Friday, July 3, 2009

Dark Fields of the Republic

Faced with the last few pages of a deeply satisfying novel, some readers pause for a moment, almost subconsciously... "Man, I love this book; shall I hurry on to the end now? No. I think I'll read more slowly, savor the final scenes, delay leaving this wonderful imagined world."

Of course, there are people, whatever their rationale, who will read the ending of a novel first. Others proceed straightforwardly, first to last. Still others choose to re-read the final paragraphs, to appreciate the graceful receding-into-reality the author has constructed.

Most professional writers have favorites among the works of their peers and those of previous generations, and they routinely revisit these books--Austen's Pride and Prejudice, say--whether for inspiration or simple pleasure matters not a whit (as some 19th century author might have said). We know that Hemingway inspired many would-be writers to take up the pen--now keyboard--and mimic his controlled, apparently simplistic prose, using the exercise as a learning device. Much-honored Ross Macdonald, a master of not-so-hardboiled detective fiction (his hero Lew Archer portrayed by Paul Newman and others in sadly inadequate films), casually admitted he would reread Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby every year to enjoy the prose and gain new insight into the art of fiction.

Like so many others, Macdonald likely took special pleasure in the last few paragraphs of Gatsby:

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.

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter--tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms further.... And one fine morning----

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

And not just bootleg-era Gatsby--his reach foolishly exceeding his grasp--but a whole nation of striving individuals trapped now, 80 years later, in the snares of big corporations and greedy bankers, medical insurance madness and the collapse of the middle class.

Recently, contemplating the end of a particularly fine novel (see the previous chapter on Krueger's mysteries), in a wise-guy attempt to be ludicrous and profound and Zen-koan obscure, I jotted down a few sentences spinning out from that moment:

Some think The End is a New Beginning.
Others shrug, imagining a Temporary Hiatus.
Still others contemplate a Permanent Termination...
Hitting the wall. No more.
Me, I say it's just six letters and a space, and the blank
holds The Answer. (Or do I mean The Question?)

Yeah, yeah, so it's philosophical baloney, but I thought it might be apropos in this Year of the Grim Regression, on a noisy, money-wasting, often dangerous, forced-patriotic holiday requiring spectacularly empty grand finales...

This is how America ends, not with so many bangs but with an infinite chorus of whimpers. Or will our "best government that money can buy" be whipped into rewriting The End?

POSTSCRIPT: Apt that The End should have a Postscript, I suppose... has posted my Dozens reviews of Jazz Americana, which include some social commentary along with the music discussed. Find them here if interested.


Alan Kurtz said...

From the Department of Picky-Picky-Picky (We Never Close!), please note that Jane Austen's surname is spelled with an 'e' instead of an 'i'. Anyhow, congrats on publication of your Americana Dozens, which was worth waiting for. I don't, however, follow your caption here atop the Copland Third Symphony album cover. What do you mean by Americana: Going, Going...? Is this great work being expunged from the classical canon?

peggy said...

Speaking of Fitzgerald, i would be interested to read the story that became Benjamin Button the movie. Supposed to take place in another town, very different form the premise though!

IWitnessEd said...

hello. thanks for catching my careless misspelling. i started to write "America: Going, Going" but decided the collapse of the American Century and Empire and hegemony being lightly mentioned in the oddball post could extend to Copland's great music too. in other words... caption as confused as post. casual prose stylists should never pretend to be culturally or philosophically deep!

Victor Bravo Monchego, Jr said...

Oddly, just picked up and read Gatsby for the first time in June. Read it one evening. I thought the plot was pretty dull, really, but the writin' was tight!