AESTHETICS A LA GREAT GATSBY
Jen Palmares Meadows completed ‘Aesthetics A La Great Gatsby’ while working on her Master of Arts with Doug Rice at CSU Sacramento. The assignment: Bring into conversation the writers that have influenced your writing in a creative way. Inspired by The Great Gatsby, this scene integrates a number of quotes from Rice and writers who influenced her graduate study.
Gatsby’s mansion boomed with the commotion of hundreds of bodies curling sideways and upways, their coats and dresses climbing each other’s clothing so that the fabric weaved into a giant crawling monster of color. A drowning girl stood in a champagne fountain singing the last words of The Christmas Song, while a man with owl spectacles drank the sparkling torrents streaming from her elbows and down the hems of her dress. Between gulps, the man gasped, “They’re real books. Absolutely real—have pages and everything.” He was of course speaking of the thousands of whispering tomes filling the hardwood shelves lining the walls. Though general disorder seemed to be the theme of the night, close inspection revealed that the bodies were serpentined into some kind of line, partygoers shuffling backwards and forwards, some singing, some dancing, all drinking, their bodies and voices expanding into pure energy so that the walls of the mansion swelled and ballooned, and the planks of wood groaned under their tapping feet as if to wrench the building from the ground it was so poorly moored to.
And in the middle of this giant crawling monster, the line ended at the middle of a raised, platform, where a girl with dark hair, brown skin and rectangular glasses that looked too small for her large face, settled into her red high-backed chair. The girl studied the long line—so long that she couldn’t see its end, only the colors that disappeared into the kitchen and snaked into the family room. The sign next to her, driven into the artificial snow at her feet, read: Writers. Approach At Your Own Risk. An elf adorned in green, from the cap covering his balding head, to the tips of his pointed shoes, consulted a long list that fell to the ground and rolled around him. He straightened his spectacles and called out, “Hemingway. Ernest. You’re next.”
Hemingway stepped up the platform, while toting a tall fishing pole that branched high over his head. He wore a wore a white, short sleeved collared shirt, and a dark brown tan. His belly and beard were as large as the man himself. The girl had always enjoyed Hemingway’s company. She appreciated the brevity of his words, the subtlety of image laced into his works, and the rhythm of his language that seemed to suggest movement. He was good at making his readers hallucinate—making them see what wasn’t there. Although she sometimes questioned his lack of dialogue tags, she aspired to open her mind to the concept. Like the elf had once told her, “Be ready to revise what you think.”
“Gertrude wants to talk to you, but she couldn’t get past security. I’m supposed to send someone to get her.”
“Don’t bother,” the girl said. “This party is exclusive, not inclusive.” She pointed to the large lever next to her chair that opened the hidden shaft underneath Hemingway’s feet. “Austen and several others are still down there. Perhaps they’d enjoy Gertrude’s company?”
Hemingway snickered. “I’ve brought you a few things.” He handed the girl his fishing pole. “That’s for fun. If you don’t enjoy what you’re writing, no one will enjoy what they read.” Then he reached into his left pocket. “Damn.” He pulled a wet hand out and slapped it into her open palm. “That was supposed to be the tip of an iceberg, but I stopped off in Spain, so, I guess the heat got to it.
“If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of the iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. The writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.”
He finished and fiddled with his pocket, until the girl thanked him for his gifts, while she dried her hand on the side of her pants.
“That’s a fine line you speak of, Ernest, this iceberg. Writing, after all, is about revelation. Hiding something from your reader is low—like a ploy. Gertrude, for instance, couldn’t trick me into appreciating Alice’s—” the girl raised her hand and her fingers made invisible quotation marks, “autobiography with the iceberg that sank the Titanic. I noticed, in your writing, you are never in your characters’s heads. Is this part of your iceberg theory at work?”
“The emotion of a character must be expressed through action, through the senses—not thought.”
Someone knocked into Hemingway, and the elf harrumphed when Hemingway shoved back with a fat shot gun cocking in one large fist. A pale, skinny man staggered left and then right, and then into Hemingway again. He wore a salmon colored dress shirt that the girl assumed he borrowed from Gatsby.
“Toughen up, Scott. Otherwise I’ll have to slap you with that fish again,” Hemingway said.
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s white flesh pulled tight over his thin cheeks as he leaned on his friend, who sidestepped him and swung a fish. Scott’s face turned red, his eyes cleared, and he wiggled his legs until he stood straight with his shoulders back. “I’ve brought you Zelda,” he said to the girl, and pulled a woman in a billowing white dress, with thin arms from behind his back.
“Scott, her bills alone will put me under.”
“Writers must be poor. Hunger was a good discipline,” Hemingway said.
“And every writer needs a cross to bear.” Fitzgerald shook Zelda’s arm and her thin blonde locks slithered, so that for a moment, the girl expected to turn into stone. Fitzgerald sat Zelda onto the floor with a, “Be good,” and turned to Hemingway.
“What are you laughing about?”
“A cross to bear? Please. You just want to off her on someone.”
