Monday, November 27, 2017

Michael Knight on a Literary Touchstone

In the 34th in a series of posts on 2017 books entered for The Story Prize, Michael Knight, author of Eveningland (Atlantic Monthly Press), discusses his sentence-level admiration for The Great Gatsby.

Name Something by Another Author that You Wish You’d Written / Talk about a Literary Touchstone / What Influenced You to Become a Writer?
Given the nature of this prize and this blog, I should probably select a short story to answer this question, and if I’m not going to select a short story, I should probably take advantage of this opportunity to shine a light on some under-read masterpiece rather than on what is surely one of the most read novels of all time, and if I really do intend to select an already well-known novel, it would make perfect sense for me to pick the one referenced by the title of my new collection (Walker’s Percy’s The Moviegoer is now and ever shall be one of my favorite works of fiction), but the book that keeps insisting on itself in my mind is The Great Gatsby. I know, I know. I already feel like a heel and I’m barely a hundred words into this post.

But, still, there are those sentences:
An oldie but a goodie
The only completely stationary object in the room was an enormous couch on which two young women were buoyed up as though upon an anchored balloon. They were both in white, and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just been blown back in after a short flight around the house. I must have stood for a few moments listening to the whip and snap of the curtains and the groan of a picture on the wall. Then there was a boom as Tom Buchanan shut the rear windows and the caught wind died out about the room, and the curtains and the rugs and the two young women ballooned slowly to the floor.
And there is the point of view, Fitzgerald’s observer narrator, Nick Carraway, his first person voice inviting us in, courting our sympathy—he’s a charming storyteller, after all, and he’s just as amazed as we are by the near surreality of the wealth and decadence on display—allowing for bias in Gatsby’s favor while also keeping us at a slight but vital remove. This is a narrative stance I have employed (imitated? stolen?) on several occasions in my own fiction, including in the story “Water and Oil” in Eveningland. Even when I’m writing in third person, I often imagine my narrators this way, as actual humans with flaws and opinions and recognizable uncertainties bearing witness just on the fringes of the action and moved by what they see, as I hope the reader will be moved. There is a scene in my story “Jubilee” that makes direct reference to (rips off?) The Great Gatsby, a party scene featuring a guest list that bears an undeniable resemblance to Nick Carraway’s list, famously scribbled in the margins of railroad timetable.

And there’s the way Fitzgerald uses imagery to mirror Nick’s interior life, a craft lesson for any writer. 
Two o’clock and the whole corner of the peninsula was blazing with light, which fell unreal on the shrubbery and ran in thin elongating glints upon the roadside wires . . . But there wasn’t a sound. Only wind in the trees, which blew the wires and made lights go off and on again as if the house had winked into the darkness.
Those lines span two beautiful paragraphs and appear in the novel immediately after Nick has learned the truth about Gatsby’s history with Daisy. For me, as a reader and a writer, no sentences in literature better reflect the way the world might look to just that human and just that moment in his life. 

Like most everybody else, I first came across The Great Gatsby in a high school, Nancy Strachan’s American lit class my junior year. I was the perfect age and exactly the right sort of kid to romanticize vague notions about the glamorous 1920s and a boozy literary life, false notions, to be sure, but no doubt the beginning of my dream to become a writer. And I can still remember the way my pulse thumped as Fitzgerald lead me inexorably toward what I surely must have known was coming, that image of Gatsby floating dead on a raft in his own pool, the water littered with fallen leaves, and from there to those last lines, which I most likely didn’t understand completely but which I somehow felt completely and have kept on feeling across all these years and dozens of re-readings and which, even now, I can feel creeping up on me as I type these words. Honestly, writing this post has made me want to go read The Great Gatsby all over again.