The Serious Superficiality of The Great Gatsby

A lot of the confusion stems from the fact that “Gatsby” isn’t like other great American books. It’s not a social novel, like “Sister Carrie,” or a novel of manners, like “The House of Mirth,” or a novel about our national destiny, like “American Pastoral.” “Gatsby” is weirder than all those books; it’s more like Sherwood Anderson’s “Winesburg, Ohio.” It’s about a spiritual atmosphere, and about the inner life that gives rise to that atmosphere. It’s popular because we still live in that atmosphere today. Fitzgerald’s novel is cool, sexy, stylized, and abstract; there’s a dreamlike falseness, a hollowness, an unreality to it, and that apparent superficiality is part of what makes it fascinating. It’s modernist and European without being arty. The best moments in the novel have the devious, carnal sophistication of high fashion; the characters seem unreal, but are also unforgettable. And, for all its strangeness, it also

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