Wednesday, February 27, 2008

"Boats Against the Current"

It’s no secret that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is one of my favorite books—and is the book that best taught me how to structure a novel. For anyone writing a novel, I highly recommend reading the book and writing up a plot summary of each of the nine chapters. It’s quite easy to see how the emotional storyline is beautifully intertwined with the action storyline, and to see that each chapter contains its own crisis point, all of which lead to the masterpiece—flaws and all—of a climactic chapter (Chapter 7).

I’ve had the pleasure of rereading the book in preparation for discussion tonight in my novel workshop at Johns Hopkins and found myself sighing in admiration over countless passages of the book.

Here are two—and though they aren’t necessarily among the famously quoted sections of the book, these passages never fail to make me gasp at their utter perfection.

This is from the end of Chapter 3:

“I began to like New York, the racy, adventurous feel of it at night and the satisfaction that the constant flicker of men and women and machines gives to the restless eye. I liked to walk up Fifth Avenue and pick out romantic women from the crowd and imagine that in a few minutes I was going to enter into their lives, and no one would ever know or disapprove. Sometimes, in my mind, I followed them to their apartments on the corners of hidden streets, and they turned and smiled back at me before they faded through a door into warm darkness. At the enchanted metropolitan twilight I felt a haunting loneliness sometimes, and felt it in others—poor young clerks who loitered in front of windows waiting until it was time for a solitary restaurant dinner—young clerks in the dusk, wasting the most poignant moments of night and dusk.”

The other passage, almost at the end of the book, Chapter 9, seems to be a response to Nick’s previous observations about New York:

“One of my most vivid memories is of coming back west from prep school and later from college at Christmas time. Those who went farther than Chicago would gather in the old dim Union Station at six o-clock of a December evening with a few Chicago friends already caught up into their own holiday gayeties to bid them a hasty goodbye…..

“When we pulled out into the winter night and the real snow, our snow, began to stretch out beside us and twinkle against the windows, and the dim lights of small Wisconsin stations moved by, a sharp wild brace came suddenly into the air. We drew in deep breaths of it as we walked back from dinner through the cold vestibules, unutterably aware of our identity with this country for one strange hour before we melted indistinguishably into it again.

"That’s my middle-west—not the wheat or the prairies or the lost Swede towns but the thrilling, returning trains of my youth and the street lamps and slight bells in the frosty dark and the shadows of holly wreaths thrown by lighted windows on the snow. I am part of that….”

Steve—who loves the book perhaps more than I do, if possible—and I asked a dear friend to read that section at the beginning of our wedding in Chicago. The only thing that kept me from crying was knowing that the six layers of mascara on my eyelashes were not waterproof!


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.