INTEREST IN THE NOVEL HAS SURGED IN POST-GFC AMERICA
be ‘‘ borne back ceaselessly into the past’’.
Luhrmann, too, finds a resonance in this story of a man who chased so futilely after the mystical ‘‘ green light’’. Speaking earlier this year with novelist and film historian Richard T. Kelly (the interview is published in Pan Macmillan’s new British edition of The Great Gatsby), he says ‘‘ Fitzgerald . . . more or less predicts the Wall Street crash of 1929. He said of the 20s that he was pretty sure ‘ living wasn’t the reckless, careless business these people thought’. To me, that felt very relevant to what we’ve just gone through in the recent global financial crisis of 2008 and that was probably my single motivating factor telling me I had to do Gatsby now.’’
Fitzgerald, Luhrmann says, had witnessed how Prohibition had made hypocrites out of an entire society: ‘‘ It was participating in a collective lie. And this little bit of moral elasticity festered and exploded, and on Wall Street there was a golden orgy of money being made and an awful lot of scams. Now in our own time we’ve seen a similar sense of unease, a kind of moral blurriness about the way we’re making money ... the way the American dream was being realised. And that’s why I thought you couldn’t get a better fictional reflection of the period we had just come through than what Fitzgerald wrote in The Great Gatsby.’’
Perhaps the most powerful aspect of Gatsby is its exploration of social mobility and class. Fitzgerald’s interest in this area is reflected in one of the original titles he was considering, Among the Ash-Heaps and Millionaires (Charles Scribner, a member of the publishing family that published The Great Gatsby, quipped at a dinner last year that it was a slogan that perhaps ‘‘ Occupy Wall Street could adopt’’).
Interestingly, Churchwell says, Fitzgerald was the first to make reference to the 99 per cent, which pops up in a little known short story, The Swimmers, published in October 1929, just five days before the first stockmarket crash. In it, a French woman, watching a group of young American women at the beach, remarks to her husband that their dreams of success are just that: dreams. ‘‘ That’s the story they are told; it happens to one, not to the ninety-nine.’’ Churchwell shivers: ‘‘ It gave me goosebumps when I read that — I went, wow, he’s done it again.’’
People laughed at Fitzgerald when he hinted at the fallibility of the great American money machine but, as Churchwell says, Fitzgerald beat not just Occupy Wall Street but Marxist critics Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer to suggest the American dream was a rigged lottery and that its capitalist tycoons — America’s new aristocracy — were nothing more than ‘‘ glorified crooks’’.
‘‘ Behind every great fortune is a great crime,’’ Honore de Balzac once said. The globe is littered with the victims of the burst bubble while Wall Street’s masters of the universe by and large have escaped unscathed. The actions of these ‘‘ careless people’’ have created such a yawning divide that last year economist Alan Krueger introduced the concept of the Great Gatsby Curve, which plots the relationship between inequality and intergenerational social immobility across the world. In the US, the top 1 per cent of income earners make 25 per cent of all the country’s wealth, making it one of the most unequal societies.
Like an archeological dig, Gatsby’s richness is revealed layer by layer. It’s an enduring and fascinating hymn to a brash young New York, perfectly capturing its spiky energy, the smoky speakeasies and jazz bars, the casual intersection of high society and gangster culture. A literary time capsule of sorts, it takes us back to 20s America, a buoyantly exciting time. At the same time, says Don Anderson, for many years a University of Sydney academic specialising in American literature, ‘‘ one of the key things modern readers understand is that it was really a book about the future’’. There’s an undeniable ‘‘ shock of the familiar’’ to the novel, agrees Australian author Melina Marchetta, who has written a foreword to Text’s new Australian edition. We recognise ourselves — for good and bad, venal and heroic — in these characters. We all know Gatsby or someone like him (Charles Scribner said Gatsby came to life for him for the first time when he met Bill Clinton at a book party in 2003: ‘‘ Clinton made Gatsby real; or perhaps Gatsby prefigured Clinton?’’) We know Myrtle Wilson, the hungry, clawing figure with her face pressed to the window. We know Tom Buchanan — the embodiment of Wall Street’s arrogant, born-to-rule alpha males — and we know his wife, Daisy, wilfully delusional and self-obsessed. We know this society, with money conjured from thin air, gleaned from frauds and swindles.
