Monday, January 30, 2012

The Age We Read

If you asked me what kind of book would have a profound effect on me at this stage of my life, one of my last choices would have been a book about the Jazz Age in the 1920s. After all, I took a whole semester of F. Scott Fitzgerald in college (only because it was the only lit class offered during the semester that I could fit in my crammed class schedule) and I hated it.

So. . . I buy books on tape, whatever’s available at the time, at a local charity thrift store. (Fortunately for me, someone with literary tastes like mine donates regularly.) So I ran through the Grisham and the Sharon Ewell Foster and the Cornwell and the Hillerman. So all that was left was The Great Gatsby. So I began to listen to it because it was narrated by KJV Bible narrator Alexander Scourby.

When I read Fitzgerald in my twenties, I was newly and happily married. I couldn’t muster up sympathy for alcoholics who danced in Manhattan’s fountains, years before my mother was even born. I couldn’t relate to the angst of those people with their marital problems that bled over into their writing. After all, my life was wonderful – and not only that, I had a whole lifetime ahead of me.

But now I am myself a novelist, and writing about issues that destroy people’s souls, that wash hope beyond the most distant shores, issues that demand re-evaluation because they determine where people will spend a mobius loop of eternity. Issues which demand our attention because ignoring them can put us in a position in which it can be too late, irretrievably too late.

For the first time, the description at the end of The Great Gatsby made sense to my soul:

And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning——

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

I am a different person than when I first read that, years ago.

And now I think that I shall never recover from those words; the simplicity, the finality, the truthfulness of those words.


Susie Finkbeiner said...

I am humbled when I read a book I once hated and realize that there was indeed truth that I'd missed. Beautiful post. It was nice to see you here,Latayne!

Megan Sayer said...

Latayne this is so profound, and so true. I am glad for your words of how the ending "made sense to your soul", because it very much made sense to my 19yo angst-ridden soul too. I read it probably five times in my 20s, and I'm reading it again at the moment.
Funny thing is, now that I'm older and wiser and know so much more about novel writing, I'm picking up things that I've never noticed in the story before (and not just storytelling techniques, but seeing the people for who they really are). It's like I read the book emotionally before, but not intellectually.
Like I read it because it Made Sense To My Soul.
And in those five words there is so much to unpackage for me as a writer, and thinking about my readers, and the emotional journey I'm taking them on, and how the emotions can be universal even when the story is very, very specific...and much more.

(still praying for you and your family by the


Nicole said...

I just read The Great Gatsby for the first time last year, but I'd read other F. Scott Fitzgerald novels in those early years. Love him. Really do. He knew life.

Hope he found Jesus . . .

Patti Hill said...

No one else in the whole wide world could convince me to read Gatsby again. For you, Latayne, I'll try again and see if my soul can make more sense of it this time.

Megan Sayer said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Megan Sayer said...

Oh I’m feeling a big thought brewing…

When I was 19 and reading Gatsby I was desperate and disillusioned. I had Jesus – I’d been saved for about two years – and Jesus was pretty much all I had. I was in church every Sunday, and people would offer me what I considered trite novels with little significance to me, and the books came with this felt need to attempt to wrap everything up neatly at the end of the story, which really, really annoyed me. My own story was not neat, and showed absolutely no sign of wrapping up in any kind of future, and I resented the fact that Christians couldn’t handle that.

The Great Gatsby, in all its hopelessness, felt…not quite redemptive, but like it understood me. It felt like the book that would come and sit with me and say “yes, I understand”, and NOT “yes, and now let me come and fix everything”. So in that way Gatsby was a Christ-reflecting book to me.

I’m wary, as a writer, of falling into the “let’s fix things now” trap…but I still do it. It’s the natural response, I think. But there’s also a space for books that just say “yes, things suck. They just do”.


Kathleen Popa said...

I was probably around 19 when I tried- and failed- to read Gatsby. When I read it more recently, it read very differently, and yes, I too was blown away by the last paragraph.

Something comes to mind that seems related to what Megan has observed about our felt need to tie everything up neatly in our fiction:

Some years ago, sitting in evangelism class at church, obediently writing my ''before and after" testimony, glancing at the city map on the wall, with colored pins to code various populations, it struck me how very corporate it all seemed. We were learning to "sell the sizzle not the steak."

I think we earnest Christians, in our eagerness to win souls to Jesus, tend to sell the sizzle we think those worldly people want (a Mayberry kind of life), because it looks pretty good to us, and the sizzle the Bible sells, the "though he slay me yet will I trust him" seems hard to explain even to ourselves.

I just read a book I'll say more about in a post, ''Dust'' by Arthur Slade. He does a wonderful job at showing where we lose our way in this. (Couldn't say if that is what he meant to do.) And its a delightful, riveting story.