I realize now that under different circumstances that conversation might have been one of the crises of my life.
Nick has a curiously compartmentalized sense of morality. He is in the midst of setting up his neighbor for an affair with his cousin, a married woman. The marriage is merely a solemn vow of a committed pair, one of whom is his blood relation, a bond promised to hearts, to society, presumably to some god. These things don’t concern Nick. He also hasn’t much concern for whether his newfound friend is even pursuing something that is attainable or even worth attaining – is this chase going to lead to sustainable love, or only to heartbreaking ruin?
But when Gatsby suggests some means of making money to Nick, who is vaguely aware that Gatsby’s ways of making money aren’t held in high regard by polite society – well then, here is some moral crisis. The morality that Nick has already ignored at this point merely involves matters of love, marriage and friendship. The morality of money, the right and wrong ways to make it, is somehow less easy to ignore. Nick thinks that ‘because the offer was obviously and tactlessly for a service to be rendered, I had no choice except to cut him off there.’
Nick’s sense of morality here seems less thoughtful than habitual, something deeply bred but not deeply considered. He could only realize afterwards that he might have been facing a moral crisis; in the moment he was acting because he had ‘no choice,’ his refusal was a reflexive reaction rather than a decision point. But what precisely is so bad about being offered money to do something that perhaps you might have done anyway? Is the problem that an offer of money forces you to consider whether you really should be doing the thing for free, or doing it all?
Does Nick have any sense of morality that isn’t grounded only in politeness? He already knows at this point that this setup isn’t an innocent tea time. The irony here is that Nick did in fact face a moment of moral crisis, and he never even realized it, even after the fact. He chose to assist someone else’s adulterous, ruinous fantasy. He chose to ignore bonds of family and friendship. He can continue to sell his bonds from the moral high ground of having refused a little extra money from some shady connections, and continue to fail to think about whether his morality is grounded in truth or merely in custom.
‘I want to get the grass cut,’ he said.
After much fumbling and misdirection, Gatsby has finally asked of Nick the very small favor that Nick invite his cousin over for tea. All the years of dreaming and scheming have led Gatsby to this improbably coincidental tête-à-tête, where he will casually drop in as an unannounced visitor. He’s painted this scene in his mind thousands of times, and he stands on his neighbor’s lawn finally making a concrete plan, looking over the final details of the dream becoming reality … and he’s disappointed in the condition of the grass. ‘We both looked at the grass — there was a sharp line where my ragged lawn ended and the darker, well-kept expanse of his began.’
Is obsessive attention to detail insanity or genius? Would Daisy notice an unkempt lawn as she pulled up to Nick’s cottage for tea? If she did, would she have any distaste for low-caliber landscaping? And if she did even then, wouldn’t any stray thoughts in her head be blown away, like cobwebs in a hurricane, by the appearance of her lost love? Or would the minor mental distress over shabby grass make her marginally less likely to rekindle fiery love from forgotten embers?
Why leave anything to chance? How Gatsby got rich is said to be one of the mysteries of the story. But there’s no mystery here at all – the ‘why’ of his wealth has always been front and center: because he wants the love of his past. And the ‘how’ is right here, hiding in plain sight: Gatsby’s rich because he leaves no detail in disrepair, because he can’t abide a bit of weedy green on the lawn of his dreams.
When I came home to West Egg that night I was afraid for a moment that my house was on fire.
This was the last lonely night of anticipation for Jay Gatsby. He’d been planning and plotting and building for years, finally purchased a mansion across the water from his love, and found the perfect excuse for reintroduction in his humble neighbor. He lit his house from tower to cellar, wandered the rooms with the eye of a diamond cutter looking to extract brilliance from every corner. He waited and watched for his neighbor to come home so they could finalize the planned day.
Putting everything that you have into the realization of a single dream is a dangerous affair. Even if the dream appears to come true, it inevitably fails to match the fire of anticipation. This is a quiet night in the story, but it’s possibly the best night in Gatsby’s life, the moment when everything he’d dreamed about seemed about to come true.
‘There are only the pursued, the pursuing, the busy and the tired.’
There are homemade aphorisms sprinkled throughout Fitzgerald’s work, often reflecting his view of the world as romantic, ambitious, and exhausting. Most of the world is busy and tired, but everyone wants to be either pursuing or pursued. You must either be consumed by desire or be the object of consuming desire, or else what’s the force of life for?
Fitzgerald believed that each man and woman is born with a limited reserve of fuel, fuel for creativity or romance or commerce or sport, fuel that should be spent in the pursuit of greatness. And he felt that once it was spent, it was gone, unrecoverable and without a revitalizing replacement. He drank himself to death at 44 because he had pursued his whole life, and then he was just tired. We can read this aphorism as a timeline instead of a categorization: youth is pursued, experience pursues, age becomes busy, tiredness becomes death.
Suddenly I wasn’t thinking of Daisy and Gatsby any more but of this clean, hard, limited person who dealt in universal skepticism and who leaned back jauntily just within the circle of my arm.
That everyone’s life is a story is a comforting thought, even if that comes with the unavoidable truth that not every story is interesting and few stories end in triumph. Less obvious but equally unavoidable is that everyone’s life is part of someone else’s story, if that story is told broadly enough.
What is it like to know that in the great story of your lifetime, you are only the narrator to someone else’s story? Nick and Jordan live their story in the shadow of the towering romance of Daisy and Gatsby. But the smaller story is more universal, and therefore a more relevant cautionary tale of hard love and missed connections. I really enjoy the few passages when Nick pulls out of his absorption with Gatsby to focus on Jordan – their moments are all the more memorable for being small diversions in the taller tale.
He came alive to me, delivered from the womb of his purposeless splendor.
Jordan reveals that there was no coincidence in these sudden neighbors: ‘“Gatsby bought that house so that Daisy would be just across the bay.” And Nick realizes that Gatsby ‘had waited five years and bought a mansion where he dispensed starlight to casual moths so that he could “come over” some afternoon to a stranger’s garden.”
This is the moment where Gatsby lost his greatness – not from something he did but because of the realization by others of his purpose. He went from a swirling mass of secrets and rumors, a human Rorschach test, to a man with a shockingly modest plan of grandiose proportion. He is revealed as having made the most extravagantly romantic ploy, delivering him from the greatness of his purposeless splendor. His life can only unravel from here.
It’s a great advantage not to drink among hard drinking people.
I’ve been on both sides of this equation. In my younger and less vulnerable years, I was invariably sober among all manner of intoxication. ‘You can hold your tongue and, moreover, you can time any little irregularity of your own so that everybody else is so blind that they don’t see or care.‘ Obviously if you have a problem maintaining discretion, you shouldn’t drink, but the other way of saying this is that sobriety is for people with something to hide.
Later I had older and terribly vulnerable years, where I wanted to both find and show how hard drinking could get. If I had anything to hide I surely failed to do so. And sometimes I would see the person who was once me, drinking nothing but water or clutching the same glass of poison all night as if it were a talisman against chaos. It is a curious exercise, not drinking in the company of people who drink. Drunk people are tiresome, loud and self-absorbed, why spend the time with them? There is a sad secret to the sober companion in the drunken crowd – sometimes the only way to be yourself in the company of people is to be in the company of people who cannot see you.