Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Is Gatsby the Great American Novel or just a pretender? The timeless Flapper and Endless Love

Is GATSBY the Great American Novel or just a pretender?

“Whether it’s something that happened twenty years ago or only yesterday, I must start out with an emotion—one that’s close to me and that I can understand.”  F.Scott Fitzgerald

      This quote is key to Fitzgerald, a source of strength and criticism as a weakness-- especially in his rivalry with Hemingway.  I felt revisiting this novel was like reading a diary about a lost love— nostalgic, bitter-sweet, and touching.  A huge success in its era, GATSBY was later reviled as trivial, politically bankrupt , a celebration of rich people and their decadent life style.  Today of course, it’s assigned reading for schools, supposedly about class and money in America. But for that, Dreiser’s An American Tragedy may be the better novel. So why is this novel a classic?

       Let’s begin with Nick, the haunted narrator, struggling to come to terms with events he can’t quite understand. GATSBY is a novel haunted by the inexplicable and that theme repeats, like a novel designed as a symphony or an opera.  Gatsby is a man who lives in inexplicable luxury and no one knows the source of his wealth, whether it’s bootlegging or mysterious “drugstores.”  Though he doesn’t drink and is self-contained, he inexplicably throws huge wild parties.  Daisy and Tom are inexplicably married, though Tom’s a bulky man with rough talk and coarse excesses and Daisy’s a slight girl of delicate beauty and mannered nuance.  These three are the major chords, the triangle for reverberating themes of love and loss.  

        Opposing themes are Nick, the honest bond salesman and his relationship with Jordan, a beautiful tennis pro. Daisy’s childhood friend, Jordan is a tough athletic woman who likes controlling her game, on the court and off.  She’s “nobody’s fool” to Daisy’s dreamy attitudes.  The wary attraction-repulsion Nick feels for Jordan is a counterweight to Gatsby’s complete obsession with Daisy. Nicksomehow admires and fears for Gatsby’s complete abandonment. Yet, under the spell of Gatsby’s belief, he lets him use his house to meet Daisy for tea. As Gatsby cherishes his love as the highest value, Nick cherishes honesty.  So, he lends his integrity to the couple, but is uneasy.
      Nick’s aware of  Hazel, Tom’s “woman in New York..” Though it’s not "right" for married Daisy to renew her affair with Gatsby, Nick has seen how Tom carelessly flaunts his affair. He rationalizes there is something okay about Daisy meeting Gatsby, since but for the war they might have married.  Nick, the supposed realist, ignores the truth that Daisy didn’t wait for Gatsby but married a solid man of her class— in physical bulk and money. She even has a little girl,  with her neck and face shape.  

         Like Chekhov’s The Sea Gull or Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, you get the fluttery movement of love in conflict with reality and fear there will be a price. GATSBY provides a crescendo of emotion, before the horrific, somehow inevitable fall. The brilliance of GATSBY isn't the plot but that like Nick, you become a believer in Gatsby’s dream.  That dream is echoed in the minor theme of Hazel, who lives out her fantasy that Tome will leave his wife and they will go away together.
         As Gatsby and Daisy are suited in temperament, Mabel and Tom possess animal “vitality.” Their enjoyment of money and sexual pleasure is low life, repellent to Nick, when he’s trapped in their “love nest” of a flat.  He much prefers Gatsby’s ethereal fantasies, to this dark underside of "love." In fact, Nick, who denies attachment, finds Gatsby’s yearnings, both foolish and admirable. In the beginning, he sees Gatsby on his lawn gazing at a green light on a dock. Later, he learns that's Daisy’s dock. He’s shocked, when he comes to realize that Gatsby’s aspirations; the handsome mansion, on the edge of nouveau riche, like his crafted appearance and manners, were all acquired to win Daisy’s love.  Even his parties were a hope she would wander in. 

        Searching for Gatsby's identity, Nick finds that for five years he has dedicated himself to this passion.  Meanwhile, Nick, who prides himself on his honesty, finds reason to reject Jordan for her “easy lies.” He can’t help disparaging her self-assurance. Spoiled, he thinks, easily bored, because Jordan, like him, is a loner without moorings.  A kind of society nomad, she goes from tournaments to parties, to other people’s houses. Always at her leisure, she’s never quite engaged. So in the end, when she tells him she is actually engaged to be married, he's in disbelief, without acknowledging his own failure to risk love.

