A Point Of View: Gatsby and the way we live now
F Scott Fitzgerald's Great Gatsby was able to invent himself because he lived in an age of illusion. Does the novel say something about the way we live now, asks John Gray.
(Spoiler alert: Key plot details revealed below)
Not long before he died, a celebrated conjuror, whose beautifully simple yet seemingly impossible tricks had earned him the baffled admiration of his fellow magicians, was asked if there was anything he still wanted. He replied, "I wish somebody could fool me one more time."
The magician's confession came back into my mind when, a few months ago, I re-read The Great Gatsby. Scott Fitzgerald's novel - now in cinemas again - about a magnetically attractive millionaire, can be read as a story of the Jazz Age and a comment on the corruption of the American dream.
It's also a tangled, and finally tragic, love story. Using the traumas of the "Lost Generation" that emerged disillusioned from World War I, Fitzgerald distils a picture of how American hopes of making a new start in history were derailed by a culture whose energy was spun off from crime and fraud.
Yet I believe the unique quality of the book lies in its exploration of a more universal theme. A form of make-believe is the basis of society, and periods of extreme unreality like the Roaring Twenties have recurred throughout history.
When reality breaks in, it's an interlude between different versions of make-believe. If Gatsby's story resonates so strongly with us as the new film of the book suggests, it's because we find ourselves in just such an interlude at the present time.
The most obvious fact about Gatsby is that everyone knew he was a fake. While his friend Nick Carraway, who tells the story, wanted always to give Gatsby the benefit of the doubt, an aura of dissimulation surrounded the young tycoon from the start.
According to Carraway, Jay Gatsby - the more glamorous name adopted by James Gatz at the age of 17 - "sprang from his Platonic conception of himself". Gatz's parents were poor farming people and he'd never really accepted them as his family.
Like many before him and since, Gatsby was a self-invented personality. Where he differed from other self-invented figures was that the identity he invented for himself was a perfect embodiment of the fantastic world around him.
"A universe of ineffable gaudiness spun itself out in his brain," Carraway notes - a universe that encompassed not just the lavish parties that Gatsby laid on, but a multitude of glittering possibilities far removed from the bootlegging and gangsterism that were the true source of his wealth.
Gatsby yearned to make these squalid realities unreal, and so establish as an accepted fact the image he had created of himself. His wealthy friends knew he was a fraud and were drawn to him for that very reason. Entranced by what Carraway described as Gatsby's "extraordinary gift for hope", they too wanted to make reality unreal.
If everyone knew he was a fake and still believed in him, Gatsby must have been a rather special kind of fake.
When you study the history of forgery in the arts, you'll find that what distinguishes the forged work from the genuine article isn't the skill with which the original has been copied. Some fake paintings are so good that they contain the artist's distinctive defects.
Displaying these imperfections, these are the perfect fakes. There's nothing in a fake of this kind that distinguishes it from a painting by the artist himself. Yet the fake is still a fake, since the story of how it was made is false. What makes fake art is not any features of the art itself but the history of its production.
The wealthy people that flocked around Gatsby colluded with him in his fakery because, like him, they wanted to forget how their wealth had been made.
Fitzgerald's Jazz Age was a time when the borderlines between the fortunes of the elite and the spoils of organised crime were blurred and shifting. Prohibition helped create some of the great figures of the time and later.
It's been claimed that the businessman and American ambassador to Britain Joseph P Kennedy used wealth he amassed from bootlegging to fund the political careers of his sons John and Robert Kennedy. The legitimate part of his fortune came from investing in Hollywood films - one of the mass media that together with radio shaped America in the 1920s.
Easy money flowed from artificially low interest rates engineered by the Federal Reserve Bank in order to lift the US out of recession at the start of the decade. Powered by reckless borrowing and shady practices, the soaring stock market seemed to defy gravity until it crashed to earth in 1929.
Published in 1925, Fitzgerald's novel is astonishingly prescient in its insight into the shaky prosperity that ended with the crash. Some of the wealth that was created during the period was real enough.
The 20s were the time when cars spread to the wider population, new roads allowed cities to expand into suburbs and electrification transformed everyday life. But much of the prosperity of the period was insubstantial, and when the crash came everybody was affected.
This wasn't only because the boom rested on debt that couldn't be repaid. Much of the wealth of the time couldn't survive any clear vision of how it was produced. In these circumstances, Gatsby was the perfect fake.
There was no way the boom could go on indefinitely. Perhaps, at some level, the wealthy elites that Fitzgerald describes knew the boom had to end. If so, it was a fact they couldn't face. Hence the magnetic appeal of a figure like Gatsby, whose power of self-invention seemed able to prevail over any underlying reality.
Fitzgerald didn't write to teach any moral lesson, and there's none to be gleaned from The Great Gatsby.
Instead the story points to an unalterable fact. Human beings live by suggestion, not calculation. Societies and economies don't change like machines that function according to known laws. They're more like dreams, which come and go for reasons the dreamer can't perceive. Over the course of time, as in the era that Fitzgerald portrays, the world that has been created by the dream turns out to be an illusion.
So, too, are the figures that inhabit that world. Gatsby himself has become a phantom by wilfully pursuing an impossible vision - trying to renew his relationship with the woman he loved, and the short-lived intensity that existed in an unrepeatable past.
Thinking of Gatsby near the end of the book, Carraway expresses his view of the man and his world: "A new world, material without being real, where poor ghosts, breathing dreams like air, drifted fortuitously about…"
Carraway admired Gatsby, even loved him, for his unyielding loyalty to a vision of the unlimited possibilities of the future. At the same time, Carraway realised that Gatsby was a flawed and fated character who was bound unbreakably to the past.
It may be Gatsby's invincible attachment to illusion that explains our current fascination with him and his world. Just as in the Roaring Twenties, we've lived through a boom that was mostly based on make-believe - easy money, inflated assets and financial skulduggery.
The boom has ended, and no-one knows what will follow the current hiatus. Yet it's clear we've not given up make-believe. We want nothing more than to revive the fake prosperity that preceded the crash. Just like Gatsby, we want to return to a world that was conjured into being from dreams.
As Fitzgerald's narrator puts in the famous last lines of the book:
"Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter - tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms further… And one fine morning -
"So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."
We're possessed by Gatsby's vision of an unbounded future, even though we know it to be a fantasy. Sooner or later, one way or another, we'll find again the world of illusion we're looking for. Like the old magician, we can't help wanting to be fooled one more time.