The Great Gatsby Channels Bill Clinton, or Perhaps Vice Versa

I’m re-reading The Great Gatsby, and even this fourth or fifth time, it gives a pleasure beyond anything I’d dare hope for. Fitzgerald, who apparently couldn’t control his drinking or much else in his life, exercises complete command here. He creates a sustained lyricism and economy rivaled in the last century only by Nabokov’s Lolita. About every third sentence, he just hits one out — gone, gone, gone.

During the book’s first party, for instance — this is the tawdry, impromptu, embarrassing gathering at the apartment that Tom Buchanan keeps in the city for his mistress, and where a few hours after this sentence, he breaks her nose — our narrator Nick Carraway takes stock of the wife of a sad, mediocre photographer who lives a floor down.

His wife was shrill, languid, handsome, and horrid.

Those seeking a passive sentence that works, or adjectives that work, heed: Even the sound of each adjective here sets up the next, and this five-word string replicates the flashing alternation of wonder and grotesquerie that Fitzgerald holds before us.

A chapter later we visit a grander, more beautiful version of this party — the party at Gatsby’s where we, and Nick, meet him face to face. And I was fascinated, reading it this time, to find myself meeting not just Gatsby but Bill Clinton.

Nick, drunk, has sat down with Jordan Baker at one of the many tables on the great lawn, and at first he doesn’t realize he’s just joined Gatsby. When Nick recognizes his mistake and apologizes for not recognizing, Gatsby, who alone among the crowd seems sober, apologizes right back.

“I thought you knew, old sport. I’m afraid I’m not a very good host.”

Then he becomes Bill Clinton. That is, he turns on Carraway the sort of deeply empathetic attention that countless people have described Ciinton emitting. My best friend, Richard Ober, for instance, met Clinton (Richard, who was and is active in New Hampshire environmental affairs, got invited to one of the White House breakfasts that Clinton held to take the pulse of more-or-less ordinary citizens), and later he told me, “When he turns to you and asks you what you think, you feel utterly, completely listened to. Part of you knows it probably doesn’t really matter. But the experience of it, the thing you feel while he’s looking at you, nodding and listening and asking questions, tells you it matters more than anything else in the world. And when you watch him listen to someone else it’s clear they’re feeling the same thing.”

When Nick Carraway apologizes to Gatsby for not recognizing him, he gets exactly this.

He smiled understandingly — much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced — or seemed to face — the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey.

But then we leave Clinton behind — or rather, Clinton leaves Gatsby behind:

Precisely at that point it vanished — and I was looking at an elegant young roughneck, a year or two over thirty, whose elaborate formality of speech just missed being absurd. Some time before he introduced himself I’d got a strong ipression that he was picking his words with care.

Gatsby can’t sustain it. He’s like a Clinton that didn’t fill out.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *