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James Smythe on The Great Gatsby
James Smythe , May 14th, 2013 03:39

The second instalment in our Gatsby vignettes finds James Smythe, author of The Machine, discussing the novel's place and purpose in our lives as readers and as writers.


I’ve got a fairly specific theory: in reading The Great Gatsby at school many writers actually learn the tools that they’re going to use over the rest of their careers. I think it’s a book that builds readers and creates writers.

Let me go back.

My own education, in terms of school reading, was pretty good. I can pin my development as a writer on any number of teachers and the books that they foisted upon me over my time in school. But it’s in the books that we were taught how to read – and there is a huge difference between being taught how to read a book, and simply being given it to read – that writers learn skills they use themselves at the other end of the process. Being taught how to read a book teaches you, if a teacher is worth their salt, how to decode it. How to dig down inside, underneath the surface, and how to pluck its innards out.

Most kids are taught the same books, or variants of them. In the UK we get the standard British classics, the Lord Of The Flies and Animal Farm; in the US, it seems more likely to be Huckleberry Finn and The Scarlet Letter. But these are the books that we cut our reading skills on. We learn about the meanings beneath them: that they are about God, or politics, or race, or original sin. Everything is about subtext. By the time we get to The Great Gatsby, at a later point in our education, we’re prepared. And we will reach Gatsby: it’s on almost every syllabus, on every recommended reading list, viewed as one of the Great American Novels. It’s hard to go through education without reading it, frankly.

Gatsby is, of course, a historical document, a reference text for a period of history that we are endlessly fascinated with: the fashion, the distinct language, America at that specific time. To read it is to see a vision of the 20th century American Dream as if trapped in amber. But that’s barely scratching the surface. When you start, you find that it’s a book almost entirely created from subtext. The book is also about collapse, degradation, the seen and unseen, lust, sexuality, lies, and constructs. In chapter three of the novel, Nick Carraway finds the Owl-eyed man in Gatsby’s library, surprised that the books there are real; that they aren’t simply covered lies. Gatsby went to the trouble of creating them, just as Fitzgerald did with the novel’s subtexts. It’s our job, as readers, to find them.

The Great Gatsby was, for me, the book where I practiced reading for myself for the first time. I remember it well: being faced with this slip of a book that I hadn’t, for my sins, heard of before it was given to me in school. I remember devouring it in the shortest amount of time, racing through to the end and being left with questions that I had no answers to. What was the green light, really? What relevance did the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg have? Was the whole story – the whole metafictional text being written by Carraway – a lie? I had read the just-released Fight Club the summer before I read Gatsby. I remember wondering, for a second, if there weren’t echoes throughout both texts; if Jay Gatsby wasn’t just a figment of Carraway’s imagination; if, somehow, there wasn’t something stranger going on, a less perceptible untruth that I couldn’t quite grasp.

Still, to this day, I’m not sure if there isn’t something there. I know that there are readings of the text (because getting this deep into it, it’s not a book any more, not just a novel, but a text, there to be torn apart and reconstructed and rebuilt, somehow, in an attempt to find answers) that I have missed. There are secrets that I cannot find. Sitting in the audience for a performance of Gatz, the six-hour long unabridged staged adaptation, I still found myself looking for holes and gaps. Not accidental ones, but ones that were designed to be found. Indications of the inferred meaning of the text. The Great Gatsby built me as a reader, just as Gatsby built his wall of covered books to maintain his lie.

I think that’s what happens. It’s given to us to read in school after the books where we’re taught about subtext, assuming we want to listen; after the books where the surface is clearly not the truth, and where what lies beneath is everything. It’s a book that builds readers, because it’s so desperately easy to read it unquestioningly, and to just take it as it is on the page. (This is the issue, incidentally, that has shackled almost every adaptation of the text: how to try and present the subtexts with the subtlety of the original text. A basic reading of the novel sees Jay Gatsby as a fraudster whose decadent life collapses around him in the midst of a torrid love affair, and this is the easiest route to – say – creating a movie of it.)

When we, as writers, therefore, are constructing our books, it’s hard to avoid those things we once read – again, true reading, actually understanding and deciphering a text. For me, Gatsby built me. My books are nothing like Fitzgerald’s, in tone or content or voice; but the notions that he put inside my head of what a text can do stay with me to this day. My novel The Explorer featured a narrator who I wanted to be trustworthy, but only through the veil of his own knowledge and opinions, and I couldn’t help but think of Carraway; in The Machine, I wanted to show the effects of a dream tainted by desire, of reaching too far and falling harder because of it, and I thought of Gatsby himself; and in the novel I am writing at the moment, a character stands on the edge of a lake, their life collapsed and destroyed around them, and they look out to the far side of the water, and it was all that I could do to not write a little green light out there, somewhere, for them to fixate upon.

James Smythe's The Machine is published by Blue Door Books, Baz Luhrman's The Great Gatsby is released in the UK 16th of May