- Paperback: 288 pages
- Publisher: The Overlook Press; Reprint edition (November 22, 2016)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1468313622
- ISBN-13: 978-1468313628
My first read of 2017 did not go as planned. I should have fallen in love with this retelling of The Great Gatsby, set in 21st century London and featuring Russian characters in place of Fitzgerald’s Roaring 20s New Yorkers. The thing is, I didn’t.
The book starts with a rich Russian businessman named Gorsky walking into a sleepy bookstore, plopping down $ 250k as down payment on what’s to be a magnificent personal library, the likes of which any book lover would envy: rare books, signed books, books sought after by collectors – all this on a nearly unlimited budget. Store clerk Nikola, accustomed to spending his working hours reading since the store rarely sold anything on any given day, is of course flabbergasted. Who is this man, where did he come from, and why on earth did he choose this small, out of the way bookshop?
If you’re familiar with The Great Gatsby, it’s immediately obvious who Gorsky is, and as you read further Goldsworthy’s novel follows the path of Fitzgerald’s original fairly faithfully. It hits the highlights: orgiastic parties, two lovers separated by the passage of time and marriage to another, suspicions about the shady background of a mysterious man who throws his money around perversely, murders and all manner of interactions between the super-wealthy.
Gorsky is predictable if you’ve read Gatsby. And while some enjoy the reworking of classics into modern adaptations, I do not. The Great Gatsby is a monumental novel, one I’ve read and re-read, loved and treasured. It’s the portrait of a very specific point in American history, a metaphor for all that the 1920s symbolized. It belongs where Fitzgerald intended; it is an American classic.
“And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.”
– The Great Gatsby
To take that out of context, wrench the soul from the story and attempt to drop it into another context is jarring. Not to say Vesna Goldsworthy is not a very talented writer, nor that I don’t understand what would impel her to take another stab at Fitzgerald’s masterpiece. I get that. What I don’t like is such an obvious robbing of the plot.
To run parallel alongside The Great Gatsby, renaming the characters through thinly-veiled tweaks is not a terribly challenging effort. It’s taking someone else’s intellectual property, using it as a template you don’t bother pretending to disguise. It’s little short of plagiary, explained away through admiration.
But whereas Gatsby is towering, Gorsky is not.
Had Goldsworthy not so closely mirrored the original, instead taking the spirit of Gatsby and making it more than a second-best retelling, I could see the merit of her effort. As it stands, I’m unimpressed. Contrary to the opinions of the critics, I see this as a deeply flawed effort.
Such is the way of things. My experience with and love for The Great Gatsby is individual, and very personal. Because I have such an intimate experience with it, associations with specific events in my life and memories that hang on passages from the novel, my patience for imitation runs very thin.
Saying I liked it or I didn’t, qualifying the book based on my usual standards of what makes good writing, feels a bit wobbly here. Its premise and intent are one thing, my visceral reaction quite another. I did not enjoy the book. I was disappointed, and it left a bad taste in my mouth.
Another reader may have the very opposite reaction. That’s the remarkable thing about reading. Each of us brings our personal experience to every book, and what works for some fails dismally for others. Gorsky failed dismally for me, yet I’m reluctant to pan it for the very reason I’m not able to be completely subjective about it. I don’t feel it abides by what I consider ethical conduct in re-imagining a classic work of literature.
But then, most retellings fall flat for me. If a book’s done well the first time, I say leave it where it lies. Go make your own original art. This was someone else’s creation. Borrow from it, yes. Pick and choose elements that have deep meaning for you, of course. But don’t attempt to re-write what’s not yours unless you have something profoundly different to say.
Reading Gorsky was a mistake, a bad way to start out my reading year. I won’t let it linger, won’t allow the experience to color the rest of 2017. I wish I’d made a better decision, but didn’t.
Onward to better things.