Readers familiar with my various comments on books will know that I do not like Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby; those familiar with my philosophy will realise this does not mean that I dislike it. I could see the technical skill in recreating the period, and enjoy the specific use of words; however, overall I found it not to be great. This used to puzzle me – not enough to spend valuable reading time on re-reading the book to find out why – but I have discovered why it does not work for me: the characterisation is too successful.
Yesterday, I started reading The Love of the Last Tycoon, Fitzgerald’s unfinished novel. Immediately I experienced the same disjunction between technical and emotional reading as when reading Gatsby. However, possibly because the novel had not been polished as much as Gatsby, I was aware of why I felt like I was bouncing off the prose; the characters lack depth.
This is not inaccurate for the period; the Jazz Age was a time of fleeting obsessions, of appearance, of being seen doing rather than doing; the rich, lacking a need to earn money, could maintain the façade for weeks if not years. It is fitting that Fitzgerald, having coined the label Jazz Age should be so good at creating characters who epitomise it.
However, it is this success at creating characters with the desire to wear the mask of the perfect sheikh or sheba, and the money not to need to take it off, that robs his characters of my sympathy. When they succeed the victory is as thin as paint; when they fail they are not tragic characters, brought down by heroic flaws, because they are defined by their success not their personality.
Both novels verges on poetry; however, poetry is not for me a test of whether something is a great novel, and, as no one calling The Wasteland a great novel, I am not alone in this.
Both novels give an insight into the life of the rich in the Jazz Age; however, describing past time is history, and history text books are not seen as great novels.
A novel is about characters. Fitzgerald has been too successful: he convinces me utterly that the characters are wearing masks they do not really care about, so I do not care about the actions of the mask; then, when they do meet a challenge that tears away the mask, reveals nothing beneath worth caring about.
So, for me, his works are great chronicles and great examples of description, but not great novels. I feel it is this dichotomy between great as a source of data and great as a story that leaves many others puzzled by why some books are both so feted and so bland.
Do you need a character with depth to enjoy a novel? Which famous novels disappointed you?