Books

The Beautiful and the Damned

Two new books give The Great Gatsby a feminist twist. One is magnificent. (It’s the one in which people turn into giant fish.)

A repeating pattern of the covers of the two books discussed in the review.
Photos by Amazon

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Much of the art of writing lies in knowing what to leave out, and while Ernest Hemingway is the American writer most famed for his terseness, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway’s Lost Generation colleague and rival, was at least as good at holding back, if not better. With The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald produced a solid candidate for the Great American Novel with a book that clocks in at under 50,000 words. This brevity goes against the common belief that the national novel ought to be long and encyclopedic (Moby Dick, the U.S.A. trilogy, Infinite Jest), a big book to encompass a vast and diverse country.

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What Fitzgerald’s sliver of a masterpiece demonstrates is that a small novel can contain multitudes if it makes enough space for them. The Great Gatsby’s tale of wealth and class—and specifically how the former can never simply purchase the latter—accommodates American aspirations of so many varieties because all that it leaves unsaid provides opaque surfaces onto which readers can project their own identities and preoccupations. Critics have chosen to see the mysteriously self-made Jay Gatsby as a secret Jew, a passing Black man, and even a closeted homosexual who encourages Nick Carraway’s evident crush on him. Spinoffs, unfettered now that The Great Gatsby has been in the public domain for a year, have included a prequel novel, Nick, describing Carraway’s traumatic war experiences before the action of The Great Gatsby takes place, and a self-published sequel in which Pammy, daughter of Daisy and Tom Buchanan, seeks out “her uncle Nick” to learn the truth about her mother’s past.

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But while Gatsby—who he really is and how he got his money—is the novel’s most obvious mystery, its deepest enigmas are its women. The two female principals, Daisy Buchanan and Jordan Baker, serve mostly as objects of male desire whose true feelings remain unplumbed. Fitzgerald himself felt that a lack of sympathetic female characters prevented the book from selling well when it was first published. The Great Gatsby became iconic only after Fitzgerald’s death, when free copies were distributed to servicemen by the nonprofit Council on Books in Wartime during World War II, a fact that reinforces the impression that the novel appeals more to men than to women.

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Some critics view these omissions as unforgivable, and it’s true that the romance of Gatsby depends on the susceptibility of each reader’s individual imagination. For some, what Fitzgerald doesn’t explain about his female characters invites the kind of speculation that draws them into the novel’s ephemeral world. Two recent novels—The Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo and Beautiful Little Fools by Jillian Cantor—retell The Great Gatsby’s story from the perspective of those characters, in their own voices, with drastically different results. Each spins off from Fitzgerald’s version, yet each in its own way ends up illuminating his novel’s lasting appeal.

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Cantor’s is by far the weaker of the two efforts. Beautiful Little Fools is framed as a detective story, a reasonable choice given that The Great Gatsby itself is the story of a murder. Cantor’s novel opens with a scene in which an unidentified woman shoots Jay Gatsby. Frank Charles, a police detective skeptical of the official determination that George Wilson killed first Gatsby and then himself, continues to investigate the crime, spurred on by the discovery of a diamond hairpin in the shrubbery. Charles has three suspects: Daisy Buchanan, Jordan Baker, and Catherine McCoy, whose sister, Myrtle Wilson, George’s wife and Tom Buchanan’s mistress, was killed when struck by Gatsby’s car.

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As Beautiful Little Fools would have it, Jordan and Catherine have more extensive and complex relationships to Gatsby than the clueless Nick, who narrates the original novel, realizes. Gatsby is blackmailing Jordan, a closeted lesbian, into helping him woo Daisy by threatening to expose her sexual orientation, and in one of the novel’s most startingly revisions, he is not only a former casual lover of Catherine’s but is also responsible for engineering the meeting of Myrtle and Tom. Catherine—a very minor, gossipy character in the Fitzgerald novel—has been transformed into an earnest, happily single suffragette who by day works for the National Women’s League, helping women find work. Devoted to her sister, she fantasizes about urging Myrtle to “imagine not needing any man. Imagine if being a woman were enough,” despite the fat lot of good that would do.

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The rest of Beautiful Little Fools follows this pattern: Any situation from the original novel in which a female character might be found at fault has been carefully reworked to render her blameless and victimized. Jordan didn’t cheat in a golf tournament; she was targeted by a homophobic official who’d discovered her affair with another player. In the Fitzgerald novel, Tom and Daisy’s infant daughter never seems to figure significantly in anyone’s thoughts or decisions, to an almost comical degree; in Beautiful Little Fools, Daisy is a doting reader of bedtime stories who’d like to fire the nanny and care for Pammy full time, only Tom won’t let her. Cantor’s Daisy doesn’t marry Tom because his wealth and social status match her own, but because her late father blew the family’s fortune at the racetrack, and if she doesn’t marry money, her mother will have to sell their house. Daisy’s emotional life revolves around her grief for her virtuous younger sister, killed in a railway accident, who used to implore her to “Be good,” and Daisy strives to do justice to her memory.

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The men in Beautiful Little Fools are all selfish brutes and the women are, if not outright saints, remarkably noble, selfless, and long-suffering. They are also extremely dull, and indistinguishable in voice and temperament. It could be argued that the view of Daisy, Jordan, and Catherine afforded by The Great Gatsby is distorted by the imperfect understanding of Nick Carraway, and that Cantor’s version testifies to a truth about gender relations in 1922 to which Nick, and possibly Fitzgerald himself, was oblivious. But if so, then Nick somehow also made them more witty and dashing. Cantor’s Daisy could not even come up with a line as mildly clever as the first one Fitzgerald’s utters with her stuttering laugh, “I’m p-paralyzed with happiness.” And the saucy, wise-cracking Jordan Baker of The Great Gatsby is unrecognizable as the apprehensive woman who, in Beautiful Little Fools, thinks of men, “They were all the same, weren’t they? They all wanted nothing more than to ruin me. It was utterly exhausting to be a woman.”

