A good enough story can ruin you for reality. This is what The Great Gatsby did to me:
My feelings for Gatsby did not introduce themselves by falling or clenching or twisting suddenly, as I’m accustomed to most of them doing. Instead, they bloomed up from initial doubt and unsettledness, nigh-imperceptible until one day, in a dark, cool theater, the build-up of affection hit a critical mass that eventually led to the shoes you see above.
At first, I couldn’t claim to love or even be okay with Gatsby, as much as I felt obligated to. The characters’ general disregard for one another, their failure to love or be loved or even be decent human beings, all of this accumulated in the back of my throat as I dragged myself through each elegant paragraph. I was so disgruntled by the last few pages that I nearly threw the book across the room, despite being generally against book abuse and, more specifically, drawn to the architecture of Fitzgerald’s words. Somehow I kept my roiling discontent under lock and key in those first few months post-Gatsby. If I could have helped it, I would not have thought of The Book again.
But if you’re a reader, then you’ll understand that once in a while you’ll read a book and feel that it found you instead of the other way around. Maybe half a dozen will stay with you, follow you around and sit at your heel like strays. They burrow into your brain and cross all the wires up there, so that lines will creep to the tip of your tongue at odd points of the day, and you’ll see its characters rise out of the gestures of friends and strangers. These books are different in that they burn slowly, and whether you love them or hate them, they become relevant. I didn’t want Gatsby— a book that had been built up for so long and that had then so unquantifiably let me down– to feel as relevant as it did. Still, it sat at my heel.
The one who wouldn’t let me forget him was the narrator, Nick Carroway. His voice stuck in my head, with lines like
“He smiled understandingly– much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced–or seemed to face–the whole eternal world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey.”
These lines were not just elegant, though that would certainly have been enough. They provoked in me a sort of wanting, a desire to re-read each passage until it somehow made its subject more immediate, more real. I remembered my childhood fantasy of fictional characters existing in reality, watching over me like compellingly flawed versions of your generic guardian angel. And I remembered that the affection I felt for these characters was oftentimes more acute than my connections with reality, like an early sort of unrequited love. Finally, I realized that Nick Carroway, in falling head over heels for Gatsby, had narrated me into doing the same.
Succumbing to that persistent after-image of the inimitable Gatsby, I watched the Robert Redford film adaptation on a whim one day. It was disappointing, but not surprising; I don’t put much stock in adaptations. The story was still upsetting, and the book’s saving grace– Nick Carroway’s narration– was absent from the film. Still, Gatsby haunted me.
CUT TO: Late May, the movie theater. I didn’t have a lot of hope for Baz Luhrmann’s Gatsby, but went anyway. And it was two hours of the overwhelmedness sought out by churchgoers and cliff divers; my brain flooded with that swell of general feeling you might crave after a long spell of the same-old-same-old. I was willfully helpless to it– the music, the groundlessly perpetual celebrations, the relentless career of the oblivious toward tragedy– and for the first time I saw exactly what Fitzgerald was writing about. Blasphemous? Yes. But Luhrmann has a gift for dragging up a story’s inherent filminess and shining a light on all the glitter and dirt and color in it. Actually seeing the characters carousing and driving like maniacs and generally falling part, I finally got it. I’d been in love with Gatsby for months, but not until I walked out of the theater did I fall for The Great Gatsby.
My provincial life post-college suddenly bloomed with recognition. For better or worse, there was a mirror between Fitzgerald’s world and mine. Not necessarily in the sense of plot, but in theme and otherwise. I began to look for Gatsby the way I’d tried to catch a glimpse of the Scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz in my younger years, but without the glancing in mirrors or ducking back around corners I’d just rounded. I began to wonder if there actually was a version of Gatsby in my own life, a sort of facsimile.
A few weeks after screening the movie, I was whiling away some insomnia when I stumbled on The Gatsby Shoes. For the first time since childhood, I felt a character peering over my shoulder, breathlessly waiting to see what I’d do next. These shoes were blushing blue, and absolutely aching for you to fall in love with them. They’d come right out of Gatsby’s backyard, having seen wonderful things, and they promised the sort of adventure I’d been unwittingly aching for. Nick Carroway whispered from the depths of West Egg,You can’t live forever; you can’t live forever.
There was only one pair left. I fell in love with them just like they wanted, fool that I am.