By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature.
For the first time in this series, two authors asked to speak about the same book--and, by coincidence, in back-to-back weeks. It would be tempting to explain this by saying that The Great Gatsby runs thick in the zeitgeist at the moment, mostly thanks to Baz Luhrmann's high-grossing film (and its horde of corporate tie-ins). But that wouldn't necessarily be true. Writers--like R. Clifton Spargo and, this week, Susan Choi--have been quietly obsessed with this book for decades.
I say "quietly" because some writers tend to be bashful about citing Gatsby, and many have not given it serious consideration. The book's perpetual place in high school classrooms--alongside The Catcher in the Rye, Of Mice and Men, and The Scarlet Letter--makes it seem somehow entry-level, just for kids, light lit. By spawning countless papers on the themes that teenagers are trained to seek ("unrequited love," "the American dream"), Gatsby's reputation has diminished somewhat; its famous symbols, like the wall-high eyes and green dock light, now risk seeming pat for their familiarity.
Susan Choi, whose novel American Woman (2004) was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, explained to me that she dismissed Gatsby for years in just this way. A subsequent re-reading caused her to reconsider the book she now feels is anything but a conventional or archetypal novel. In an interview, Choi explained how The Great Gatsby came back into her reading life for good--and she gave a close analysis of what she argues is its best and most mysterious passage.
Choi's new novel, My Education, concerns a graduate student who falls (disastrously) for her glamorous, notorious, and married professor. The novel's assurance--her complicated tale unfolds in effortless first-person--recalls Fitzgerald's narrative mastery. She teaches creative writing at Princeton University and spoke to me by phone from her home in Brooklyn.
Susan Choi: It's pathetic, but I don't really remember my first time reading The Great Gatsby. I must have read it in high school. I'm pretty sure I remember it being assigned, and I generally did the reading. But I don't remember having a reaction to the book, even though I loved literature and other works made a lasting impression on me at that age. In any case, I took my first look and didn't think about it again until much later.
This is so strange to me. (It suggests, for one thing, that teaching this book in high school does Gatsby a disservice.) Why did Gatsby, which would be so influential to me later, vanish from my teenage mind completely?
I think Gatsby is hobbled, in part, by its status as a Great American Novel. People kind of roll their eyes before they've even opened it, treat it with a "been there, done that" attitude. I know I did. It took me years to re-open the novel and see how much I'd missed. The morally ambiguous narrator, and the odd and shifty chronology, for instance. Still, it wasn't until I was writing my second book that Gatsby loomed to the forefront of my thought, where it then lodged itself and has remained.
Gatsby is a weird book, so much stranger than its reputation, and probably stranger than high school students can appreciate. Its numerous flaws tend to get glossed over, though they are fascinating. For one thing, there's an odd emotional disconnect between the story and the writing. The story, with its callous rich people who smash everything apart and leave others to pick up the pieces, didn't really move me as a kid; it's possible the story aspect of the novel still doesn't really move me. I don't find the characters endearing--I don't even really like any of them. And yet Fitzgerald's writing, the actual almost-physical temperature of his prose, is so astounding it almost doesn't matter what he's writing about. He could write about anything, the way he writes. And he can get away with anything. This is the quality, I think, that failed to impress me as a student reader; it's the quality that enchants me now.
There are passages in Gatsby that I've studied so hard (in the course of trying to write something of my own) that I've broken the spine of the book. I have to have several different copies, because they're all falling apart. I've spent years looking closely, trying to figure out exactly why the language is so addictive and how he does it. And it's helped me work through large-scale novelistic challenges, too. When I writing my second novel, American Woman, there's this hurtling series of catastrophic events at the end. I couldn't believe I was going to be able to get from one event from the next to the next and make it believable. So I kept reading the sequence in Gatsby, over and over again, that starts in a hotel room with all the characters fighting and precipitates the novel's final series of catastrophes. I've studied this sequence so many times because it's so implausible--and so successful. I return, asking, How did he do this? How does he make something totally implausible this believable and compelling?
