Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Gatsby and Kurtz 7

I asked earlier what's the difference between structure and formula? We take formula to be a bad thing but one of the big surprises that comes with looking at classic pieces of literature is just how formulaic they tend to be and Heart of Darkness and The Great Gatsby are both good examples of them. In both the hero follows the orphan, wanderer, warrior, martyr path common to just about every Hollywood action movie you've ever sneered at.

What the writers of these two novels have done is to write in a very formulaic way but to disguise that formula. The trick for doing so is unbelievably simple: Gatsby and Kurtz, which is to say that the novels pretend to be about someone other than the real hero. The real heroes are Nick and Marlow.

It works because this simple device makes what what Robert McKee calls miniplot look like classic archplots. In a classic archplot, the important action is external: you could film it all. The hero will really goes places, the action will really come to a climax, there will be blood and we can measure success or failure in terms of external results such as corpses on the ground or battles won or women married. In miniplot the hero tends to be more passive, the climax is a psychological event and the measure of success is some sort of personal growth that the hero achieves or fails to achieve leaving the end result ambiguous and open to interpretation.

The clue that opens the books up, I think, is the way the two heroes relate to other characters. There is a weird disconnect throughout. Never does either narrator make any real connection with anyone. Their presence in their own story is minimal and yet it is very much their story. Retell either in third person or, as has been proven the hard way more than once, try to make a movie out of these books and the everything thing falls apart. Edith Wharton thought that Fitzgerald didn't make enough out of Gatsby and she was, in a sense, right; Gatsby barely exists as a person because the really important thing is the guy telling the story.

Anyway, true to the formula, our two characters have been orphaned. Marlow has no ship and has been forced to call on an aunt to get him a command on a river. Nick left his family to come east where even the man he had planned to share a house with bails on him. Both stories linger on the wandering stage. As they do, we're impatient to meet the guys we've been told the books are about but the story is moving the real hero through an absolutely classic formula.

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