Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Gatsby was a bootlegger, not a bootstrapper

There exists, on the Chicago Tribune website, an analysis of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby which is so stunningly misguided that I felt the need to offer a rebuttal.  The author's thesis is that those who interpret the book as a criticism of the American Dream are "grievously misinterpret[ing]," and that Gatsby should be admired as someone who bootstrapped his way up the ladder into high society, as all of us should aspire to.  She ends with this, ". . . Not everyone in America succeeds, but everyone has the chance to. The green light — the one Gatsby watched, night after night — is visible to anyone, from any angle, and while we all won't reach it, we can all dream ardently of doing so. The true beauty is in the wish, not the attainment."

My issues with the piece actually begin around the middle, when she dismisses the ending, saying, "[t]he tragedy that befalls him — we're treading delicately here, to avoid the dreaded spoiler — is based on a misunderstanding, and could've befallen anyone. His fate is almost beside the point."  This is nearly nonsense, in a number of ways.  I understand the desire to avoid spoiling the ending (Gatsby's death at the hands of Wilson) given that part of what this piece is trading on in terms of relevance is the imminent film adaptation, which will potentially attract viewers who haven't read the book.  However, it is impossible to meaningfully critique a piece of art without experiencing the whole of that art; if you're critiquing a TV show, you have to watch all the episodes, if it's a movie you have to stick around to the end, if it's an album you have to listen to each song, and if it's a novel you have to read to the end, even it, for whatever reason, the death of the titular character strikes you as "beside the point."

 Film Crit Hulk, an insightful commentator on pop culture who writes in all caps in the guise of Marvel's Incredible Hulk (which is much less gimmicky than it sounds at first glance) wrote a great article in which he advances his view that, "THE ENDING IS THE CONCEIT."  The whole article is worth reading, and if the Hulk-speak bothers you a) there is a website somewhere that will de-Hulkify it and b) you are a big baby.  Since reading it, the idea has stuck with me as something true not just for film but for all storytelling.  What he's saying may seem self-evident; the ending changes and informs the meaning of everything you just saw, or read, or experienced.

Consider Born to Run, Bruce Springsteen's third album.  It opens with what many consider to be Springsteen's best song, "Thunder Road," and the title track comes third in the line-up, but the album ends with "Jungleland," a song that contains the lyric, "Outside the street's on fire, in a real death waltz/Between what's flesh and what's fantasy/And then the poets down here, don't write nothing at all/They just stand back and let it all be/and in the quick of the night/They reach for their moment/And try to make an honest stand/But they wind up wounded, not even dead/Tonight in jungle land," after which we hear a furious piano solo and a haunting, wordless howl from Bruce before the song comes to an anti-climactic end.  You can talk about how much "Born to Run," rocks, but you can't say that the entire meaning of that album is locked up in that one song, and a critique of Born to Run that avoided acknowledging the placement of "Jungleland," at the end (and the fact that it's immediately preceded by the grim, low-key "Meeting Across the River,") is like, well, a critique of The Great Gatsby that ignored Gatsby's ignominious death by the pool.

Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, often described by people who had to read it in high school and never experienced it anywhere else as a great love story, is a story utterly transformed by its ending.  I have seen people describe it, with a straight face, as being a play with the message, "Love conquers all."  This is a play, need I remind you, where the male lead murders his way into exile from his own city (a pretty big deal back in the day) and away from his love, and where the two leads do not live happily ever after but die alone in a tomb.  You could write a dramatically feasible ending scene where Romeo says, "Thus with a kiss I die," and goes to drink the poison, only for Juliet to dramatically awaken.  Then the lovers embrace, their parents arrive and somehow Romeo is forgiven for his killing spree and the two teens are free to populate Verona with tiny Capugues.  That's not the play Shakespeare wrote, however; he wrote a tragedy, where the hatreds of the elder generation infect the younger, and where the youth are set free in a world with no moral guideposts and no way to get reliable advice (the Nurse exists for Juliet, but the Nurse hates Juliet; on Romeo's side, there is Friar Lawrence, a largely out-of-touch clergyman whose solution for the reuniting of the lovers proves as misguided as anything), a play where the parents are only able to see the results of their feud after it has annihilated their children.  Yes, Mercutio is an engaging character, yes, the love poetry is amazing, but this is because Shakespeare understood contrasts.  A reading of Romeo and Juliet as a simple love story is like, for example (something I'm just pulling out of thin air here), a critique of The Great Gatsby that ignores Gatsby's waterside end.

I took issue with the Peter Jackson adaptation of The Return of the King because of his omission of the Scouring of the Shire, as did, I am sure, many other pedantic nerds.  For me, the Scouring was part of what made the book so resonant.  Yes, it's grim, but for me it made the book's central quest more real.  There were obviously terrible consequences if Sauron got that One Ring (or if someone else got their hands on it), but the more real evil for me was the evil of Saruman coming and twisting the hobbit's home into a smaller version of what the rest of the world ultimately would have been.  It showed that heroism isn't just going out and doing great deeds, but being able to come home and do them too.  That bad comes with good, that the world is unpredictable, that we may be required to stand up not just when the large goes wrong but also when the small does.  I don't think the movie needed yet another denouement, necessarily (although I think, and have said, that if Frodo and Sam weren't detained for half the movie in Osgilioth during The Two Towers that they would have been able to fit more stuff from Return into that movie and thus make space for the Scouring).  The lack of the Scouring in the movie changes it, much as The Great Gatsby becomes a different book if you, for some reason, omit the death of Gatbsy.