And still my favorite passage in the book resists this kind of analysis, this kind of takeaway teaching I've relied on Gatsby for. It's a great example of what I love about the book, and at the same time what I find mysterious and even problematic about it. In any case, every time I read the following, I get chills:
That's my middle-west--not the wheat or the prairies or the lost Swede towns but the thrilling, returning trains of my youth and the street lamps and sleigh bells in the frosty dark and the shadows of holly wreaths thrown by lighted windows on the snow. I am part of that, a little solemn with the feel of those long winters, a little complacent from growing up in the Carraway house in a city where dwellings are still called through decades by a family's name. I see now that this has been a story of the West, after all--Tom and Gatsby, Daisy and Jordan and I, were all Westerners, and perhaps we possessed some deficiency in common which made us subtly unadaptable to Eastern life.
On a language level, I have a purely visceral reaction this passage. I feel this rush of emotion that I can't really explain but it's tied to homecoming, and travel. I'm from the Midwest, from Indiana, and maybe that's part of it--this passage in some way connects to my desire to romanticize what I consider to be a pretty unromantic place of origin. But the landscape he invokes is rooted very deeply in me somewhere--not wheat, so much as corn, and not prairies so much as farmland. I'm not sure "lost Swede" towns is quite right for Indiana either, though there are certainly lost towns strewn all over that landscape. But it is a primal landscape for me. You know, the first scenes that you see never go away. They are always going to mean something in particular to you. So when Nick says "that's my middle west," it makes me feel a tiny thrill of legitimacy. It's not all dreary farmland; I remember why it's beautiful.
So consistently, when I'm reading the book, I look forward to the arrival of this passage like one of those trains. I know it's going to give me chills, and it always does. "The shadow of holly wreaths thrown by lighted windows on the snow": what an incredibly beautiful way of evoking a fairly tired and hackneyed holiday image. And the phrase the "thrilling returning trains of my youth"--how wonderful that he qualifies the trains this way, even though, to my mind, putting "thrilling" and "returning" next to each other might be slightly dubious. If I had written it, I might fear the neighboring -ing adjectives were a little clumsy. Fitzgerald's genius is to realize that those two words side-by-side work because of how churning and cumbersome they are.
When I'm reading the book, I look forward to the arrival of this passage like one of those trains. I know it's going to give me chills, and it always does.
There's something moving, too, in the straightforward phrase: "I am part of that." Nick's about to forswear his connection to the east, and to the rich, after he's spent the whole book trying to establish a place among the elite. It's not just a beautiful and ennobling image of returning to his origins in the Midwest, it's the beginning of a kind of rolling movement into the future. Here's Nick's telling us that his involvement in the story, this period of his life, ended. In talking about the trains of his youth that took him home, Nick also allows the reader to understand that he's traveled away from the story. You have this image of train travel, so it's very literalized. He creates this visual image of leaving the East to go home when he's young, when he was a student, but he's making it clear that that's what he did after this story, too.
But one of the things that continues to beguile me about this passage--as with other passages in this book--is that I don't really understand what he's saying even as I adore the way he says it. The easy conclusion of this book is that Nick rejects Tom and Daisy's way of life, realizing they're careless people who can smash things up and retreat into their money with all the broken stuff lying around. You can hear Nick setting himself apart from Tom and Daisy morally. So what does he mean when he claims that they, all of them, were Westerners? Does that mean life in the East is somehow corrupted? That Tom and Daisy were somehow victims too? The story implications aren't clear, even as the language thrills me. Maybe that's part of why it's so interesting--the language is epiphanic, but the conclusions remain murky.
So I'm left with the striking physicality of the passage. He puts you on the train and swoops you into a new geographical setting in the way that opens up the tonal scope of the novel. Somehow all the gears shift in this passage for me, and I feel like I travel with Nick in this thrilling, sudden, dizzying way. Not just into his past, and not just into this new realm or region, but into a new attitude on Nick's part. He just takes you hurtling on with him, and not just on that train, but into the future, and into a greater understanding of the story and of yourself. This intense movement. You're being taken on that train ride, and you don't just understand that, but you feel it.