           What Nick the realist does get, more than Gatsby, is that Daisy and Jordan, are “rich girls,” meaning they think much of themselves. Jordan’s proud independence is as much a pose as Daisy’s particular delicacy. When Gatsby asks Nick to invite Daisy (his cousin)  for tea, the event is the pinnacle of all Gatsby's  striving to deserve her—his castle in the air.  Nick surmises this, when he meets Gatsby’s “associate,” a man of dubious criminal activities. But this matters little to Nick, who wants Gatsby to win, when he grasps the depth of Gatsby’s love; the drive for him to acquire the appearance of aristocracy, money and taste. That   Gatsby’s high romance ends tragically for him, as does Mable’s, isn't a surprise. But this plot is not news.

           In the end, Nick wonders how such an ambitious talented man could end up with no real friend but himself?  How did his great unselfish love lead to his downfall?  When Nick attributes it to class and money, he's only partially accurate. He calls Tom and Daisy “careless” in the way of rich people that can do damage and retreat into their wealth and that's true. But it's not Fitzgerald's point. The larger theme he plays is the pathos in the inevitable shortcomings of human existence.  

            In a lifetime, a man shoots for the heavens, yet must eventually come to earth.  And love as transcendence, though hardly adequate, is something. Nick finally admits that at the end. When Jordan says she had cared for him, as a man who prided himself on honesty, he denies himself. Says he never did.
But he comes to know his own self-delusion and what it has cost him. 

             Fitzgerald's written a great American novel, though I don't think it's THE definitive one about our culture. His friend John  Dos Passos was a chronicler of class in his USA Trilogy. Fitzgerald wrote about the timeless flapper and endless love.


Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Heart of Darkness in Ann Patchett's STATE OF WONDER

I like Ann Patchett's novels. I loved the Magician’s Assistant and enjoyed Bel Canto. What hooks me is the grand adventure and the incredible consciousness of her heroines. These women are hyper aware of their worlds and themselves. They have irony and real humor, along with a grit that is surprising and transformative. Marina Singh in State of Wonder is just such a creation.

Honest and skeptical by nature and her training as a scientist, Marina also possesses compassion for the flaws of human kind. Painfully aware of her own, she’s glad to have repetitive work in the lab of a pharmaceutical company and the friendship of her colleague, Anders. Like her, he’s a native Minnesotan, who enjoys his safe comfortable home. Why she’s surprised he agrees, when Mr. Fox, the CEO, asks him to go to the Amazon to find the elusive Dr. Swenson.  
The only risk in Marina’s careful life is her affair with Mr.Fox, married and old enough to be her lost father. But her sense of  security is shattered by the unthinkable, Anders' death of a fever. In her perfunctory note, Dr. Swenson gaves no details and seemed annoyed by his visit. Wasn't she the person taking care of him, wonders Marina. Once Swenson’s student, she recalls the woman’s formidable work ethic and her intolerance of human failings. Even so, Marina finds her letter about Anders appalling. And the famous scientist, who's been developing a fertility drug for years, is completely unreachable. Mr. Fox does not even  know the location of her lab, though he needs to know about progress on the drug and to bring Swenson home. --Anders' original mission.

When Ander’s wife asks Marina to find out what happened, she considers going and is surprised that Mr. Fox is in agreement. But she packs with grave misgivings about her competency. While Swenson's student, she made one horrible mistake, which led to her changing fields. She doubts that even if Dr. Swenson doesn't recall her, she can fulfill Mr. Fox’s purposes. .

Throughout the grueling journey, Marina is haunted by a reoccurring childhood nightmare, inspired by an antimalarial drug. Also disorienting is the loss of her luggage, when she lands in Manaus. She never finds it but does eventually locate the young hippie couple, who live in Dr. Swenson’s apartment--the only people who know the location of her lab. But their job is to keep people away from Dr. Swenson.

So Marina’s quest becomes a waiting game. She hates the hot sticky rainy depressing town but becomes friends with the young woman. One night she insists on dressing Marina for the opera and there, in Dr. Swenson’s box, she finally meets the scientist. She also meets Easter, the uncanny deaf mute boy who serves Dr. Swenson. When Marina explains that her mission is for Anders' wife, Swenson tells her to go home. 

Instead, Marina gets into a pontoon to journey with Swenson into primeval darkness. Like Conrad’s narrator, her Kurtz takes her  into a living nightmare. And, while Easter steers the boat down the river, Marina learns of ways she can die; bugs that carry malaria, lethal snakes that unfurl themselves from trees, as well as the painted “former” cannibals they come upon, after an unexpected turn.. 

