I checked an audio version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby out of the library for Banned Books Week. I read the novel in high school but, like most of the books I read for school, it has since faded from my memory. I remembered only a few names and something to do with a car — not exactly the whole story. So listening to this production, read by Frank Muller, was almost like experiencing F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic for the first time.
It is the early 1920s. Our narrator is Nick Carraway, a young man in the bond business who has recently moved from Minnesota to the small town of West Egg, just outside New York City, for work. He isn’t particularly well-off, nor is he especially pretentious, so the people he meets and the world they inhabit are new territory for Nick.
We meet Daisy and Tom Buchanan, wealthy relations of Nick’s; Jordan Baker, Daisy’s friend; and, of course, Jay Gatsby, Nick’s unfathomably rich and mysterious next door neighbor. A whole host of minor characters add depth and interest to the story as well: a freeloader, a mistress, a mechanic, a drunk, a prominent player in the organized crime network. The Great Gatsby is Nick’s account of what transpires during the time he knows this elite group. As personal histories are revealed and the links between characters uncovered, Nick is drawn ever deeper into the web woven by his new-found acquaintances. As he looks on, the group self destructs before his very eyes. The book has wild parties, cheating spouses, seedy business dealings, and even untimely death. (Though not enough of any of them to explain why it’s been a candidate for banning, in my opinion.)
Nick is the perfect narrator for a story like this one. Because he comes from a different mindset than his wealthy friends, he can watch their antics while providing a summary and commentary that stands apart from them. The novel begins and ends with a sort of intro and conclusion by Nick, as though he really were telling you the tale. And Fitzgerald has given Nick a gift for spectacularly dead-on observations, which makes you believe him as his narrative unfolds.
The description and word choice is phenomenal. I can’t believe I missed its amazing-ness when I read the book in high school. There are times when I wanted to rewind my recording and listen to whole paragraphs again. Here is one of my favorite passages, taken from early on in the book when Nick visits the Buchanans’ home for the first time. (Please note that, since I listened to the book, the punctuation and so forth is my own interpretation and may not precisely match the actual novel, though I have done my best.)
The lawn started at the beach and ran toward the front door for a quarter of a mile, jumping over sun dials and brick walks and blooming gardens; finally, when it reached the house, drifting up the side in bright vines as though from the momentum of its run.
We walked through a high hallway into a bright, rosy colored space, fragilely bound into the house by French windows at either end. The windows were ajar and gleaming white against the fresh grass outside that seemed to grow a little way into the house. A breeze blew through the room, blew curtains in at one end and out the other like pale flags, twisting them up toward the frosted wedding cake of the ceiling, and then rippled over the wine colored rug, making a shadow on it as wind does on the sea. 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.
Rarely have I encountered an author who can describe a scene so that it springs to life in its entirety without any effort on my part. I was exhilarated listening to that passage (and many others), feeling that each word had been placed just so in a perfect sequence. The descriptive beauty applied to characters as well; I loved this description of Jay Gatsby, also from the novel’s beginning:
If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life, as if he were related to one of those intricate machines that register earthquakes ten thousand miles away.
My only (miniscule) complaint about the audio production, read by Frank Muller, is that there were moments when I wished Muller would slow down just a little so that I could revel in the exquisite language — not much of a complaint! Muller is Nick Carraway. His voice is Nick’s, as well as his phrasing, intonation, pacing, and everything else. Rarely have I experienced such a superb pairing of reader and text.
The other nice feature of this audiobook is that, even unabridged, it’s only just over four and a half hours long. If you’ve been meaning to read or even reread The Great Gatsby, I would highly recommend this audio version!