house on fire

p. 86:

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.

the busy and the tired

p. 85:

‘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.

universal skepticism

p 84:

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.

purposeless splendor

p. 83:

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.

great advantage

p. 82:

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.

so much as a shiver

p. 81:

Next day at five o’clock she married Tom Buchanan without so much as a shiver and started off on a three months’ trip to the South Seas.

Daisy has quite a night before her wedding. She sucks down a bottle of sauterne, tosses the groom’s wedding present in the trash – a string of pearls worth over four million dollars* – and by early evening she’s swanning about her room wailing ‘Tell ’em all Daisy’s change’ her mine. Say “Daisy’s change’ her mine!”‘ The bridesmaids and matrons douse her in a cold bath, where she clutches a final forlorn letter until it comes to pieces like snow. Half an hour later ‘the pearls were around her neck and the incident was over.

I wonder how she thinks of that night, the next day or the next year or five or twenty years down the line. If she recalls it in old age, on her deathbed, who does she think was making that scene? Does she think it was her, but not in her right mind? Does she think it wasn’t her, but a dramatic release of emotion as a final performance on closing night? Does she think it was her true self, revealed through alcohol, only to be buried forever by the necessity of sobriety? Did she ever love Jay Gatsby, and if she did, was this the night she drove a stake in the heart of that love without so much as a shiver?

Daisy is a mystery. She may be a coward for never having the bravery to suffer the consequences of her passions, or a vampire sucking the burning blood of hopeless suitors, or an involuntary canvas to dreams bigger than her meager borders … or just another confused young woman, trying on persona as the seasons turn and her beauty fades.

*the pearls are valued at three hundred and fifty thousand dollars in 1919, which is a little over $4.5 million in 2012 dollars.

every young girl

p. 80:

The officer looked at Daisy while she was speaking, in a way that every young girl wants to be looked at sometime, and because it seemed romantic to me I have remembered the incident ever since.

This is a clever work of sentence construction – if Fitzgerald had tried to describe what Gatsby looked like as he gazed at Daisy, the description might have worked for some readers but fallen flat for others. So instead the author describes the look as a fulfillment of universal fantasy. This breaks the hackneyed writing rule of “show, don’t tell” – but that rule was always more of a Hemingway thing than Fitzgerald.

Romance is better described by its effect than its actions, because romance is ultimately so personal that the actions that seem romantic to one person can seem ridiculous to everyone else. What is the way that every young girl wants to be looked at? Try to describe any one way, and a thousand young girls will say, “Eeeew.” But it’s close enough to the truth to say that every young girl imagines that there is a special way that no one has ever looked at her before. She herself couldn’t put it into words, other than the words for how that look should make her feel. Jordan remembers the incident not for the way that Gatsby looked at Daisy, but for the effect upon Daisy.

shoes from England

p. 79:

I was happier on the lawns because I had on shoes from England with rubber nobs on the soles that bit into the soft ground.

A minor detail can conceal a wealth of wisdom when the subject is happiness. Jordan is just explaining why, as a young girl, she liked to walk on the grass instead of the sidewalk. It’s easy to miss the detail of associating happiness with her shoes.

Can money buy happiness? Of course not. Money can eliminate many of the conditions of misery: hunger, exposure to the elements, sheer material deprivation. In contrast, happiness bought with money is at best fleeting, and more typically a profane insult to the values being purchased: friendship, love, knowledge, self-worth. But it’s too simplistic to say that money can’t buy happiness and leave it at that.

Jordan had on shoes from England, a detail connoting quality and the expense of foreign luxury. Would cheap sandals from the five-and-dime have made her as happy, even with similar tactile nobs that conveyed the texture of the earth? Possibly she acquired her shoes while on a trip to England, imprinting the happy memories of travel into the spring of her footfalls. Perhaps instead the shoes were special-ordered by her mother, a symbol of a loving bond. Years later, Jordan remembered that a particular pair of shoes brought her happiness that day, but it almost certainly wasn’t just about the shoes.

A simple rule of thumb about money and happiness is to spend money on experiences, not things – money is well spent on dinners with friends, vacations and adventures, rather than jewelry and boats and other bling. This simplicity loses nuance, for sometimes things allow you to experience adventures, sometimes souvenirs provide memories that outlast adventures. Money buys happiness when it is meaningfully spent, when the thing acquired also acquires meaning from the heart of the purchaser. A wedding ring is a classic example where a thin tin band could hold more value than a ten carat diamond – the object matters for what it means, and what really matters is what would remain if the object is destroyed.

unfamiliar look

p. 78:

They shook hands briefly and a strained, unfamiliar look of embarrassment came over Gatsby’s face.

Gatsby’s embarrassment is the most acute strain of all, as he’s a man who has everything he wants but one woman-as-object of desire; he’s attained everything he has in single-minded pursuit of that one desire, he’s become frighteningly resourceful and unflappable, but he never envisioned this. He never gave much thought to the man who actually has the love of his life, so when they actually meet, his embarrassment is so unbearable that he flees the scene before another word of introduction can be uttered.

What do you look like when you come face to face with the one who has what you want? Someone who has the girl or guy, the clothes the car the house, the job, the life? You might see this face if your webcam was on while you surf the web. Envy is the defining emotion of our age, bolstered and boosted by the immersive wash of posts, likes, tweets, and shares. What purpose to all this public commentary on minutiae if not to spray the arrows of envy from everyone to everyone, to make us all both humblebraggarts and envious targets at once?

oddly familiar

p. 77:

They were composed of oddly familiar pieces of ivory.

After some unsubtle prompting, Nick notices Wolfshiem’s cufflinks, which are made from human molars. I can remember the first time I read this, and thinking “Huh, kind of cool.” Now I find the concept barbaric. What has happened in the decades since?

Well, adolescents are not fully developed humans, most particularly lacking in the sense of humanity that can only be developed by definition in living. As a teen I could have worn a piece of human bone on my clothing without ever thinking about the person whose parts decorated my shirt. Now having lost various bits of my own through careless age and sundry violence, there are pieces of me adrift in the universe and I wouldn’t kindly regard their use as fashion. And even if their former owners wouldn’t care, I couldn’t wear someone else’s bodily fragments; it is too much of a denial of their humanity and a display of deficiency in mine.

It’s not just me that’s changed, but the world at large has changed since I first read about molar cufflinks, and of course changed even more since the book was published between the world wars. Wolfshiem is the only notably ethnic character in an uber-WASPy book, and his Jewish background is a terrible contrast to his accessorizing. Twenty years after the book’s publication, the world was horrified by reports of lampshades made from human skin, decorating the Nazi chambers at Buchenwald. It’s hard to read about Meyer Wolfshiem’s accessorial pride now without projecting the character into his future, reading sadly about the concentration camps and angrily tossing his cufflinks into the trash.

A sign of a world beyond both morality and irony: today you can get your very own replica molar cufflinks for around forty dollars, and I wouldn’t be surprised to find parts of the world where you could get the real thing for less.