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?