F. Scott Fitzgerald's most famous quote is probably the one where says there are 'no second acts' in American lives. Yet his greatest book, and to my mind the greatest American novel of the 20th century, The Great Gatsby, is all about someone trying to create a second act for himself. Of course he fails. And it is in that failure that the brilliance of Gatsby lies.
There was a lengthy, and very good, examination of Fitzgerald's novel by Jay McInerney in yesterday's Observer (you can link to that here)--an interesting choice of author because there are a few similarities between McInerney and Fitzgerald; both have been seen as chroniclers of a generation, when both quite obviously have talents and asperations beyond that. The piece comes in the wake of Baz Luhrmann's film and his reaction to it is pretty much as flat as mine (you can link to that piece, which I wrote last month, here).
McInerny is very good on the importance of Nick Carroway, and his position as narrator. One might see FSF himself as being more like Carroway than he cares too; certainly Gatsby is what he sees himself as trying to be, and Zelda was his Daisy. But it's not constructive to interpret great fiction through its relation to an author's own life, and I apologise for being tempted that way. The brilliance of Gatsby lies in the attempt to build a new life, to the openness of America to such possibility, and to Fitzgerald's sharp eye for (and Carroway's ultimate dissolution with) the entrenched upper class of American life. In the Twenties, as in the Roaring Reagans, they flaunted wealth, and aspirations were high. McInerney doesn't mention Tom Buchanan being a former star athlete at Yale, just the sort of thing FSF himself had aspirations to (there, I've done it again) but he is the sort of person to whom things come easily. And Gatsby isn't.
Gatsby is a cipher, a character who might have walked off the pages of Melville's Confidence Man. McInerney's absolutely right that people can and do read Gatsby as a sort of manual in getting ahead, a celebration of the basic American right to get rich, and enjoy the love story even though it's ending isn't happy. But beneath that lies a basic sense of the intangibility of that dream, that the pursuit of happiness --not money--as enshrined in the ideal of America, has hidden and not so hidden boundaries and limitations. Fitzgerald understood this as well as anyone--hell, Gatsby's partnered with Meyer Wolfsheim and he fixed the World Series. It doesn't get much more ironic about the American Dream than that.
No one has ever put his finger on the promise and the frustrations of that Dream as well as Fitzgerald did. No one has ever placed it on its pedestal and knocked it down with quite such panache.