Review: The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby
by F. Scott Fitzgerald, narrated by Jake Gyllenhall
Length: 4 hours, 49 minutes

Happy Labor Day, folks! How does a trip deconstructing the American Dream sound?

Last month I talked about the delights of comfort food, but sometimes you’re in the mood for what my family calls “growing food,” which is part of the reason I decided to give The Great Gatsby a whirl. I’d been assigned to read it twice in high school, but hadn’t revisited it since, and my wife just got assigned to teach it, so another reason I decided to pop it in was a sense of camaraderie with her.

I more or less enjoyed reading Gatsby in high school. Reading it now as an adult, it’s easy to see why the book is considered such a classic. It’s a critique of the American Dream – that you can become whatever you want to be. It’s a story of the disenfranchised taking a shot, and being put down for it. It has a memorable cast of characters – most of them loathsome (Tom Buchanan most of all – he’s a raging knot of contradictions, and a great foil for Gatsby). There’s some intense social commentary – part of what we loathe so much about Tom is his classism and racism. The former I think has probably been easy for Americans to loathe for a long time; the latter is easy for us to loathe today, but keep in mind this book was written in the 20s, a good 40 years before the Civil Rights movement. (You go, Fitzgerald!) Also, and this is emphasized in the audio format – it’s a very short, economic book, and at under 5 hours, packs a pretty mean punch.

Some things that I didn’t appreciate so much as a 14 or 17 year-old which I found fascinating as an adult: that the whole story is set during Prohibition, and what a bizarre and bullshit era that was. There was so much booze flowing, so much partying, so much philandering…it’s ridiculous to me that the United States thought it would be moral to outlaw alcohol. I was also surprised by how funny it was when it wasn’t such a downer – particularly at Gatsby’s parties. There’s a scene where we find a man sitting in the library of Gatsby’s house and the stranger says: “I’ve been drunk for about a week now and I thought it might sober me up to sit in a library.” That line just tickles me in so many ways, and I enjoyed discovering Fitzgerald’s sense of humor this time out.

Jake Gyllenhaal gives a very solid narration as Nick Carraway, our portal into Gatsby’s world, who proclaims he’s “the only honest man he’s ever met.” Gyllenhaal’s performance isn’t a flashy one, and I think that’s a wise choice on his part – it matches the understated power of the book, and let’s Fitzgerald’s prose carry the story. He’s received a lot of praise for his reading of this novel, and it’s well-deserved.

The Great Gatsby continues to be a serious book with a lot on it’s mind. It was a treat to revisit, and I feel healthier already! Actually, inspired to add a little more peas and carrots to my reading/listening diet.

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