“What? I’m Catholic!”
“I’m Catholic,” Hemingway added.
“You’re a convert. You’re a faux-Catholic. There’s a difference.”
The girl attempted to put off the mismatched brawl. She liked Fitzgerald, anyhow. His writing was good, sound, and his revision amazing—if only he could hold his liquor. His characters were complex, and he knew everything of them and in them. When he set out to write Gatsby, something simple, yet intricately patterned had been achieved.
“I’m Catholic,” she cried. “I’ve got it! A cross to bear. And the Bible. It’s right here.” The girl pointed over her shoulder to Zelda who was prancing around with a Bible on her head, the string bookmarker swinging in front of her eyes like a graduation tassel. Hemingway threw a cup of vodka into Zelda’s face. Her ballooning white dress melted down her body, until she looked like a child covered in white paint. Zelda was what she was. A cross. The life outside writing that demanded attention. Without a cross, a writer’s life would be misshapen, lacking. She sighed, and accepted Zelda with thanks.
“You’re making me look bad.” Ernest bumped his shoulder into Scott.
The girl unwrapped Fitzgerald’s next gift, a set of leather bound, gold tipped Conrad. “I’ve already read Conrad, thanks.” She tried to shove the books back into Fitzgerald’s arms.
“But did you really read them? Marlow’s got a lot to offer,” Fitzgerald nodded. “Conrad’s language—he was a genius.”
The girl dumped the pile of nautical novels onto the floor next to her feet. One thin book tumbled down and hit Zelda’s sleeping form, also on the floor. The girl grumbled, and got down on her haunches to rub Zelda’s shoulder before picking up the fallen book, standing and settling back into her chair.
“The Preface to The Nigger of the Narcissus?” The girl scanned the pages.
“Yes, indeed.” Fitzgerald began to quote Conrad on writing as art form:
“It is to show its vibration, its colour, its form; and through its movement, it’s form and its colour, reveal the substance of its truth—disclose its inspiring secret: the stress and passion within the core of each convincing movement. In a single-minded attempt of that kind, if one be deserving and fortunate, one may perchance attain to such clearness of sincerity that at last the presented vision of regret or pity, of terror or mirth, shall awaken in the hearts of the beholders that feeling of unavoidable solidarity; of the solidarity in mysterious origin, in toil, in joy, in hope, in uncertain fate, which binds men to each other and all mankind to the visible world.”
The girl had her eyes closed when Fitzgerald finished. She let the words flow into her, appreciating the circularity of Conrad’s language, the repetition, the dreaming and the beauty, and of course, it’s meaning—the idea behind it all. “Yes,” the girl opened her eyes. “To reveal truth, to reveal being with movement, that is an accomplishment. Thank you.”
Fitzgerald blushed and Hemingway shoved him.
“Maybe you ought to have my wife too.”
“No, really. My first wife. Hadley!” Ernest’s voice boomed over the clatter of bodies and a woman sitting next to the fire place, rose and mazed her way through the masses. “She lost my first novel, and I had to rewrite the whole damn thing. I was able to put aside my early attempts, and cast off what I was previously unable to part with. In the end—revision made my writing into something far better.” Hadley sat next to Zelda, and finally, the two men strode off together, Hemingway dragging his friend by the armpits, and Fitzgerald’s legs dancing like Jello across the floor.
The elf consulted his list. “Cather. Willa. You’re next!”
A woman stepped up the platform, fiddling with the pleats of a dress that hung down to her boot covered ankles. Her voice was soft and low. “You’ll have to come outside with me.”
The girl stood up, glad to stretch, and followed Willa. The crowd parted so that they might pass, until they reached the double doors and Willa pushed hard at them. “I’ve brought you place,” Willa said. The screaming blister of summer heat, and the burn of frozen snow on skin, hit the girl at once. The radiance of weather assaulted Gatsby’s mansion, so that everyone on the inside demanded that they, ‘shut the door!’ Willa and the girl stepped outside, standing under the great awning, that protected them only from the elements coming overhead, but not the wind, nor heat that attacked from the sides. “They say in the beginning, that it was all the seasons. Summer. Winter. It was all the places. Desert. Ocean. And it is there, in that beginning, where you must find a place for your characters to stand. But remember, there is nothing in the intellect and nothing in your heart except through the five senses first. Experience place through your senses. Cultivate sensuality.”
The snow pulled the girl’s skin tight across her face, so that her nose and cheeks stung, her lips cracked, dry, the heat of summer sun, burning her skin into a red brown. She was thirsty for water—thirsty for place, language, for character, thirsty to revise, thirsty for many things, all of them waiting in her throat to be swallowed.
She waved to Willa, who climbed atop a steaming horse with clouds puffing from his nostrils. The girl went back into the mansion, thinking. She sat back in her red chair and sighed when the elf read the name of the next visiting writer, and the crowd of bodies jostled forward to preach the language of their minds. There were many yet to see, many words and many books to be visited. She motioned a writer forward, and read.