Thursday, June 4, 2015

Gatsby and Kurtz 3

What, when discussing writing, is the difference between structure and formula?

The cynic in me is tempted to say that we talk about structure when we mean to praise and formula when we mean to condemn. Perhaps it's more that structure implies artistic freedom whereas formula suggests something more like painting by numbers. Basilica-form churches share a similar structure but a huge variety of buildings have been produced using that structure. A huge variety of beautiful buildings have been produced. Harlequin Romances, on the other hand, are all the same drab story with only the characters names, clothing and locations changing.

But that doesn't work either. When you step back and look at it, a great novel like Pride and Prejudice shares a lot of structural similarity with cheap romance novels.

In any case, structural elements that we find in Heart of Darkness show up in The Great Gatsby with astonishing regularity. The next two I will discuss are the job search and mythic geography.

If you were going to tell a story, any story, you need a push. It's not unlike rowing, paddling or sailing a small boat. You push away from the dock to get her moving and then you ship the oars, dig in the paddle or sheet home the sails. That little push matters. In both Heart of Darkness and The Great Gatsby the narrator's pursuit of a job is the push. Marlow needs a new ship to work on and Nick needs a career.

There is also water for the story to be pushed across. That is to say, there is a geography that this push is set against. Both these stories are very much about geography and a heavily symbolic geography.

What I mean by that is that the geography isn't so much a matter of real places on a map as it is a medium for the story. I started off using the metaphor of a boat pushed away from a dock. But which dock? It doesn't matter. The Iliad starts on a beach. What beach? It doesn't matter. All that matters is that there is a beach that the assembled warriors are waiting on prior to beginning their story.

Marlow is stranded in London. He wants a ship and he thinks about freshwater for a change. Why? We never really get an answer to that. What we get is a a lot of mythology about the river that starts at the sea and goes back into the depths of uncharted country. That's backwards, by the way. Rivers actually start in the middle of the land and end at their mouths. Conrad deliberately has Marlow make this mistake about beginnings and ends all the way through.

Fitzgerald plays a similar trick with American geography. Nick is from the heartland of America but, coming back from the war, "the Middle West now seemed like the ragged edge of the universe". And so he goes to the coast which, like all coasts, actually is the ragged edge of the mainland.

Our two narrators rapidly invest the geography their stories are set against with a lot of meaning without ever telling us a lot about it. The section that describes the East and West Egg villages in Gatsby, for example, is magnificent writing but try and draw a map of the land he describes. You can't do it. Draw to eggs with flattened ends with water between then and you will have nothing that looks like any actual land mass anywhere in the world. You get a very accurate description of the moral and cultural geography but you learn nothing of any real use about the physical geography.

Why are our two narrators making their respective trips? We don't know. To have something to do is as close as we get to an answer.  The stories both seem pointless and both narrators dwell at some length on their pointlessness. As they wander about, and both spend a long time not getting to the point, they traverse a mythic landscape where the navigation aids seem to be designed for the straightforward pursuit of wealth.
I had no difficulty in finding the Company's offices. It was the biggest thing in town, and everybody I met was full of it. They were going to run an over-sea empire, and make no end of coin by trade.
Says Marlow. And Nick tells us.
I bought a dozen volumes on banking and credit and investment securities, and they stood on my shelf in red and gold  like new money from the mint, promising to unfold the shining secrets that only Midas and Morgan and Macenas knew.
But both our narrators are ironically detached from the stuff that concerns everyone around them and that would be fine except that we might well wonder why they are bothering to make a voyage that apparently means so little to either of them. Why? Just so the story can be told. I won't answer that now because we'd need to know what the story is about in order to answer it.

I leave you with another question. Both these stories make a lot of implied differences of geography. The average Englishman reading Heart of Darkness when it first came out, would have made a lot of the differences between Britain and Belgium and their respective empires. But what, beyond the fact that Britain's empire was established and the Belgian one a newer thing, really distinguished them? The British thought of their empire as a noble thing but what, beyond establishment, gave it this moral standing? The same goes for the fictional villages of East Egg and West Egg. East Egg is old money but does that give it any real moral standing?

Chinua Achebe, famously, saw that Heart of Darkness was really a novel about Europe and Europeans and not about Africa. He was right about that (and wrong about pretty much everything else). And, to hammer on my favourite issue regarding Gatsby, everyone says that this is a novel about the American dream but the story is not about ambitious Horatio Alger heroes humbly making their way through hard work and discipline. There is a nice feint telling us that he is towards the end but, if we pay attention, the novel gives us more than enough evidence to see that Gatsby is really a whore and Wolfsheim is his pimp. Gatsby and Nick are just sycophants in the courts of enormous wealth and nothing could be further from Benjamin Franklin than that.

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