Sunday, September 29, 2013
Godawful Prose in The Great Gatsby, or: Meyer Wolfsheim's Eyelike Nasal Hair
Just saw the Baz Luhrmann Great Gatsby, and enjoyed it quite a bit.That was rather a surprise, since I had a distinct antipathy to the source material, like so many others who’d had Scott Fitzgerald’s little book thrust upon them in their younger and more vulnerable years. The novel had bored me silly, and I found the writing a horrible combination of precious and strangely pulpy. Even though the film used some of Fitzgerald’s better prose in voiceovers, it was sufficiently devoid of his style to ennable me to concentrate on the basic strengths of the story; in fact, I was inspired to give the novel another chance. But even though I did indeed encounter some good prose in the book, and thought Fitzgerald handled dialogue fairly well, I was constantly breaking my teeth on big silly nuggets of terrible stuff.
The novel gets ridiculous instantly. We’re asked to swallow a bunch of self-congratulation by Nick Carraway, the narrator, who informs us that “he’s inclined to reserve all judgements, a habit that has opened up to me many curious natures, and made me to he victim of not a few veteran bores.”
Good thing he doesn’t judge them.
He goes on to tell us that “the abnormal mind is quick to detect and attach itself to this quality when it appears in a normal person.” Because of his willingness to listen to twaddle, the poor lad was, in college, “accused of being a politician,” because he was “privy to the secrets of wild, unknown men.” He hangs about with men both “wild” and “unknown”—one thinks immediately of Tarzan—and people decide he’s a smoothie, although they wouldn’t. Nonetheless, even though he’s oh so tolerant of these loons, he’s “feigned sleep, preoccupation, or hostile levity”---whatever “hostile levity” is---whenever it looks they’re going to say something indiscreet. There’s just so much that even broad-minded him can endure. Fact is, all this is just incoherent. I think we’re supposed to take Carraway’s self-representation at face value...except that you can tell that his essential stance is one of absolute, deep, dripping disdain for just about everything. Eventually he decides he likes Gatsby, but that’s about it. Everybody else in the book is shallow at best or monstrous at worst.
But that isn’t what bothered me the most. It was hunkering down waiting for the next megaton of literary ineptness to go off. Fitzgerald has this reputation for being this fabulous prose stylist; he shouldn’t. Consider this horrible piece of geographical exposition:
“It was a matter of chance that I should have rented a house in one of the strangest communities in North America. It was on that slender riotous island which extends itself due east of new York—and where there are, among other natural curiosities, two unusual formations of land. Twenty miles from the city, a pair of enormous eggs, identical in contour and separated only by a courtesy bay, jut out into the most domesticated body of salt water in the Western hemisphere, the great wet barnyard of Long Island Sound. They are not perfect ovals—like the egg in the Columbus story, they are both crushed flat at the contact end—but their physical resemblence must be a source of perpetual confusion to the gulls that fly overhead. To the wingless a more arresting phenomenon is their dissimilarity in every particular except shape and size.”
One of the strangest communities in North America. That truly would be something, but Fitzgerald doesn’t deliver, after making the as-yet unidentified West Egg sound like something from H. P. Lovecraft. So, it’s full of nouveaux riche folks.They’re not like crackers from Deliverance or Fish People from Innsmouth. Fitzgerald indulges constantly in gross overstatement.
It was on that slender riotous island which extends itself due east of New York--- Riotous? The whole island? Gatsby throws parties there, although everything else on Long Island seems kind of stuffy and old money.
There are, among other natural curiosities, two unusual formations of land...When Fitzgerald describes these formations, it turns out they’re pretty tepid, as natural curiosities go. You wouldn’t even be aware of their ostensible curiousness unless you were in an airplane looking down...and even then, they wouldn’t rate. They’re egg-shaped. If that’s what passes for a natural curiosity on Long Island, I’ll go somewhere else.
A pair of enormous eggs, identical in contour and separated only by a courtesy bay, jut out into the most domesticated body of salt water in the Western Hemisphere, the great wet barnyard of Long Island Sound. The basic concept here is rather difficult, and Fitzgerald isn’t up to dealing with it. He should’ve said something like, “two nearly identical formations, egglike in outline, jut out into Long Island Sound.” Outline is better than contour, because it’s flat; simply calling these things eggs instead of formations with egglike outlines evokes Alice Rock or those Easter cakes made in molds. Contour is one of the chief culprits here...it sounds three dimensional when you apply it to an egglike thing. As for courtesy, it’s oh-so-precious. As for most domesticated body of salt water in the Western hemisphere, it can’t possibly be true---it’s another dose of overstatement, and I really don’t know what he means by it either. If indeed he means it’s like a barnyard, what are we to make of that? Is it full of pigs and cows and chickens, wet ones? Yeesh.
They are not perfect ovals---Neither are eggs.
Like the egg in the Columbus story—they are both crushed flat at the contact end--- This is just tortured. Difficult in a worthless way. They’re not crushed—they’re connected to the rest of the island at their big ends. But putting it that way wouldn’t be fussy and pedantic enough for Mr. F.
Their physical resemblence must be the source of perpetual confusion to the gulls that fly overhead. Their physical resemblance? To each other? To eggs? I suppose it must be eggs (even though the sentence is very badly structured) because the gulls are perpetually confused by them. What is meant by perpetual? Do the gulls circle perpetually, or are they confused even after they leave? In what does their confuse consist? Do they want to come down and incubate the peninsulas with their maternal butts? This is all a joke, apparently, but it’s witless.
