The Chosen and the Beautiful

Seeing him then, you knew he would remake the world for the object of his desire, but what a world it would be, and it wasn’t as if you could stop him. I knew Gatsby right then for what he was: a predator whose desires were so strong they would swing yours around and put them out of true.

I knew that there was something empty in him before, but now I could see that it wasn’t empty all the time. Now there was a monstrous want there, remorseless and relentless, and it made my stomach turn that it thought itself love.

The Great Gatsby has the distinction of being the only novel I was assigned to read in high school that I actually enjoyed. I liked a few other books where I got to choose from a list, but, while I liked a number of the plays (at least as much as I ever enjoy reading plays, which are meant to be performed), I came out of English classes with a visceral hatred of almost every novel from our reading lists. That Lord of the Flies is a book without any redeeming quality is an opinion formed in that crucible that I carry with me to this day and I have such distaste for it that I will never give it another chance.

I would be hard-pressed to tell you what, specifically, resonated with me differently about The Great Gatsby when I was in high school. I like Fitzgerald’s prose, but that is a later assessment. I also fondly remember the playlist project that the teacher assigned for the project, but I suspect that fondness stems from my appreciation of the book rather than the other way around.

What I like about Gatsby now is how Fitzgerald captures the ambiance of a period. This emerges in the character of Gatsby, obviously, who cloaks his personal reinvention in the glamour of the jazz age in order to hide the unsavory underbelly of insecurity, selfishness, and criminality. But it comes out in other ways as well. For instance, none of the main characters in this narrow, interpersonal story is much more sympathetic than Gatsby—even the narrator Nick Carraway is a creep who is chased away from a woman he is pursuing by her brothers. Fitzgerald also nods at the deep inequities of the period with metaphors like the valley of ashes that could easily have manifested as magical realism in literature of another generation.

Gatsby‘s limited perspective as narrated by Carraway also makes it ripe for a retelling, in much the same way that Kamel Daoud’s The Mersault Investigation inverted the Albert Camus’ The Stranger.

Such is the premise of Nghi Vo’s The Chosen and the Beautiful. Gatsby, as told by Jordan Baker, with a healthy dose of magic, and a title that is a play on another Fitzgerald Novel (The Beautiful and the Damned).

I had fixed feelings about this book.

First, the good.

Jordan Baker is an inspired choice of narrator for this book. Fitzgerald leaves the women of Gatsby unrealized, and this is true of Jordan even more than Daisy. Jordan appears primarily as an object of Nick’s lust, and disappears for long stretches of the novel. However, this provides an opening that allows Vo to expand the story beyond the heat of one New York summer, giving life to Jordan and Daisy’s experience in Louisville where, among other issues, Jordan helps Daisy acquire a medicine that will induce an abortion.

Vo transformed Jordan in compelling ways. This Jordan is not a biological member of the Louisville Baker clan, but an adopted child taken from Tonkin under dubious circumstances. This background offer an explanation for Jordan sitting on the periphery of the story in Gatsby, while also giving a vehicle for Vo to bring up contemporary issues like immigration restrictions that go unmentioned in the original.

I also appreciated how much of the original story that Vo weaves into The Chosen and the Beautiful, which made the language and story appear as a genuine homage to a classic novel. I felt similarly about the frequent and varied sexual encounters. One of the questions in the supplementary materials at the back of the book prompted discussion about whether the book ought to be read differently because many of the main characters are queer. I found these elements to be a natural extension of the sensuality on display in the original. Fitzgerald’s characters only talk about heterosexual encounters and desires, but it seems like a small jump to add homosexual liaisons in a world drenched in sweat, sex, and alcohol. Non-hetero-normative sex is hardly a modern invention.

Other aspects of The Chosen and the Beautiful gave me more trouble.

One of the biggest was how Vo incorporated magic into the story. Most of the magic in this novel is lightly done—ghosts that haunt family homes, charms against pregnancy, and simple tricks that ensure that unwanted guests can’t find their way into a speakeasy. Other magic, such as Gatsby having sold his soul and trafficking with the denizens of Hell or a demon’s blood tonic that is prohibited alongside alcohol, were closer to the heart of the action, but largely peripheral to the plot. Only one type of magic, an ability to bring cut-paper objects to life that Jordan has because of her foreign heritage, plays a significant role in the plot.

I went back and forth on these magical elements the entire time I read The Chosen and the Beautiful. On the one hand, they were a natural extension of the metaphors Fitzgerald used in Gatsby and the magic in this book might be read as a form of metaphor. On the other hand, though, I found that going from the light touch off metaphor, past magical realism, and into the realm of actual magic took me out of the era. That is, the sense that a house is haunted by the ghosts of the past works for me in a way that actual ghosts do not. Gatsby appearing as a man possessed, entirely consumed by his selfish desire for a married woman, works in a way that his being a literal envoy of Hell did not.

Hell was as expansionist as France or England—and Jay Gatsby, with his singular focus and ability to harness the power of human desire, was the perfect envoy to gain them a foothold in the world above.

Ultimately, I found that the magic resulted in one too many things going on, which, in turn, distracted from the really compelling ways in which Vo put The Chosen and the Beautiful into conversation with Gatsby on issues of immigration, class, and gender. There is still a lot to like, but I thought that this limitation kept the linguistic flourishes at the level of pastiche and kept Vo from quite achieving the book’s promise: reviving aura of Gatsby that so incisively commented on its time, but in an entirely new hue.