Marchetta sees, too, similarities in the emphasis on reinvention and image, on chasing publicity and the construction of fame as a commodity to be traded. HL Mencken wrote in 1922 that the thing that set the American man apart from others was ‘‘ social aspiration’’. Now it’s a global trait, it seems. Marchetta says: ‘‘ I’m struck by how similar the 1920s and 21st-century age of celebrity is. We only have to witness the obsession with the Kardashians, which seems to be all about a culture of consumption and celebrity and vacuousness.’’ (Indeed, Carey Mulligan, who plays Daisy in the film, recently compared her character to a Kardashian.)
Michael Heyward, head of Text Publishing, says it speaks to us because ‘‘ it’s our world, a world of discontent and desire, of wanting all the wrong things in the forlorn hope that they might lead you down the road of love and happiness’’. Despite its glittering facade, ‘‘ it’s one of the saddest books I’ve read’’, says publisher Meredith Curnow of Random House Australia. ‘‘ The response to the black population, the divide between the wealthy and the poor, those who got everything and those who didn’t . . .’’ Curnow is struck, too, by the parallels between the social dynamics of Gatsby’s world and the culture of social media. People in Gatsby’s world watched and admired and gossiped about the rarefied club of beautiful people at the centre. In a way, this mimics the way social media works. Curnow says: ‘‘ We’re all on the edge, participating and watching others with more glittering lives.’’
It’s not just The Great Gatsby that’s attracting interest in the lead-up to the opening of Luhrmann’s film. Fitzgerald himself has become a source of renewed interest, his life and work the focus of scores of scholarly articles and biographies. His tragic, volatile wife, Zelda, too, has become an object of much study. It’s little wonder. Together, the Fitz, as they were called, were a two-headed force of nature, the bright, photogenic symbols of an emerging celebrity culture.
American writer Therese Anne Fowler, whose novel Z is on The New York Times top 20 bestsellers list, tells Review her aim was to rescue Zelda, a creature of glorious selfinvention, from a fog of stubbornly enduring misconceptions about her role and identity. She was no dazed, ditzy muse, Fowler says, but a strong, acutely intelligent woman who was a revolutionary of her time.
Like other Gatsby lovers, Fowler speaks of the shock of familiarity. ‘‘ We do see ourselves [and our societies] in his longing, in his striving, in his obstinate refusal to recognise the folly of his actions. The powerful desire for wish fulfilment is universal.’’
America, similarly, is a nation of innately optimistic risk-takers, plagued by historical amnesia. This allows Americans to dream big dreams, Churchwell says, but it also condemns them to a cycle of repetition, and ‘‘ so once again we see America diving into free fall, unmoored by any critical or intellectual insight into its own myths’’.
Fitzgerald knew the American dream was not real, that it was just a tantalising chimera that (like Gatsby’s futile chase of ‘‘ the green light’’) lured you ever forward to — what? ‘‘ But he also understood instinctively that we could not do without that hope of the American dream. Even now, after the global financial crisis, Americans still have faith in its possibility. Everyone’s worried, of course, but they just think it’s lost and they’ll get it back, not that it never existed in the first place.’’
The novel’s sheer lyricism — the song of a lone nightingale, the colossal unseeing eyes of Dr Eckleburg, Gatsby’s slippery, candycoloured silk shirts, the green light on the dock — can sometimes blur our view of how sharply perceptive a chronicler of the Jazz Age Fitzgerald really was, Churchwell believes. On many levels, she argues, Gatsby is a difficult book to get, built as it is on a foamy bed of illusions and suggestions; Gatsby himself is a chimera, a Cheshire cat smile.
This opaqueness, she says bluntly, is partly why Luhrmann ‘‘ will be the fourth filmmaker to take on Gatsby and fail’’ (certainly none of the previous adaptations set the critical world on fire). With his brilliant visual imagination, he’ll assuredly deliver a crowd-pleasing film but, in the end, Churchwell says, Gatsby is a ‘‘ uniquely unfilmable book, and I say that knowing that professors are always running around saying great novels shouldn’t be made into movies’’.
Gatsby is ‘‘ hostile to reality; it dwells in possibility, to paraphrase Emily Dickinson’’. You try filming that, she says. Luhrmann, unsurprisingly, doesn’t buy this view. He’s confident the creative liberties he has taken will bring Fitzgerald’s tale to life (among other things his film features a hip-hop-heavy score by Jay-Z, and narrator Nick Carraway is transported to a 20s sanatorium, where he tells us his story about Jay Gatsby). And as for the title role? Everyone carries their own Gatsby in their head, he concedes, but so what?
‘‘ I sometimes liken Gatsby to an American Hamlet. He has to be attractive but he’s also incredibly complex as a character and he goes from being romantic to obsessive and maybe even mentally unstable. And I think Leonardo tracks that journey with such clarity and nuance,’’ Luhrmann says.