Monday, May 20, 2013

The Great Gatsby, Even Better



The other day at Anderson's Bookshop, in Downers Grove, IL, I came across a t-shirt that said "Don't judge a book by its movie," just next to a shirt that said "My book club can drink you book club under the table." The first shirt made me laugh, the second made me smile and nod in recognition. "Damn straight," I thought. "Enough with the jokes."

Ever since the ads for The Great Gatsby started showing up on TV and in magazines, it seems that readers too have had enough of their own inexperience. I can't say what accounts exactly for the change--the hit strewn, hip-hop soundtrack? Director Baz Lurhmann's first name?--but watching Leonardo DiCaprio buzz around in a Rolls-Royce, as if speeding off with any chance of making our own first impressions of Jay Gatsby's character, impelled in these last weeks a not surprising surge in sales of Scott Fitzgerald's masterpiece. And yet, I'm still surprised. Or gladdened. Reaching for a book packed tight inside the canon is hard work. What's the point, after all, if the book's contents are going to be projected at us in the form of images and poster art and references at parties made to dimly draw the line between the well reads and the Luddites in a matter of time, anyway? And yet, those who have saddled up or walked past our F. Scott Fitz display and asked to see The Great Gatsby, without a hint of sarcasm, insist the movie less inspired them to finally read the book than, like some portent of a future separating nuts from bolts, rattled and reminded them how necessary words are in a scream of lights and sound effects. 

And so I saw the film. And not out of some masochistic impulse to inflict pain on myself, either! Nor a desire to back up my being right with specific examples, but, in truth, because I'd mixed up the release date of Star Trek Into Darkness with that of Pain & Gain. And without going into detail I'll just say some stories hit too close to home. 

Now when I say "I saw the film" I mean insofar as possible. Today, for example, I "made lunch," by which I mean I opened up a jar of peanut butter and kept on dialing the number for Pizza Luce. I bought a ticket. I sat down. I sat through innumerable advertisements for Coke, The National Guard, Superman Returns, Again, and, as far as I could tell, some combination of all three, which seemed to suggest that if you drink Coke and join The National Guard you could win tickets to see Superman. And yet, I spent the movie formulating one of my personal all time best grocery lists ever. Including, but not limited to, bread and jam. Why? Because I could. As I said to my companion dressed regrettably as Spock, the film is a connect-the-dots of images and plot points, in the most sportive sense of that word; or, better yet, a kind of Mad Libs but with spaces where the parts of speech that help to form a sentence go, while words like "poop" and "dingle flap" lay visibly in wait to give our wackiest, most devastating readings of the novel shape. I didn't have to "read" or pay attention to the film to grasp its meaning, but check on it from time to time like something cooking in the oven... from what I understand. Instead, as if adding swaths of color to a paint by numbers, I filled in the pretty faces and car chases with the language of the novel, or at least my memory of it, that its sensations, and so its plot, depend on and spring from, as 3-D strings of beads and effervescent champagne pearls failed wildly to translate, or distract me from, words anyway. Or what I imagine was 3-D had I not arrived already wearing Lt. Geordi La Forge's visor. What, I wondered, would anyone who hadn't read the book make of such placeholders, which on their own resembled a kaleidoscopic disarray of images devoid of sense, let alone substance. Perhaps Baz Lurhman's vision was in bringing not the words but world of The Great Gatsby to life, in all of its material splendor. And come to think of it I suppose that's the point of any film, no less a summer blockbuster. Which still doesn't make sense of why a story whose eponymous protagonist throws all his weight in fashioning a narrative from life would prompt a writer or director to regard merely its surface. 

Lest you think I'm suggesting that movies and books are incompatible, let me be clear and say there's something, frankly, impossible about adapting books to screen. Not in the act but outcome. Just as there are plenty of good stories that can't and shouldn't be told literally. Regardless of how accurate or true to x, y, z, one's reading is, to some extent, oblivious of such concerns as plot and temporality. We read stories in spurts and study characters like mirrors, conflating and creating a persona, if not an identity, as David Foster Wallace said, that we may come to recognize as ours; our lives, in other words, are recklessly entwined with those we read about, like bowling balls hurled sideways at the pins seven lanes over. No wonder then, especially in talk of books like Gatsby, whose loosely ornate sentences oppose the skyscraping opulence Jay Gatsby's world demands, like diamonds scattered brazenly across a four-lane highway, we say "my," as in "my Gatsby"; the one that several customers of late at some point lost and now want back, lest it be taken from them, this time, in the form of a Brooks Brothers ad for menswear. Gatsby is a book about impermanence,"a conflict of spirituality set against the web of our commercial life," as Edwin Clark wrote in The New York Times, and that was back in 1925! To reduce its smoldering ash and firmament to a $200,000 headband is to rebuild Babel's Tower, and suggests either a careless apprehension of the novel as a starting point or hilarious misunderstanding of the function of metaphor. 

To put it in terms then Fitzgerald himself might have appreciated, not having read Gatsby is like living in St. Paul and not having been to Chicago. It's always there and always will be, so why bother? What's the rush? And while it's pretty clear that I'm defending the first book I read as an adult and loved the way I've come to love all books that I don't "get," that's just my point: if you don't try, someone else will on your behalf and spit it back to you like a bird. And who wants scraps of chewed up paper spit out in their mouth? It's a rhetorical question, mam. "Don't judge a book by its movie." Or its promo tie-in cover, for that matter. That is, unless you have no plans to read the book. In which case, I can think of worse things to have sitting out on your coffee table than Leonardo DiCaprio's smug grin and starlit eyes. But don't get me started on that. 

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