Greil Marcus’s Gatsby and the end of tragedy

Jackson Arn in The Point:

For good reason, The Great Gatsby is one of the most admired and talked-about books of the twentieth century. And that reason is, of course, that it’s really short—47,094 words, to be exact. I read it for the first time in a few hours at a swim meet (the aptness of the setting wasn’t clear to me until Chapter 8) and probably would have finished sooner had it not been for the snatches of Eminem coming from somebody’s boombox. You can count the book’s speaking roles on your fingers, and any high school sophomore can skim it the night before the big exam. Assign that to millions of teenagers for sixty-odd years, and a Great American Novel is born.

I don’t mean to belittle what Fitzgerald achieved in his most famous work: the grandeur of his themes, or the calm thrust of his narrator’s voice, or the fine shading of his descriptions (the bit about the juice machine button pressed two hundred times by a butler’s thumb has mocked my feeble attempts at lyricism for years). But not all beautifully written books sell half a million copies a year, and it’s no coincidence that Gatsby—rather than The Adventures of Augie MarchInvisible Man or Gravity’s Rainbow, to name three American novels of equal splendor but considerably more bulk—is the rare classic that everyone remembers the gist of. There is much less of it to forget.

So much less, in fact, that readers may find themselves remembering things Fitzgerald never wrote.

More here.