Sunday, January 6, 2013

"The only building in sight was a small block of yellow brick sitting on the edge of the waste land, a sort of compact Main Street ministering to it, and contiguous to absolutely nothing."

Ann Althouse has started a project where she's blogging one sentence a day from The Great Gatsby, which she contends is uniquely made up of all perfect sentences, and breaking it down.  Althouse is primarily a political blogger, but her allusive, connective way of thinking is perfect for this kind of project, and I've really been enjoying the results.

Is The Great Gatsby made up of perfect sentences?  I don't know; I haven't read it in years, though I'm planning on reading through it in the spring sometime before the Baz Luhrmann film comes out.  I think the sentence above, which Althouse blogged about yesterday, is an interesting test subject because it contains what I perceive as a flaw:

Let's examine the post-waste land segment. Our yellow block is on the edge of a waste land. If it's an edge, could there not be interesting things somewhere else? No. We're told that it's contiguous to absolutely nothing. I'm having a bit of a hard time understanding how the building can be on an edge when everything around it is nothing — absolutely nothing — especially since there's Main Street in the picture too. A sort of compact Main Street ministering to it.

That's a mystery, so I take it we need to get the message: There is a mystery here.

Althouse is being generous because she's starting from the assumption that every sentence in the book is perfect, so if something doesn't make sense, it must be all part of a design.  But that's an awfully high standard to set for anyone, even F. Scott Fitzgerald, and I think it's more likely that the phrase "sitting on the edge of the waste land" is merely slightly sloppy.  If the building is on the edge of the waste land, it must also be on the edge of whatever is beyond the waste land, but it isn't: it's right in the middle of it.  Not the edge, but the center.  Now, "the edge of the waste land" is more evocative than "the middle of the waste land," and maybe Fitzgerald decided that it was the better choice despite its inconsistency.

Althouse reads the reference to the waste land as a reference to Eliot's poem "The Waste Land," which was published the same year that Fitzgerald began writing the novel.  I'll buy that.  I hear another allusion in the description of the building as a "small block of yellow brick"--The Wizard of Oz.  Wait, you say, The Wizard of Oz came out in 1939, and you're right, but L. Frank Baum's novel came out in 1900, when Fitzgerald was four.  It's certainly possible that he read the book as a kid.  In that case, Althouse is only slightly off when she reads the block as a "child's toy."  Perhaps the building represents a ruined or abortive fantasy, a childlike wonder that fails to spread to the bleakness of its real world surroundings.  It's made of the same stuff as the yellow brick road, but it leads nowhere; it is "contiguous to nothing."  Therefore its yellow "jazziness" and "hopefulness," which Althouse identifies, represents a promise as of yet unfulfilled.

Note: This post is part of a resolution I made to myself to blog more non-review content, as long as that content is about books.  I'd also like to welcome our new reviewer Kunal, and welcome back Randy and Billy, our prodigal sons!


Brent Waggoner said...

Good post. Looks like a great year for 50b.

DJ JOO said...

I started to read The Great Gatsby just to improve my English skills as a foreign language. When I encountered this sentence I could not understand fully the metaphorical expression of the “Main Street ministering to it.” So I looked up Google and came to read your post. It is very interesting, and helpful for me. Then I proceeded to read Althouse blog, stimulated by your points. It was very interesting and helpful as well. I wished to thank you for this. Keep up a good work! - DJ Joo a Korean