PEO­PLE

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story -

the way it pre­dicts the shape and im­pulses of our so­ci­ety de­spite be­ing firmly rooted in the dizzy bub­ble of 1922, a time Fitzger­ald later dubbed ‘‘ an age of mir­a­cles’’ in his 1931 es­say Echoes of the Jazz Age. An an­nus mirabilis of mod­ernism, 1922 also saw the pub­li­ca­tion of James Joyce’s Ulysses and TS Eliot’s The Waste Land, the seem­ingly overnight rise of the ad­ver­tis­ing in­dus­try, the spread of the mo­tor car (pur­chased mainly on bor­rowed money), and the rise of the cult of con­sump­tion, re­flected in ev­ery­thing from Daisy’s $350,000 rope of pearls to Gatsby’s Rolls-Royce.

‘‘ They were called goods for a rea­son,’’ Church­well writes in her new book, Care­less Peo­ple: Mur­der, May­hem and the In­ven­tion of The Great Gatsby, due out this month. ‘‘ Pur­chas­ing was ac­quir­ing a moral va­lence.’’ So much that is fa­mil­iar to us in our age was be­gin­ning then, she says, from Ponzi schemes to brand-name hunger. Even the dodgy fi­nan­cial prod­ucts that fed the global fi­nan­cial cri­sis were newly minted at this time — the word ‘‘ sub­prime’’ popped into use in 1920.

We see our­selves in this world, de­spite the dis­tance of eight decades, be­cause of Fitzger­ald’s knack of ‘‘ guess­ing right’’. He saw the fall that was com­ing as Amer­ica par­tied and con­sumed like there was no to­mor­row.

The read­ers of his time ‘‘ were liv­ing in the heart of the dream’’, how­ever, and were not in­clined to share Fitzger­ald’s cyn­i­cism; mod­ern read­ers, in con­trast, ‘‘ liv­ing in a postHolo­caust, post-nu­clear, guiltier world’’ are more at­tuned to his mes­sage, Church­well says.

In­ter­est in the novel has surged in post-GFC Amer­ica, a na­tion wea­ried by eco­nomic and po­lit­i­cal tra­vails. She ar­gues that this short, glit­ter­ing book pin­points why Amer­ica lost its way, and con­tains clues as to its res­ur­rec­tion. It speaks of things that any mod­ern reader would recog­nise: debt bub­bles and class envy, Amer­ica’s cava­lier at­ti­tude to­wards risk and profli­gacy, the way its streak of eter­nal op­ti­mism is as much curse as bless­ing.

Amer­ica, she be­lieves, is a fun­da­men­tally care­less so­ci­ety, blind to his­tory and its lessons. And thus doomed, as Fitzger­ald so fa­mously — and pre­sciently — put it in the beau­ti­fully ele­giac fi­nal chap­ter of The Great Gatsby, to

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