October 2002 | Volume 53, Issue 5
Overrated Any novel published, to critical acclaim, during the last 50 years that “reveals the torment” of the dysfunctional American middle-class family. Despite all the whining self-therapy (failed, failed !) in prose, and the apocalyptic warnings that suburban marriage, especially, is a doomed institution, the American family looks a lot stronger these days than does the American novel. Now, family dysfunction is real enough, but the Book of Genesis did a perfectly satisfying job of nailing it in short-story format (“Uh, Mom, Abel just had an accident out in the field ... can I have an apple?”), and King Lear said anything additional that wanted saying, and it’s time for our self-important, pity-mebecause-my-mommy-yelled-at-me scribblers of fiction to do a Huck Finn and head out for territory that ain’t so civilized . . .
The pity of it all isn’t the waste of talent. In a nation as large as ours, talent is cheap. But the contemporary American novel should be a grand and glorious thing indeed, given the subject matter available to us. Our novelists are the citizens of the most powerful, innovative, complex, and various nation in history. They don’t have to approve of American power and prowess, but one wonders why they insist on writing little exercises in self-absorption when such a wealth of themes and settings lies all around. We have plenty of novels by Americans these days, but where are our American novels? We live in an age of endless, turbulent, dazzling human frontiers, yet our novels can’t seem to get beyond the fears of the child’s bedroom. Where is the collision of glory and vainglory, where is the bigness of it all, and where, for that matter, are our novels of empire?
Smallness isn’t always a virtue. Sometimes, smallness is just small.
Underrated The Great Gatsby . This may appear a baffling choice, given the novel’s enduring popularity, secure niche in the canon, and perennial place in the classroom, but I believe that this book is even better than its critics have realized. This is a flawless novel, one of only three written in English in the last century, along with Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea and The Blue Flower , by Penelope Fitzgerald. There isn’t a gesture, not a single word, out of place or less than perfectly true.
Authors are notoriously poor judges of their own work, and Fitzgerald worried that his central character, Jay Gatsby, was little more than a hollow shell. The critics, ever eager to find a flaw, took him at his word. But Gatsby is just as he should be. He is the closest figure we have to aniAmerican Everyman in our fiction, closer than Tom Joad or Nick Adams or the magnificent but obstinately regional Flem Snopes and Bayard Sartoris. In this particular book it’s vital that we do not know that Gatsby enjoyed corned-beef hash for breakfast or that he had lice while in the Army. We know he has beautiful shirts, but we do not know what color he prefers; he is an eternal American specifically in his unfinished nature. The author gives us just enough of him, measured out precisely, and we, the readers, complete Gatsby, who was very great indeed.
This is a supremely American book, dense with yearning, lust, violence, greed, jealousy, betrayal, purity of faith—and love. When Gatsby stares across the water, he stands on yet another American frontier. Flannels or buckskin, the dress is irrelevant: Gatsby’s is the real American dream, his aching for more , that expectation of something new and wonderful and overwhelming, a desire born of the huge loneliness of prairie cabins and massive, steam-driven cities, an indestructible dream of something better, finer, of something glorious just beyond our reach. Daisy is only flesh and blood, of course, but that is the one thing Gatsby cannot bring himself to see. His death is a mercy. The greater tragedy would have been his possession of his beloved, who was a fragile dream more than a woman. I do not think I have read a lonelier novel.
While Gatsby runs neck and neck with Huck Finn as the greatest American character, in the photo finish, The Great Gatsby is the Great American Novel.