To the wingless a more arresting phenomenon is their dissimilarity in every particular except size and shape. What? Every particular? Absurd.For one thing, we’ve already been told that the whole island is “riotous.” Perhaps we should suppose that one egg is inhabited by people, and the other by penguins. And the people drive cars, while the penguins drive bicycles, and the former drink Coca-cola while the latter drink Pepsi...
Although that would just be silly.
But so far, we haven’t gotten to the really weird stuff. Sometimes F’s howlers are simply unfathomable. Take the scene where we encounter Daisy and Jordan Baker for the first time:
“The only completely stationary object in the room was an enormous couch on which two young women were bouyed up as though upon an anchored balloon. They were both in white, and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just been blown back in after a short flight around the house. I must have stood for a few moments listening to the whip and snap of the curtains and the groan of a picture on the wall. Then there was a boom as Tom Buchanan shut the rear windows and the caught wind died out about the room, and the curtains and the rugs and the two young women ballooned slowly to the floor.”
Man is this a wacky piece of business.
It sounds like something from a Miyazaki cartoon. The women are on a balloonlike couch that—in addition to the wind in their clothing---makes it look as though their clothes have just been off on a balloon flight around the house—inside or outside, I dunno. Some might object that taking F. to task about their clothes flying by themselves is a cheap shot, but hell, even literary titans should watch their pronouns. The breeze—which actually sounds like more of a tornado—makes the curtains whip and snap and the pictures groan; are we in the Haunted Mansion here? When the “caught” wind dies down—caught adds nothing—the curtains and the rugs and the two young women balloon to the floor. Have the curtains become detached in that “breeze?” Were the rugs picked up off the floor and whirled about like pizzas in a pizzeria, only to balloon down like the ladies, who go right to the floor, having fallen off the couch, I guess? Is the damn thing still hanging in midair?
Or, consider this description of Daisy: “For a moment the last sunshine fell with romantic affection upon her glowing face; her voice compelled me forward as I listened—then the glow faded, each light deserting her with a lingering regret, like children leaving a pleasant street at dusk.” Astounding. Each light deserts with a lingering regret? How many suns do we have here? Is he talking about the highlights, as in, the one on the point of her nose went, then the one on her cheek, then the one on her chin? And how about these children? God help me, I envisioned a bunch of them on her face, about the size of ladybugs, creeping back out of sight behind her jaw.
Daisy’s face has other peculiarities too, besides swarms of tiny kiddies. Her eyes can do things that ours can't: “Daisy took her face in her hands as if feeling its lovely shape, and her eyes moved out gradually into the velvet dusk.” This is the kind of writing you’d have gotten from Robert E. Howard when he was twenty-two years old. When I said that Fitzgerald gets pulpy, I meant it. Where the hell was Fitzgerald’s editor?
But eyes are consistently problematical in Gatsby. Take the eyes of T.J. Eckleburg on the big billboard in the Valley of Ashes. We’re told the retinas are three feet high. Fitzgerald seems to mean their pupils are three feet high, but whatever. Then we have this, when “three modish negroes” pass by in a limousine: “I laughed aloud when the yolks of their eyeballs rolled towards us in haughty rivalry.” Yikes. Profoundly messed up on every conceivable level. Eyes aren’t like yolks, unless Fitzgerald thinks they’re yellow and gooey. I guess he actually meant whites, as in egg-whites, but...those are transparent and not like the whites of eyes, and not very much like negro eye-whites neither. And no matter what, nobody’s eyes roll out into the gap between two cars in “haughty rivalry”. And even if they did, it would not evoke a laugh from me....
Then again, maybe it might, after I finished screaming.
And speaking of extraordinary ocular matters, we have the bit where Meyer Wolfsheim is introduced: “A small, flat-nosed Jew raised his large head and regarded me with two fine growths of hair which luxuriated in either nostril.” You say to yourself, surely F. doesn’t mean that Wolfsheim observes you with his nasal tufts, but...on the next page, we get, “His nostrils turned to me in an interested way.” I know what you’re thinking...he views you with his nostrils, not the hair therein...but even then, F. would be contradicting himself..
It just goes on and on. Every time you start to warm up to the story, one of these things comes down like a mortar-shell. Carraway’s underwear coils “like a damp snake” around his legs—perhaps he should pull his underwear up, so it’d ride up his buttcrack like it does on the rest of us. Beads of sweat race cool across his back—peculiar gravity we’re having. Here’s one of my very favorites: “Out of the corner of his eye Gatsby saw that the blocks of the sidewalks really formed a ladder and mounted to a secret place above the trees—he could climb to it, if he climbed alone, and once there he could suck on the pap of life, gulp down the incomparable milk of wonder.” Pap of life? A giant boob in the sky loaded with incomparable wonder that Jay Gatsby can only suck if he climbs alone—alone, mind you----up the “blocks of the sidewalks” to the top?
All this out of the corner of his eye, by the way.
Ah well, maybe I’m mistaken, and it’s all really fabulous. But in my humble opinion, some of this prose is right up there with the worst of J. Fenimore Cooper, and it’s a pity Mark Twain didn’t live long enough to dig his claws into Mr. F.