Review: Careless People, By Sarah Churchwell
Nothing great about these Gatsby relics
Sunday 23 June 2013
The New York Herald Tribune's review of The Great Gatsby called it "a literary lemon meringue", so delicate, so sharp, yet "purely ephemeral". Published in 1925, it was set three years earlier, when F Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda were a rich and glamorous couple in New York. Using diary extracts, newspaper cuttings and letters, Sarah Churchwell has pieced together the real-life events of 1922, including a gruesome double murder, and shown their influences on the novel.
Churchwell is an American academic who teaches literature at the University of East Anglia. She is also a talented journalist, and I have heard her speak with authority and insight on the radio. But in Careless People, she has created a book that is at once bogged down in detail yet peculiarly lazy in its ambition. It is a prime example of the publishing space-filler, that hopes to sell by association with a dazzling subject. A clue is in the subtitle: "Murder, mayhem, and the invention of The Great Gatsby". Who, other than a breathless ad man, would promote a book on so vague an idea as "mayhem"?
Sadly, the flimsy generalisations continue within. The first two thirds cover the period from September to December 1922, when the Fitzgeralds went to a lot of parties. Ah, parties: a Gatsby theme. Part of the joy of the novel is that it conveys the exuberance of a truly great rave-up. Ideally, a historical account would shed some light on the real-life parties attended by the Fitzgeralds, with some illuminating anecdotes. Instead, a typical line reads: "Their cab might have been yellow, but it probably wasn't" followed by a history of the New York taxi .
Graduates of English literature will be familiar with the straw-clutching critic. I could only laugh at Churchwell's earnest observations on the parallels between history and parties: "History resembles a guest list," she informs us, "in that sense, of the invited and the gatecrashers, the people for whom we have been waiting, and those whose presence takes us unawares." Then: "History is prone to mistakes in identity, and facts are not always solid things." Later, really getting into the metaphor: "If history starts as a guest list, it has a tendency to end like the memory of a drunken party: misheard, blurred, fragmentary." It took me back to stifling afternoons in the faculty library.
The book only really gets going towards the end, when Churchwell rattles through the fascinating story of Zelda's breakdowns, the loss of their fortune, and the squabbles over her attempt to become a novelist.
Who knows if Sarah Churchwell timed her book to coincide with Baz Luhrmann's film? If she did, it was an even more cynical mistake than its initial premise. Luhrmann's orgiastic juggernaut generated so much hype that even committed fans have been left with Fitzgerald fatigue. For all its flaws, the movie had some jazz age magic, and served the purpose of sending us back to the novel, as second-rate adaptations do. Churchwell's pudding is one lemon meringue too many.
Watch the new House of Cards series three trailerTV
Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards
Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears
Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants
TV ReviewThe intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Home Office says Nigerian asylum-seeker can’t be a lesbian as she’s got children
- 2 What happens to your body when you give up sugar?
- 3 Drugs Live cannabis trial: Hash is less harmful than any other drug, expert claims
- 4 Turkish Airlines flight TK 726 crash-lands on Nepal runway amid dense fog
- 5 Apple and Google users being spied on for a decade because of 'Freak' security flaw
Kurt Cobain's life and death: Montage of Heck film uses unseen footage to tell Nirvana frontman's story
Mal Peet dead at 67: Tributes to children's author who was 'universally adored'
Fifty Shades of Grey movie shows first sex scene 'after 40 minutes'
Drugs Live: Twitter responds to Jon Snow and Jennie Bond smoking cannabis
Jimmy McGovern's new TV series 'Banished': Why Australia's past has such resonance today
'Jihadi John': CAGE representative storms off Sky News accusing Kay Burley of Islamophobia
Durham Free School: 'Creationism taught at' free school facing closure
Nearly 100,000 of Britain's poorest children go hungry after parents' benefits are cut
Ukip would cut billions from Scottish budget to fund English tax cuts
End of the licence fee: BBC to back radical overhaul of how it is funded
Ukraine crisis: Top Chinese diplomat backs Putin and says West should 'abandon zero-sum mentality'