable truth that they are who they are: no matter where they live, or what they have, or what they wear. I have seen people rationalize unspeakably hurtful behavior because they thought they were serving some nobler version of themselves, which was, in the end, a fiction of their own creation. I have made a few of those mistakes myself.
Nick turns thirty the day Daisy shears Myrtle’s breast off with that giant yellow car. It’s a turning point for him: one where he sees all of the grotesqueness for what it truly is–when he stops feeling sorry for Gatsby and finds instead that he is sick of all of them, even Jordan, whom he thought he might love. He is repulsed, finally, by their carelessness and dishonesty, the casual brutality that serves only themselves. Thirty seems a tender age to have made such a discovery. It took me closer to forty years, but I finally wound up at the same conclusion as Nick: “No–Gatsby turned out alright at the end; it is what preyed upon Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men.”