My book club is great. We like to dabble in a few different genres and periods and we all make suggestions about the next title. Our last read of 2022 was Graham Norton’s Forever Home and our first choice for 2023 was The Great Gatsby – couldn’t be more different! We also mainly read via audiobook, about which there seems to be a perennial debate (and for the avoidance of doubt I am totally pro audiobooks), which throws up some interesting debates about individual titles in itself.
The Great Gatsby is one of the very few novels that I have read multiple times. I am not a big re-reader (although I have become a bit more of one since getting into audiobooks). I do love it and it never ceases to amaze or surprise me. For a relatively compact book it is thematically dense and exposes a side to the American way of life, the American dream that few wrote about in the early 1900s. The book is almost 100 years old and yet still the concept of the United States of America exercises a powerful draw, although arguably in the last few years, the scales have fallen from more of our collective eyes. But Fitzgerald was writing about this dark underbelly long before most.
The contrast between the lavish first half of the book, with its portrayal of seemingly endless wealth, lives full of Dionysian pleasure, and purpose directed only at extravagance, is thrown into sharper relief by the darkness of the second half of the book. Once the book moves out of the bubble of the Long Island social scene, when the narrator Nick Carraway accompanies a drunk and brooding Tom Buchanan to New York City, along with Tom’s lover Myrtle Wilson, wife of a local garage owner, events take a decidedly more sinister turn. In place of music and dancing there is violence and the dark side of alcohol. In place of the luxury West Egg mansions there is the sordid city apartment where Tom takes Myrtle. And in place of easy and superficial socialising there is violence, secrecy and betrayal. Fitzgerald is systematically picking apart the edifices of wealth, class and the American dream that he has set up for us in the opening chapters of the book, with only a hint of what is to come in the dark moods of Tom Buchanan. Jay Gatsby is, for me, less of a defined and rounded character, and more of a device for Fitzgerald to undertake this dismantling process, more of a representation of fakery and of the damage caused by the aspiration towards something so ultimately meaningless. The book is truly a masterpiece.
Which brings me on to the subject of the medium through which one accesses such works. There have been a few film adaptations of The Great Gatsby; the most recent one, starring Leonardo di Caprio was critically panned. A version starring Robert Redford was made in 1974, which I think I have seen, but a long while ago (note to self: must watch again). My book club friends and I all ‘read’ Gatsby this time via the audiobook, which was a freebie on Audible. What appealed to us in particular was that the reader was Jake Gyllenhaal. I’m afraid to say that we were all deeply disappointed. There was something very mechanical about his reading, almost no distinction in voice or tone between the characters, which is surprising given his talents as an actor. Truly, it was as if this was his first reading of the novel. Which perhaps it was. I know many people will point to this as one of the underlying problems of audiobooks, that the reader can affect your view of the book. In this case, if it was my first encounter with Gatsby, I might have come away wondering what all the fuss was about, although I also hope I might have decided I actually needed to go to the source and read the book myself too. A film is clearly more of an interpretation than a straight unabridged reading, but you would not judge a book by the film or the mini-series. The excellent readings have far outweighed the poor ones I have come across in my audiobook experience; besides Gatsby, the other terrible one was a reading of Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, which was so bad I actually stopped listening! That was a freebie too. Which is perhaps the moral of the story here; you get what you pay for. It requires a certain skills set, commitment and a good understanding of the book to pull off a reading well.
A recent debate regarding audiobooks was around the use of AI, surely an alarming development for jobbing actors. I think this will be a retrograde step by production companies and readers will turn away. During the various lockdowns I dabbled quite a bit in Youtube recorded meditations. There were some I came across which just felt to me that I was not listening to a human, and they were terrible. We know the difference and we won’t be fobbed off.
So, The Great Gatsby, do read it if you haven’t done so already, it really is one of the landmarks of literature in English, but the audiobook? Best avoided.