Book: Great American Novel

F. Scott Fitzgerald. The Great Gatsby.

It’s hard to complain about Estonian national self-obsession when the very concept of the Great American Novel exists. Is there something so deeply unique about American life that we consider it great literature to describe that life in 80,000 words of meandering nationalism dressed as the profound?

This is not to say there is anything particularly nationalistic about The Great Gatsby. It is the concept that is nationalistic. We create the Great American Novel when we read, not when we write. When the Romans built libraries, they stacked half the shelves with Greek works and created corresponding empty shelves by genre, thereby indicating to themselves which gaps remained to be filled. The Great American Novel is like one of those gaps into which we, in our hubris, stuff ream after ream of drudgery in order to assign it to high school students.

The best way for me to summarize my feelings about Gatsby would be to talk about New York. A common run of introductory conversation in Tartu runs as follows: “where are you from?” “New York.” “Why are you here, then?”

When you are from New York, it is merely New York. It is a place. It is one of the world’s major cities. It is in that sense no more special than Paris, Mexico City, Delhi, Shanghai, or Lagos. Each has its own flavor and its own culture, but they’re all enormous cities. But because of its halo of mystique, the greatest insult I can offer to New York is probably that it is … a place. That is to say, it deserves absolutely none of the cache lent to it by its interminable appearances in media. It is not a horrible place. It’s not a wonderful place. It’s not a place of unique energy–or if it is, it’s only so because the energy of every city is different. It’s only unique if you haven’t noticed all the other snowflakes.

It is for this reason that the New Yorkness of Gatsby is, personally speaking, insufferable. Its Americanness is the same. The Great Gatsby is meaningful only as a metaphor for American ambition and American failure. American success and American disillusion. It is not a book about ambition, failure, success, and disillusion. It is a book about the American variants of those things.

But almost a hundred years after its publication, the joke of American exceptionalism is a dead horse. For this reason the novel holds no power. In order to believe in Gatsby, the reader has to believe that there is something about American ambitions, failures, successes, and disillusions that makes them not only different from the same things but Peruvian, but also more worth mentioning. The horse is dead. One hopes it will soon be buried, too.

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