“I have read The Great Gatsby five times… It is the only book I have read so often despite failing—in the face of real effort and sincere intentions—to derive almost any pleasure at all from the experience.
I know how I’m supposed to feel about Gatsby: In the words of the critic Jonathan Yardley, “that it is the American masterwork.” Malcolm Cowley admired its “moral permanence.” T. S. Eliot called it “the first step that American fiction has taken since Henry James.” Lionel Trilling thought Fitzgerald had achieved in it “the ideal voice of the novelist.” That’s the received Gatsby: a linguistically elegant, intellectually bold, morally acute parable of our nation.
I am in thoroughgoing disagreement with all of this. I find Gatsby aesthetically overrated, psychologically vacant, and morally complacent; I think we kid ourselves about the lessons it contains. None of this would matter much to me if Gatsby were not also sacrosanct. Books being borderline irrelevant in America, one is generally free to dislike them—but not this book…
[A]llow me, in its fullness, one last apostasy. Every time I read the book’s beloved final line, I roll my eyes. “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past”: What a shame that Fitzgerald wasted such a lovely image on such an insufferable voice. Even as that faux “we” promises intimacy, the words drift down to us from on high—condescending, self-serious, detached from genuine human struggle. I’m sorry, but in the moral universe of The Great Gatsby, we are not all in the same boat. We are all up above it, watching—with prurient fascination, with pious opprobrium, watching and watching and doing nothing at all.”