I feel I've sufficiently belabored the general point about why the ending matters, but the ending of Gatsby, and Gatsby, matters because it transforms the meaning of all that came before.  Gatsby's dream wasn't for wealth for its own sake, to pull himself out of a life of poverty into one of comfort and leisure; it was to become wealthy so that the lies he told Daisy about himself could become truth, and he could become worthy of her.  His dream was romantic; to sweep his long-lost love off her feet and live with her a life of happiness, but to be beguiled by Fitzgerald's prose and Gatsby's dream is to ignore the reality of what Gatsby was trying to do, which was break up a marriage (with a young child), and the reality that Daisy was a woman who would do those things.  Gatsby wasn't a self-made man; he was a front for Wolfsheim, necessary because the people Wolfsheim was bootlegging for wouldn't deal with a Jew.  Gatsby didn't participate in his own parties, which were thrown for Daisy (who, when she finally attended, didn't like them) and, as D'Angelo from The Wire, which for me is fast becoming the Kevin Bacon of criticism, points out in season two, "he frontin' with all them books, but if you pull one down from the shelf, and none of the pages ever been opened (sic)."

To focus on the glittering parties and the green light and the poetry, as Keller does, is to ignore the realities of who Fitzgerald told us these people are.  The poetry is important, yes; it's part of why Fitzgerald is read today, part of why the story sticks with us.  Poetry will elevate something from good to great; we have Shakespeare Festivals in most, if not all, of our states, but you will find a Webster Festival or a Marlowe Festival somewhat sparsely attended.  But poetry in The Great Gatsby is but one of many moving parts, all of which are working to tell a more complicated story than Keller is willing or able to admit.  Her insistence that reading Gatsby as a criticism of the American Dream, and her view that it is a trumpeting of it ignores the idea, noted in the comments on the article, that both things could be happening simultaneously, that the American Dream is a coin with two sides, either of which could come up at any moment.  That there is the potential, in theory, for any one of us to find wealth and success and happiness, but that reality often conspires to limit opportunities for those not born into some sort of privilege.  It ignores the fact that Gatsby's happiness was found not in his success and his parties, but in Daisy, and that happiness turned out to carry the complications that led to the spoiler-that-dare-not-speak-its-name.

Keller says that, "literature often is far more transparent and straightforward than it is given credit for."  I would argue the opposite, but even if I were willing to grant the premise I would not grant it here.  The American Dream is a complex thing, and Fitzgerald's novel exploring it is equally complex.  To read it without a sense of irony or nuance, to visit it as one would a party and gulp it down like so much champagne, to see only the green light and not the gritty end, will inevitably lead to "grievous misinterpretation," but those misinterpretations will far more resemble Keller than those she accuses of same.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Seeing and not seeing

If you live in Chicago, as I do, you will eventually see a homeless person.  You can find the homeless in other cities, obviously, but I don't see, for example, the Los Angeles homeless every day on the way to the Metra, seeing as how I am unable in my current state of evolution to surpass the limits of time and space.  I am not a connoisseur of the homeless; I saw homeless men and women when I was a kid coming up to the city, and I see them on my way to wherever I happen to be working at the time, but I'm sure there are Chicago natives who have been ignoring the homeless for far longer than I.  Nevertheless, I have now seen, on multiple occasions, homeless people with dogs.

The mind already puts up barriers when we're dealing with the homeless.  I know I do it all the time.  I stare straight ahead and pretend not to see them.  I turn up my .mp3 player.  I fiddle with my phone.  I walk on, convincing myself in that moment that it's very important for me to get to wherever I'm going, that I don't have the time to stop or the money to give (although frequently I don't have to pretend about that last part), that someone else will stop and help, that they'll be okay.

In other words, I tell myself stories.

When you see a homeless man clutching a dog, this practice goes into overdrive.  You have to tell yourself a story to make that okay because if you really truly confronted what that meant it would ruin your day at the very least.  That guy has to be a scammer.  It's not his dog, it's just a stray he's found to make people feel sorry for him.  He's not really homeless, he's just bilking gullible tourists out of their money, and he's going home to some apartment somewhere after the lunch rush.  He's a drug addict, or an alcoholic.  He knows where the shelters are and just doesn't want to go there and get help.  He's too lazy to keep a job.  He pissed away an inheritance.  He deserves to be out there.  He deserves what he got.  It's fine.  It's okay.  You don't have to care.

Never mind that health care for many people is prohibitively expensive and that if he has any kind of medical condition or complication that becomes too much for him to financially cope with he can be out on his ass.  Never mind that not everyone has a stable family structure that can support them through hard times.  Never mind that people with mental illness, especially returning veterans with PTSD, can find it difficult to function in a society that doesn't fully understand that kind of struggle.  Never mind that the notion of someone making a full and healthy five-to-six figure yearly wage begging chump change from passing strangers is so far into the realm of fantasy that you might as well believe he used to be a dragon slayer.  Never mind that so many people in this world struggle with addictions of all shapes and sizes and that none of us are in a position to judge someone who battled with those demons and lost, that it's not a matter of weakness or strength but of access to treatment and care and empathy from out fellow humans and that anyone can be brought low.

We tell ourselves stories because we don't want to believe that that could be us, and we go into overdrive when we see a man or a woman out on the street with a dog because that just brings that reality into sharper relief.  We tell ourselves stories to eliminate the humanity of the homeless.  But they are human, living in conditions we can't and won't imagine, and our illusions are stretched to the breaking point when we try to make a monster out of a man holding a dog.

"If you want to be perfect, go and sell what you own and give the money to the destitute, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come back and follow me," said Jesus.  I don't believe he was the son of God, but I do believe he was more revolutionary than people really know.  Just as that man holding the dog was more human than I, and the sea of humanity passing him by, could bear.