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