To read F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, first published in 1925, again, in the teeth of another American economic collapse, is to understand that the essence and flaw of America is that everything changes and nothing changes. Certainly the ostentation of the super-rich, the fundament of Gatsby, its core of sin, is worse than ever.
The need to display, in all its human insecurity, is symbolized by the ever-changing party lights bedecking Gatsby's mansion. More obscure, and repellent for various reasons, is the source of Gatsby's riches, which Fitzgerald clumsily cloaks in obscurity, from the death of Gatsby's patron Cody on his yacht to the odious smell of anti-Semitism in the character of Wolfshiem.
Our guide through doom, the narrator Nick Carraway, unlike Virgil in Hades, becomes more of a cipher as the Great Neck tragedy develops, underscoring Fitzgerald's lifelong sense of himself that to be an observer, however talented, is to be essentially impotent. This impotence manifests itself in Carraway's reflexive misanthropy, emerging from beneath a cloak of presumed desire to understand those around him.
His passive detestation of the doomed Myrtle and her husband Wilson reeks of class hatred. His discovery that the golf champion Jordan Baker is a liar and a cheat doesn't prevent him from embracing her hardened face. When a trio of black high-lifers cruises by in a limousine, Carraway blanches as "the yolks of their eyes rolled toward us in haughty rivalry."
Clearly Fitzgerald (as Carraway) was motivated in writing his masterpiece predominately by contempt. That contempt manifests itself in full in the person of Daisy Buchanan. Has there ever been a character in literature whose claimed mantle of enchantment was more completely undercut by the sheer insipidity of her characterization on the printed page?
One cannot help but feel that Daisy is formed out of the worst aspects of Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald (Ring Lardner described Scott and Zelda as "the novelist and the novelty"), which Scott tried to avoid in his own life as much as the romantically blind Gatsby avoids them in fiction.
Which leaves us with Jay himself. He is the only character in The Great Gatsby whom Fitzgerald loves, and the playing out of Gatsby's fate, by the drained pool after the expiation of Daisy in the death of Myrtle, is the full expression of Scott's ardor for his protagonist.
The message this sends for our own time is profoundly disturbing: that the rich are always with us, and their small need to be loved is far surpassed by our necessity to love them. Indeed, a Gatsby walks among us now. His name is Rick Perry.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).