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By contrast, Nghi Vo’s The Chosen and the Beautiful makes much bigger changes to Fitzgerald’s novel without sacrificing the gossamer charm of the original. This novel is narrated by Jordan, The Great Gatsby’s most intriguing character, and takes full advantage of the liberating, and libertine, freedom embodied in the flapper. Vo’s Jordan is also Vietnamese (an orphan adopted into the Baker family of Louisville, Kentucky, by a missionary daughter), independently wealthy, and unabashedly bisexual. She saunters through a series of speak-easies and secret dancehalls, sipping an illicit liquor called demoniac, made—literally—from demon’s blood. The world of The Chosen and the Beautiful is one in which the supernatural routinely brushes against the reality of the Jazz Age.

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Odd as this may sound at first, Vo makes it work, and beautifully. What is The Great Gatsby, after all, if not a tale of spells and mirages: the thrall of Gatsby’s fixation on Daisy, the glittering spectacle of his famous parties, the fascination that the rich exerted on Fitzgerald himself? He meant The Great Gatsby to serve as an indictment of “careless people” like Tom and Daisy, a couple who leave dead lovers in their wake and waltz off to yet another mansion, unscathed. But he was all too susceptible to the ease and beauty of their seemingly charmed lives, and as a result, his novel is remembered as a delirium of glamorous bacchanals and beaded dresses, the basis for big-budget Hollywood adaptations acted by gorgeous movie stars whose privileges uncomfortably resemble those of the Buchanans. The Great Gatsby doesn’t really work as a social critique, but as an account of a fatal enchantment, it succeeds magnificently.

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Vo understands that while The Great Gatsby is a novel full of excesses, its secret lies in Fitzgerald’s lightness of touch. It is an interruption, a magic-lantern show that transpires in the course of a single summer and evaporates with the crisping of the air. Vo follows suit, refraining from stuffing The Chosen and the Beautiful with elaborate worldbuilding or explanations of how the supernatural elements operate. For the most part, they are rare and cluster at the margins of the story as illusions and entertainments. A Southern witch operating out of a roadhouse uses spellbound fireflies to light up the joint’s sign at night. Gatsby’s pool is enchanted so that when guests dive into it, they appear as giant koi swimming under the water, returning to human form when they get out. Jordan, who remembers nothing of her homeland, has nevertheless inherited a talent linked to it, the ability to cut paper into forms—animals, mythical beasts, even people—that then come to temporary life, only to crumple, tear, or burn like the fragile material they’re made from.

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The Chosen and the Beautiful pays close and fruitful attention to its source material. In Fitzgerald’s novel, Nick first meets Jordan at the Buchanans’ house in East Egg, in a room with the French windows thrown open, so that “A breeze blew through the room, blew curtains in at one end and out the other like pale flags, twisting them up toward the frosted wedding-cake of the ceiling, and then rippled over the wine-colored rug, making a shadow on it as wind does on the sea.” The breeze fills the skirts of Jordan and Daisy, too, so that they seem to have “blown back in after a short flight around the house.” Vo takes these lovely images and runs with them: Her Jordan and Daisy really have been airborne after inhaling a charm encased in a clay figurine, and have been floating around the mansion “like puffs of dandelion seeds, like foam, like a pair of young women in white dresses who had no cares to weight them down.”

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Vo ingeniously weaves her fantasy elements into Fitzgerald’s world, making Gatsby a man rumored to be not a bootlegger but to have sold his soul to the demonic underworld to get the wealth he believes will win Daisy over. In The Chosen and the Beautiful, wealthy and fashionable young men have affected a bad-boy mystique by pretending to have made such an infernal bargain, but Gatsby, Jordan suspects, is the real deal, a man made inhuman by his own desire. She also picks up the thread of nativism Fitzgerald wove into The Great Gatsby when he has the boorish Tom rant at the dinner table about a pseudoscientific work of race science arguing that “if we don’t look out the white race will be—will be utterly submerged.” In The Chosen and the Beautiful, immigrants like Jordan and the damned like Gatsby, outsiders both, are targeted by the pending Manchester Act, legislation aimed at repatriating “unwanted unworthies.” Jordan’s own role in the elite circles she moves through is ambiguous. She feels like a “mascot” among the debutantes of Louisville, included without being an equal.

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Beautiful Little Fools strips the gauzy romance from The Great Gatsby down to the bare kitchen-sink melodrama of soap opera. It made me see why H.L. Mencken, an early reviewer of the novel, complained that it was “no more than a glorified anecdote,” and it made me long to be out of the glum company of its characters, who speak and think exclusively in clichés. The Chosen and the Beautiful sustains and expands the novel’s spell, venturing into subcultures and erotic adventures that Fitzgerald only hinted at or could not conceive. The difference between these two variations on Fitzgerald’s masterpiece is partly down to what each novelist chooses to change in the original, and partly to the greater fecundity of Vo’s imagination. But it is first and foremost a matter of style, of which Vo is by far the superior artist, the one who knows how magic works. Style, the lambent grace of Fitzgerald’s prose, is what makes his “anecdote” so seductive despite the moral confusion at its heart. The Great Gatsby is like one of the paper conjurations Vo’s Jordan creates with her scissors, cutting away everything that does not contribute to the enchantment to form a fleeting but glorious wonder.