When they finally arrive among the bonfires of the native Lakoshi, this suitcase also disappears and the next morning, over her protests, the Lakoshi women remove her clothes. They put on a loose shift on her, a kind of maternity dress, and braid her hair. Marina has no choice but to “go native,” though her work in the lab provides the sanity of familiar routine. And her relationship with the brilliant Dr. Swenson begins to parallel  Conrad’s hero, when he finally gets to know Kurtz-- before he learns his madness.  

Marina adapts to a life of primal danger and at Dr. Swenson's urging, uses her early surgical training to help the Lakoshi. She comes to realize that Anders could easily have died of a fever and the Lakoshi might have removed his body. But such logic is not the proof she needs. Yet for Mr. Fox, the promise of the fertility drug is inescapably real. Aged Lakoshi women are pregnant. What’s a dream for some western women, the ability to get pregnant beyond forty, is daily life for the Lakoshi, who raise children in multigenerational families. There is also the mysterious source of fertility, a tree that also can produce a cure for malaria.

But Dr.Swenson, now a very pregnant septuagenarian, has resources to develop one drug.  A malaria drug for poor countries would not be Mr.Fox’s choice. And when he comes to find Marina, he is happy to see all around him evidence of fertility. He believes he has a miracle drug and happily leaves the jungle, expecting Marina to later follow.. But Marina must make a choice.She's earned the respect of her mentor, who sees her as her heir. And she's earned the reverence of the Lakoshi, who accept her into their tribal life. And there's the odd attraction of the tree...

Yet Marina also has a huge pull to go home. She's met her darkness and found a life beyond imaginings. . But, unexpectedly, there is nagging news and a heightened intuition of a fearful mission she must complete--for Anders. The result is truly wonderful. Unlike Conrad, Patchett’s horror brings redemption.


Saturday, May 4, 2013

SUPERZELDA, stunning graphic novel, captures the passionate lives of Scott & Zelda Fitzgerald

SUPERZELDA by Tiziana Lo Porto and Daniele Marotta published by One Peace Books

It took two Italians, journalist Tiziana Lo Porto and cartoonist Daniele Marotta, to animate that quintessential American creation, Zelda Fitzgerald. Her ecstatic pursuit of life; joy, love, pleasure, is the romance of the Flapper, immortalized by Scott Fitzgerald. Yet this telling adds the dimension of literature from Zelda's journals, letters exchanged, stories both published, his novels, as well as her vast readings from philosophy to poets.

Much analysis of Zelda begins and ends with tragic beauty, brilliant and unstable. There are also questions about whether Scott exploited her, not just her archetype but her actual writings, which appear in his novels. Opposed are Fitzgerald fans,who believe she destroyed a great writer, driven to alcohol from her madness.

A philosopher quoted that the search for truth often leads to its "bastard substitute" anesthesia. This may be closer than mere psychology to what drove the Fitzgeralds and later contributed to drink and mental instability. Jack Kerouac would have gone on Zelda's road. But this smart funny graphic novel is about the trip and includes comments from those they met; Hemingway, who disliked Zelda, Gertrude Stein, the Murphys,John Dos Passos. Even Louise Brooks' competitive musings.

But SUPERZELDA is smart enough to just tell the story. Zelda grew up willful and outdoorsy in the south, a girl who felt equal to boys and wanted to be a boss. She develops a voracious thirst for books, though her grades slip, when she discovers boys and vice versa. Young Zelda's beauty, zest for adventure and intelligence, attract many admirers. Just being herself, she's in demand. Her Flapper image is a coincidence of personality and history, a time of huge social change for women. Then she meets Scott, who determines to marry her. His desire to have the money to do so spurs him to finish his first novel, a runaway success and they're launched--off!

SUPERZELDA takes you to all the countries of Europe, Algeria, wild parties, Scott's flirtation with Isadora Duncan and Zelda's mad retaliation, the birth of daughter Scottie, sojourns of domesticity. But the thread is how the pair mirror each other's thoughts and feelings, as extreme alter egos. Zelda plays the muse, but the reverse is also true, though when it came to writing for the world, Scott was the boss. Telling the plot is inane, the fun of retelling is in the inspired cartoons. Translated in English in the novel, online its Italian. So just buy the book.