I submitted this piece to Electronic Literature a few months ago and waited for months for a reply. Well, last week, they conceded that this page could better suit me in the end (I put that e-mail in my “Rejections” folder simply out of courtesy for them), and now instead of waiting even LONGER, now you guys get to see my thoughts about my teenage self reading The Great Gatsby!
This is not so much a review as it is a personal experience with the novel and with its main character, Nick Carraway. We see essays all the time pontificating about the literary and cultural value of what we read and rightly so. None of the professors I had in college cared if I liked the stuff we read or what was really going through our heads when we did our assignments–probably because they all knew what we were really thinking and what we were really thinking was, “Z…z…Z…z…”. Very rarely have I reacted mentally or emotionally like I did with The Great Gatsby and I think that’s something worth writing about, even if many of the feelings I once had have changed.
Please note: I did my best to keep many of the personal details out of the essay in order to keep the spotlight on Nick Carraway as much as possible. Also, I did so in order to avoid embarrassing or hurting people whether they are still in my life or not. The wounds have healed after years of licking them; there’s no need to cut myself or anyone else for another sacrifice.
So, with that, here’s my response to the prompt, “The Book I Misread”:
In the early months of 2003, I was still strumming the snapped strings of my heart. While I was past the wispy hope that it was all just a bad dream, I hadn’t quite developed an appetite for the coffee the future was brewing. I needed a listening ear. I wanted someone around that had a stronger sense of right and wrong than the people surrounding me. I needed to know there was at least one man out there who could tell me the truth. Preferably somebody I could talk to without breaking curfew.
It was in the haze of heartbreak that I met Nick Carraway.
I still remember curling up in the living room, letting Nick regale the tale of the despicable cast of characters that made their way into his world. He introduced me to his shallow, careless second cousin, once removed, Daisy Buchanan and of course, we met Daisy’s husband Tom—a violent, arrogant racist that dragged poor Nick into meeting his mistress, Myrtle. I met Nick’s girlfriend, Jordan—irresponsible, reckless, and a cheat at her own game—but I’d still rather hang out with her over Daisy and Tom. And, of course, who could forget the marvelous Jay Gatsby? A man who built himself from almost nothing, he is the embodiment of the American Dream in all its glory. More memorable would be the parties—especially the lavish descriptions of the fruit and booze that filled pages of this riveting novel.
I still hung out with Nick even after we moved onto other literary pursuits in class. Though the pain was slowly but surely subsiding, my need to read The Great Gatsby failed to abate. I felt that though I lost my first love, I did gain a fictional friend. In my head, Nick and I were our own two-person clique; he and I had the power to step back and look at the people around us and we bonded over our common disgust. We shot each other side glances when the people in our lives made such moronic choices, then we congratulated ourselves and each other for not being like those people. Nick led me out of my junior year of high school feeling a little less heartbroken and more like a better person.
Three years later, I was a thriving college student—if only a few drops of water above drowning in the amount of classes I was taking. There was only one class in the seven I was taking where I felt the most alive: creative writing. I had known since I was fifteen that I wanted to be a writer, and while I knew that I didn’t “need” a creative writing class to be a better writer, I felt it was at least a chance to be surrounded by like-minded people and—hey—what if I learn something new?
Our professor was going over types of narrators and I felt so anxious; I was ready to just open the notebook and start writing. We’d learned this stuff in high school English; college is the time to fly, and I couldn’t wait to make like Bette Midler and feel the wind beneath my pages—
“Not all narrators are reliable,” my professor said. “One example: Nick Carraway from The Great Gatsby.”
I ran back to the bookshelf and pulled Nick down. I began to flip through the book, tearing through the pages for an explanation. How could this man—the one who helped me heal from one of the greatest emotional traumas of my life—be unreliable? I’d done more than read The Great Gatsby as a teenager; I inhaled the words for its life-giving oxygen.
Nick is right to be disgusted by the people in his life. I would never encourage anyone to model themselves after racists and cheaters (in both love and golf) and would never condone greed or murder. Nick spends an entire novel detailing the hedonistic escapades of the people he despises so much.
The people he hangs out with constantly.
People he chooses to be around.
In my desperation to breathe again, I had given myself carbon monoxide poisoning.
I reviewed the cast of characters that made the drama of my first heartbreak. In the months following the break up, I caught myself looking at the people around me, shaking my head at them. What is she thinking hanging out with him? She said what about her? Is he cheating on her? Does he like his friend’s girlfriend? What is wrong with these people?
My panic reached fever pitch when I realized the only thing that had changed about this drama was just the actors playing the parts.
I wonder why Nick felt he needed to be with these people. Did the Great War make him want to value human interaction—any kind? Did he feel like he didn’t seem to know how to make friends? Was he just too lazy to search for like-minded people? Did he think this was the best he could do? Was he just as hurt as I was and couldn’t see straight either?
Or did he just enjoy drama?
Did I enjoy the drama?
When I look back on Nick’s life, you can’t say anything is too spectacular about it: he’s a bond man living in a tiny little house surrounded by rich people. The most interesting parts of Nick’s life seem to just be the careless people he’s let in. Maybe there was a part of Nick that envied his friends; maybe not so much that he wanted a big mansion, parties, and the love of a beautiful woman (or maybe he did, but would honest, little Nick admit to it?), but for a life that isn’t so damned boring. Maybe he hung out with them because he knew he needed a little spice, and letting Tom, Daisy, Jordan, and Gatsby in was the easiest way to do it without having to confront himself and whatever it is he really wanted out of his life. Nick doesn’t completely sever ties until the body count starts to go up, but the only one he proactively cuts out is Jordan. Tom and Daisy have basically flown the country by then, so that probably doesn’t count.
Looking back now, I could have chosen a better main character to connect and learn from than Nick Carraway. Of course I looked upon Nick as some sort of saint; I was guilty of the same sins. I want to tell you I knew better—because I think I did. I think I knew damn well that if I wasn’t comfortable with the people I was around that I shouldn’t be around them. I won’t give my younger self a mulligan on this: I prided myself on knowing who I was and defending it to my dying breath, and at sixteen-years-old, I knew better.
But I wasn’t thinking with my head. I was thinking with my heart. Which wasn’t even in one piece at the time.
I feel proud that I was able to make a connection to a story and a character at a time when I struggled with reading comprehension. If Nick were a real person, I would hope he would be proud of me for knowing my worth as a human being and watching me fall in love again six years later, after being so afraid my heart would never see another sunrise. I’m grateful for the friendship Nick gave me. I’m also grateful for the friendships that developed in that time period, even if I didn’t have all my priorities straight. I’m grateful for the ones that stuck around and who continue to bring love and positivity to my life.
And, just as much, I am grateful for the space I cleared for the new friends that have taken the place of the Toms, Daisies, Jordans, and Gatsbys that cluttered my life.
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WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOU’VE NEVER READ THIS NOVEL?! IT’S ONLY AN ICONIC PART OF AMERICAN LITERATURE!
…says everyone I talk to when I say I never read Slaughterhouse Five. But I’m sure you’ve read The Great Gatsby, right? You just need to buy it so your bookshelf looks nice, right?
Don’t worry, your secret is safe with me. Here’s the Amazon link: