The Great Gatsby is a beautiful book. It’s also is the professed favorite book of a lot of people who don’t really read books. They read it once in high school and it was glamorous and stylish and cool. And after all it sounds better than saying your favorite book is “The Da Vinci Code.” (I mean, if your favorite book is The Da Vinci Code, just own it. It’s cool.)
Now the people who have only read The Great Gatsby once, if ever, are running an immense PR machine that reaches from diamond headbands to “Gatsby’s Girl” tank tops (talk about missing the point) to a soundtrack featuring Jay-Z and Lana Del Rey. The movie is not even out in wide release yet, but there are tie-ins that range from Daisy’s headpiece ($200,000 at Tiffany’s) and stockings ($110) to the Trump Hotel Gatsby package ($14,999, including an Art Deco shagreen cuff and “personal note from Ivanka Trump”).
So we’ve arrived at a dark and kind of hilariously off-the-mark new notion of Gatsby: a lot of people missed the point of this book about the decay underneath the excess and glamour of the 1920s, and now it’s being used to sell us stuff. Look, buy Daisy’s diamonds! Buy Gatsby’s shirts! Party like it’s 1922!
Gatsby has earned its place as a great American novel not because it’s about a self-made man, but because it’s a book about stuff. It’s about cars and shirts and white dresses and expensive real estate and swimming pools. It’s about a woman, who is merely an avatar for more stuff. F. Scott Fitzgerald called himself a “moralist at heart,” and if The Great Gatsby can be said to have a moral it may be thou shalt not covet. It’s a book about how how covetousness–not love, not even lust–is poisonous. It’s a book about how trying to impress the wrong people for the wrong reasons will fuck you every time.
The most boring people in the world are the ones who talk about rich people as though being rich can make you interesting, the people who can devote whole conversations to other people’s real estate and other people’s yachts and cars and trophy wives. A lot of the time they’re not even talking about their own stuff (a subject boring in its own right), they’re talking about other people as though they are fascinating, simply because they have more stuff than you and me.
James Gatz would have been one of these people, the guy who returns from a company outing at his boss’s country club and wants to tell you all about the Bentleys and Porsches in the parking lot, the filets in the dining room, the golf pro who’s just off the PGA. He’d have been the one who talks about cars and boats incessantly, who runs up a gigantic credit card bill getting bottle service so he can look like a baller. The one who will do anything to bag a girl who is manicured and waxed and toned; not because he wants her, but because he can’t afford her.
Like Gatsby, we’ll do whatever it takes to tell people we can afford more stuff–even when we really can’t, perhaps especially when we can’t. There will be time to get out of debt later, because right now what matters is letting people know that you have arrived, that you afford the right address and the right car and the right schools. It doesn’t matter if you can afford it, as long as people think you can. And there’s the twisted, nasty heart of the Gatsby tie-ins: no one can afford them. We just get to look, clicking through photo slideshows on the Internet and listening to the breathless prattle of morning show hosts, thinking about what it would be like to be the type of person who can drop 15K on a hotel suite. We only get to look at the pictures: look, and covet.
The Great Gatsby is not a great American novel because it has jazz and flappers and cars, or even because it’s possibly the most beautiful and polished piece of prose written in the 20th century. It’s a great American novel because it’s about American people: the people who always want what we can’t afford, and rarely let that stop us.
Photo via thefashionmedley.com