Updated: Aug 25
Many contend that F. Scott Fitzgerald´s The Great Gatsby (1925) is the quintessential "great American novel." These and other accolades are attributed not merely to its exquisite prose, scintillating off of its every pages and resulting into a kind of compressed excellence, but also with its core themes of disillusionment and reinvention.
Along with Ernest Hemingway´s The Sun Also Rises, Fitzgerald captures the central mood of himself and the rest of his peers who lived right after World War I, whom Gertrude Stein called "the lost generation": after the bloody irony of "making the world safe for democracy," there was the intoxicating spirit of the Jazz Age followed by the economic collapse and the Great Depression. While focused on a handful of characters along the North Shore of Long Island, The Great Gatsby is a critical interrogation of the American Dream.
Since its publication, artists have mined this source material, yielding various treasures across multiple media. There have been numerous film adaptations of the novel -- starting with the silent short by Herbert Brenon in 1926 to Baz Luhrman´s most recent one in 2013 -- as well as an opera and an award-winning experimental theater production by Elevator Repair Service. Especially today, with America´s own economic challenges and discussions on identity, the novel´s narrative blueprint seems ripe for a new adaptation. With the graphic novel Gatsby, writer Jeremy Holt and illustrator Felipe Cunha reinterpret Fitzgerald´s novel into a contemporary setting of social media, identity politics, and youthful wealth with mixed results
Before starting his fall semester at Columbia University as an undergraduate in creative writing, Singaporean teenager Lu Zhao comes to the States to spend his summer visiting his cousin along the North Shore of Long Island. It´s a culture shock: Lu comes from a more modest background, and so his work-ethic initially seems at odds with the life of listless leisure from Tommy Zhao, the son of hoteliers, and the wealth of him, his girlfriend Dahlia, and their friend, Alexis. Holt cleverly contemporizes Fitzgerald´s source material by highlighting this vapid world of privilege and wealth, and much of the dialogue with and about Lu points to the superficiality of their lives. Almost immediately after his cousin´s arrival, Tommy and his friends tease him for not having the right haircut, the right clothes, the right phone. Alexis takes it upon herself to take him on a determined (and expensive) shopping spree, so that he can fit in. As we will see later over the course of the graphic novel, meaningful transformation from the outside-in--through technology and wealth, as well as clothing and accessories--is ultimately a fool´s errand. Who each of these characters are, and how they reckon with their self-centered natures and their manipulation of others, is what will determine their fates.
Soon, the teenagers discover an elaborate party on the other side of the bay, hosted by the mysterious Jay Gatsby. Unlike Tommy Zhao, whose wealth stems from his parents hotel business, 18-year-old Gatsby´s billions stems from Ouroboros , a social media platform that readers are told is "the greatest thing ever", but which chooses not to reveal what it does, or why it is so great. The Greek word for the image of the snake swallowing its own tail, Ouroboros is often interpreted as a symbol of infinity; however, in the context of Gatsby, it feels more like the cannibalization of the self: people looking at representations of themselves, until the image takes dominance over the reality.
Lu is our Nick Carraway character, and so he and Gatsby begin a friendship that at first seems genuine and benign. Gatsby seems to have more wealth than Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg combined, and is excited to share that he is planning to launch a new feature with Ouroboros soon: something to do with VR, and with the implication that on this platform one can choose one´s gender and race as well as one´s clothing. Again, this portion of the story is not unclear, with Holt choosing to only provide a few tantalizing breadcrumbs about this part of the graphic novel´s themes. I would have loved to have learned a lot more about what Ouroboros is going to do, and why this is so revolutionary.
Alas, the decadence of these youthful pleasure domes begins to unravel. When Tommy wants to crash a party that only his cousin Lu and Alexis have been invited to, he meets the elusive Gatsby for the first time--and we discover that the two had a summer romance four years prior. Dahlia, Tommy´s present-day girlfriend who seemed fine with the open nature of their relationship, reacts in a fury that seems unusually biphobic. We also later learn that Gatsby has been spying on Tommy for some time, using his friend Christina to gain information from him, but also unwittingly putting everyone in danger. The climax of Gatsby is brutal and horrific, a collision between worlds characterized largely by wealth, but also by reality. No matter how much we may try to insulate ourselves with social media, clothing, even money, Holt and Cunha seem to be saying, reality with all of its dangers is always lurking just around the corner.
A number of people have already written about how Fitzgerald´s novel is very queer, particularly in the relationship between Nick Carraway and Jay Gatsby (for example this one, regarding the film adaptation by Luhrmann). I really enjoyed how Holt and Cunha really leaned into that with this graphic novel, where the fluidity of gender and sexual identity are included in a direct, simple way. I wanted a lot more of that, just like I wanted to know more about Ouroboros, what they do, and how Gatsby is going to "revolutionize the world" with this platform. There are also some beautiful images of same-sex as well as opposite-sex encounters between different people of different ethnicities represented in these pages, and that is also quite welcome. I enjoy seeing that, and how the creators of this graphic novel have created a dialogue with Fitzgerald´s original.
Cunha´s art is exquisitely beautiful, and is a perfect complement to Holt´s narrative vision. I am definitely going to be following these two creative people in the future, and am excited to see what they come up with next.