ΔΔΔ

I spent most of the first weekend after the end of my semester ended reading, with the result that I plowed through Jin Yong’s A Hero Born (a kung-fu movie in novel form), Harvey Levenstein’s Paradox of Plenty (a history of eating in the United States from 1930 to 1991), Angélica Gorodischer’s Kalpa Imperial (fantasy stories that resemble Calvino’s Invisible Cities in many ways), and Mick Herron’s Slow Horses (a really satisfying spy story that I was willing to read despite wanting the recent TV adaptation because this is typically the only genre that I don’t mind such adaptations). I hope to write about a few of these. I am now working through two books, Jonathan Malesic’s The End of Burnout and Olga Tokarczuk’s The Books of Jacob.

Top novel summaries, 10-1

Here are summaries for 20-11 of my top novels. See the introduction and list in its entirety here, summaries for 30-21 here and 20-11 here.

10. We, Yevgeny Zamyatin
A dystopian novel upon which Orwell drew for 1984. The entire society has been turned into a panopticon–the city is surrounded by a glass wall, everyone lives in glass house, there is no personality or identity and society is designed solely for productivity, including sex and reproduction. The story takes off when the protagonist becomes interested in one person who does show individuality and decides to oppose the will of the state himself.

9. To Have and Have Not, Ernest Hemingway
A close second to The Sun Also Rises for me among Hemingway’s novels, To Have and Have Not is on one level a story of rum running between Havana and Key West during the 1930s, but Hemingway manages to broaden the story and weave together the stories of several different male-female relationships that come to dominate the narrative. See a full review here.

8. The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
Gatsby is the only novel assigned to me in high school English class that I actually enjoyed and I have reread it twice in recent years (once for the purpose of teaching it to a class). I still feel a connection to Gatsby himself and Nick Carraway is still a creepy little man. Overall the story holds up well.

7. Keep the Aspidistra Flying, George Orwell
Objectively, this may be Orwell’s best novel since 1984 may is at times over-blunt and simplistic. Set in 1930s London, his novel tells the story of Gordon Comstock, a young writer whose grandfather was wealthy, but the family has since frittered away the fortune and Gordon has declared war on money and the money society. Despite his best intentions, life has a way of drawing Gordon back to the money society that he detests.

6. The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway
Jake Barnes is an American ex-pat living in Paris, impotent from a war wound suffered during World War One and he is in love with the twice divorced and again engaged Lady Brett Ashley. The story takes place between Paris and Spain, where the companions go fishing and watch bullfights and nearly come to blows over Lady Brett. The novel is loaded with themes, but the one that drew me most strongly was the relationship between Jake and Lady Brett and the affection and desire that is impossible to consummate.

5. One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez
The story of the town of Macondo and the Buendia family written in parallel to the modernization of Columbia. It follows seven generations of the family, from the founding of Macondo through its expansion into the world and eventual decline caused by the arrival of a foreign fruit corporation that sets up shop in the neighborhood. I should also add that Marquez is one of the most notable authors in the Latin American magical realism genre that I have a great deal of fondness for.

4. The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov
The Devil has come to Russia, wreaking havoc with the bureaucrats who don’t have the wherewithal to realize what is happening–only a small number of authors actually know this. The second setting for the story is the Jerusalem of Pontius Pilate and the decision to execute Jesus, which is the topic of the Master’s novel that has been rejected by the literary bureaucracy. It is a brilliant satire of the Soviet system and the conditions of the literati that reflect Bulgakov’s experiences in the Soviet Union and the book was banned for decades.

3. Magister Ludi, Hermann Hesse
Like most Hesse novels, Magister Ludi is a story about individuals seeking enlightenment, this time through the Glass Bead Game, an exercise and celebration of pure intellectual activity in one of a select number of disciplines. Joseph Knecht, whose biography contains the greater part of the story, is a successful practitioner of the game at its home in the semi-autonomous province of Castalia. Members of the order of the glass bead game are supposed to find their strength and growth from inside the order, but Knecht finds himself questioning the validity of this approach, daring to broach the question whether intellectuals have the right to withdraw from the affairs of the world at large. These questions take on an additional importance since the contemporary backdrop for the novel was the rise of Nazi Germany.

2. Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell
There are a variety of reasons why this sits so close to the top of the list even though I might recommend some of the books higher up over this one. The main reason is that it was a revelation, not of prophetic genius but of elegant writing and insights about humanity, when I first read it five or six years ago. I also maintain that the best known phrase “big brother is watching,” is a misleading interpretation of the work. Like other dystopian novels, Orwell draws out what happens when individuality and free will are eliminated from society, but the real terror of the book was not being constantly watched, but in the ability of a bureaucratic state to fundamentally rewrite existence as though the past never existed. Sure, the watching is a means of control, but to control the narrative is much more powerful.

1. The Last Temptation of Christ, Nikos Kazantzakis
Kazantzakis advances the idea that though Christ may be free from sin, he is nonetheless subject to the rest of the temptations and concerns that other humans face, particularly doubt and depression. It presents a more human Jesus who is forced to overcome the same difficulties as everyone else in order to fulfill his role as the redeemer of mankind. One particular scene that has stayed with me since I read this book close to ten years ago (it is on my list to reread this year) is one where a disciple is recording the gospel at the direction of an Archangel when Jesus becomes enraged because the account is disingenuous, but is forced to accept that this is beyond his control.