Annually, my wife Susan and I read aloud The Great Gatsby, Francis Scott Fitzgerald's great American novel.
I'm acutely aware of the several well-known authors — Mailer and Roth come immediately to mind — who, like Ahab's hunt of the White Whale, had publicly dedicated themselves to the task of writing The Great American Novel, and had in the end to concede failure on what turned out to be a hopeless task.
Hopeless in that the thing had already been done. F. Scott "knocked off the bastard".
Ordinarily, we read Gatsby for relief from attempting some other classic that had got us bogged down. This year it just feels right to read Gatsby. It feels right for the times — though Gatsby is timeless.
The greatness certainly begins with the language and the structure of the novel.
Though the language is spare, with no room for excess — impressionistic — it is richly evocative and its imagery seductively inviting.
The opening scenes of Daisy Buchanan and her friend Jordan Baker languidly lounging on a sofa in the lazy heat of a Long Island summer day while curtains billow of a longed-for respite breeze bring to mind the painting of John Singer Sargeant, Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose, of an earlier epoch of gilded fortune.
Small wonder that the dialogue and the straightforward plot have easily lent themselves to being recreated as movies. And it's not surprising that each such attempt has failed to capture the spirit of the work.
For all its apparent simplicity, Gatsby is layered and laden with dim seeds of observations that turn into pearls of translucency.
We learn later of the casual cruelty and bullying swagger of Tom Buchanan but, even at first meeting, this central character, whose sense of entitlement conveys the moral lesson (if there is one) of the novel, is parroting as gospel the stale ideas of a contemporary eugenicist historian and Klansman, Lothrup Stoddard (called Goddard in the text), on the threat to "white civilisation" of the "colored" peoples (sound familiar?)
Buchanan, an incredibly rich white man, is nonetheless threatened by the advances of other "races".
Though a novel of its time (Fitzgerald is credited with the catchphrase "the Jazz Age" for the 1920s), its timelessness is reflected in the ready identification of its characters with those of any era — our own, for instance.
During the contentiousness of the 2016 presidential election we were struck with the serious character flaws of both major contenders, but the sense of entitlement of one led Susan to a defining insight. Bill and Hillary Clinton were the Tom and Daisy Buchanan of modern American politics.
"They smashed up things and people and retreated into their money or their carelessness and left it to others to clean up the mess."
And, as if insights can be shared across the wide seas, the same concept appeared later in a column by the tough-minded critic Maureen Dowd.
That quality of timelessness makes me wonder just how Gatsby fits in.
He is the quintessential American, the man on the make who, taking the raw ambition of Jimmy Gatz, whose adolescent daybook of resolutions ends in "be better to parents", reinvents himself as Jay Gatsby, tycoon and dreamer. A dream of longing for attachment, doomed to tragedy.
The narrator, Nick Carroway, imputes the sense of alienation from belonging to the stolen country to regional incompatibilities.
He's right but only up to a point. The yearning for belonging and definition affects all who pursue the American Dream.
Gatsby's tragedy is inevitable, Fitzgerald tells us.
Having evoked the sense of wonder that the first conquerors felt "in the presence of this continent", the novel focuses on Gatsby and his dream of Daisy ("success").
"Gatsby believed in the green light, that orgiastic future, that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then but we will run faster, stretch out our arms ... until one day."
Then comes the electrifying final line: "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."
A painful past, rarely acknowledged.
Jay Kuten is an American-trained forensic psychiatrist who emigrated to New Zealand for the fly fishing. He spent 40 years comforting the afflicted and intends to spend the rest afflicting the comfortable.