In 1922, F. Scott Fitzgerald announced his decision to write "something new--something extraordinary and beautiful and simple and intricately patterned." That extraordinary, beautiful, intricately patterned, and above all, simple novel became The Great Gatsby, arguably Fitzgerald's finest work and certainly the book for which he is best known. A portrait of the Jazz Age in all of its decadence and excess, Gatsby captured the spirit of the author's generation and earned itself a permanent place in American mythology. Self-made, self-invented millionaire Jay Gatsby embodies some of Fitzgerald's--and his country's--most abiding obsessions: money, ambition, greed, and the promise of new beginnings. "Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter--tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther.... And one fine morning--" Gatsby's rise to glory and eventual fall from grace becomes a kind of cautionary tale about the American Dream.
It's also a love story, of sorts, the narrative of Gatsby's quixotic passion for Daisy Buchanan. The pair meet five years before the novel begins, when Daisy is a legendary young Louisville beauty and Gatsby an impoverished officer. They fall in love, but while Gatsby serves overseas, Daisy marries the brutal, bullying, but extremely rich Tom Buchanan. After the war, Gatsby devotes himself blindly to the pursuit of wealth by whatever means--and to the pursuit of Daisy, which amounts to the same thing. "Her voice is full of money," Gatsby says admiringly, in one of the novel's more famous descriptions. His millions made, Gatsby buys a mansion across Long Island Sound from Daisy's patrician East Egg address, throws lavish parties, and waits for her to appear. When she does, events unfold with all the tragic inevitability of a Greek drama, with detached, cynical neighbor Nick Carraway acting as chorus throughout. Spare, elegantly plotted, and written in crystalline prose, The Great Gatsby is as perfectly satisfying as the best kind of poem.
"The Great Gatsby" is considered by many to be the zenith of american fiction writing in the last century. I won't say that it is the best american novel I've read but I will say it is probably the most perfect.
Along with J.D. Salinger, Fitzgerald has got to be my favorite writer of fiction. As opposed to Hemingway's bluntness, and Faulkner's artiness, Fitzgerald's prose seems(to paraphrase Michael Chabon) to rain down from style heaven. His style in fact is like the ladies he writes about: cool, lean and absolutely enchanting. He would never dream of overwriting and knows exactly when to hold back for maximum effect. His use of the language is assured and consequently eminently readable. For that alone this should be considered the Mona Lisa of prose.
What is astounding though is how he puts his sparsely elegant style to use giving his characters shade and depth. Fitzgerald is a true student of humanity and his skills of observation are razor sharp. He sums up his characters in sentences that read like aphorisms bulging with truth about the human condition. There's not a page goes by I'm not gasping at the depth of his vision and the economy he uses to express it.
So far I've dwelt on how he wrote and not on what he wrote. People who'd back another nag in the Great American Novel derby knock Fitzgerald's sophomoric (their word not mine) obsession with romance between men and women. They reduce his works to the level of melodramatic tear jerkers. This is a gross simplification of his talents. Yes "Gatsby" focuses on a doomed love affair but it does so to illustrate the errors in thinking that he felt marred his generation.
Gatsby is about the hollowness of the American dream as dreamt in the twenties. Fitzgerald looked around him (and in the mirror)and saw men and women locked in a frenzied and ultimatley doomed race for speed, money and sin. Gatsby and Daisy's love is doomed because their values have been distorted by money and comfort and opulence. They cannot see the depths because they are too easily distracted by shiny surfaces. When Daisy cries as Gatsby shows off his elegantly tailored shirts because she has never seen clothes so beautiful sums up perfectly how for her exteriors matter most. This is at the heart of the tragedy that unfolds before us in this delicious little novel.