06. Old Sports

Scott was waiting for Mr. Dame, drinking Mr. Dame’s necessarily cheap beer one swig-and-distastefully-critical-wince after another.

“I’m sorry, are you…” Mr. Dame began.

“Scott Fitzgerald, author of some well-known great American literature. Good evening,” replied the hallucination.

“Well I’m Mr. Dame and I, uh, teach some well-known great American literature,” said Mr. Dame, uncertain of how to react to his subconscious mind projecting one of the greatest American authors, “but I was expecting maybe a character from The Great Gatsby.

“Well it’s like Camus said, right? ‘A character is never the author who created him. It is quite likely, however, that an author may be all his characters simultaneously.’ I put a lot of myself into The Great Gatsby and if you think of the book not just as a narrative of the times, but of a synthesis of my experiences, my difficulties, and my realizations, then more of my character emerges from my characters,” Scott explained, offering Mr. Dame an empty beer bottle. “On a related note, be watching for the reporter that Camus puts in the trial scene in The Stranger,” he added.

Mr. Dame just stared at the bottle, wondering how a phantasm could’ve emptied a real bottle of beer. Scott wiggled the distressingly empty bottle at Mr. Dame, then, giving up on the possibility of Mr. Dame responding, set the bottle down.

“I confess that I might have over-played my presence in Nick. I gave him a writer’s mind, but had to write him as a man of finance in order to put him in proximity to the money,” Scott continued. “But you’ve already had that explained to you, with the Great American Novel being gilty of some contrivance. Whatever. What continues to baffle me is how people can miss the big literary devices that I dropped in.”

Mr. Dame was perplexed by this. “What, the eye-sign? Everybody talks about that.”

“No,” replied Scott flatly, then paused to consider his denial. “I mean,” he clarified, “of course the sign was a literary device. It’s a sign for Christ’s sake. But why do people pay so much attention to that one? Really, old sport — what’s a mere sign compared to the very epitome and perfect icon of deus ex machina?”

“Come again?” said Mr. Dame, still unclear as to what Scott was alluding to.

Scott sighed at him. “Alright. So you missed this one. Let me let you in on a little secret: Myrtle wasn’t just run over by a car. The adultress was smote by the mechanized instrument of God. Which is how the deranged Mr. Wilson would have seen it if she hadn’t been his wife, but that’s not the point. The point is that there was a judgment-laden smiting of particularly God-like precision delivered by a coupe. Or sedan. Or whatever it was I had Daisy driving, right?”

“Are you sure?” replied Mr. Dame, “Because we’ve got great discussions over whether it was an accident or intentional.”

“Oh, you think I can go symbolic on the defunct Doctor’s sign but that a car is just a car? Really, old sport?”

Mr. Dame noticed the increasingly caustic edgings every time the words “old sport” splayed into the conversation as if vomited there but endeavored to listen attentively.

“Make no mistake: it was intentional. I killed Myrtle,” Scott said gravely. “Daisy had no motive in this. Daisy and Myrtle did not know each other; Myrtle even mistook Jordan for Daisy earlier in that fateful day just by Jordan’s proximity to Tom. But let’s focus on Myrtle’s last jog: she starts by yelling at her husband loud enough for the neighbors to hear, then leaves the garage rushing out into the dusk, going past the fueling area between the garage and the road, crossing the road in front of traffic going to New York — as Tom was when he simply braked off the road into the service station earlier in chapter 7 — and then also in front of Daisy, coming from New York, such that Daisy swerves into the other traffic before swinging back to her proper lane and hitting Myrtle, who, having crossed the road, turned back into traffic to try to talk to the occupants of the yellow car — which is odd because she is on passenger side of the car near Gatsby, but she doesn’t really know anybody who could have been a passenger in that car: Tom is a driving man. Anyway, splat.” Scott left the final word on the ditch of the discourse, roughly driving the conversation on. “Don’t be daft: Daisy’s implausible ability to unwittingly run down the only ugly woman in the state that her husband is shagging after that same woman has miraculously avoided being run down by a totally random car is deus ex machina in action. Myrtle was not moved by her eyes or her ears, but rather by her destiny. It was the gravity of her existence that dragged her under that car. Or, as I prefer to see it, the inescapable execution by machina of the judgment of deus… I said Gatsby was going to be great literature and there you have it, never mind the Myrtle/Gatsby versus Daisy/Tom equivalence.”

“I guess I hadn’t thought of it like that,” Mr. Dame confessed.

“Of course not. It all happens so fast — faster than forty miles per hour! — that nobody lingers on the plausibility of what they’re told happens. They prefer to fixate on the slow moving portions of the book like the clock or the sign or whatever. But that’s exactly the trap that the book sets: zip zip zip to be languid in another place when really the action, the actual current events are the zip zip zip that nobody notices. I mean, I call out the cuckold equivalence of Tom and Wilson, but do people pick up that the old-money adulterers categorically get away while their poor and striving lovers have to die?” Scott picked up another beer, popped the top, and took a long pull from it. “Can’t stand those people,” he muttered.

“Can’t stand which people?” asked Mr. Dame, unclear on whether the characters or the readers were the source of Scott’s malcontent.

“The leisure class,” Scott replied with a slow scorn that left Mr. Dame gaping in confusion. “It wasn’t really about the roaring twenties, which is why people can keep on trying to film it. It certainly wasn’t about the Great Depression which I didn’t see coming. No, what people miss is the importance of Mr. Veblen’s theory of the leisure class to determining how the old-money families behave.” He paused to judge Mr. Dame’s baffled reaction. “Right, you don’t really know it. Consider first this example: Tom converts his garage to a polo horse stable: the car is the way of the future, but Tom has enough money to live in the past. The past is where Tom’s brutish ancestors were good at clubbing people from fast-moving horses, which, to be fair, was not an easy thing to be good at. The game of polo is meant to remind people of this, even though the trench warfare of World War I had effectively ended the age of mounted combat. Mr. Veblen, however, would propose that it is still with us, in that Tom and his ilk are the only people who have adequate resources to waste on playing polo and thus use that as part of their leisure class identification which they lord over the peasantry. Anybody can have a garage these days, but not anybody can convert one back to stables.”

“Oh,” said Mr. Dame, “I thought that was just insight into the kind of control freak Tom was.”

“Well yes, that too, and more than you realize,” conceded Scott. “But look at the last line of the book. Everybody is trying to get back to a yesteryear when they only had a small view of the world so there was little enough of it to make sense. Which, if you’re stupidly wealthy and don’t spend your time working like, you know, everybody else does, means investing heavily in the status quo you’re nostalgic for rather than investing in the future everybody else is building.” He took another swig of beer before continuing. “Did you notice that? Did you notice that the polo player didn’t play polo? That the golfer didn’t win at golf and barely played? That Daisy’s only marketable skill — if you can call it that, which you can’t, I’ll come back to it — was her come-hither high-class hussy voice? These people own and neglect everything. They can’t even do what they claim they do. Instead they zip zip zip to languish away another afternoon somewhere else.” Scott shrugged. “As I said: I can’t stand ’em.”

A lingering spark from Scott’s outburst was left glowing in Mr. Dame’s mind. “Um, about this theory of the leisure class… does that relate to Gatsby calling people Old Sport? Like he wants to show that he’s part of the leisure class, now, too?”

Scott gave a wry but satisfied grin. “Yes, more or less. That, and I couldn’t have him calling everybody Useless Bugger even if that’s what I meant by it.”

“What, really?”

“Yeah. Read it again, but mentally swap out Old Sport for Useless Bugger,” Scott said with a sage nod before tacking a sardonic “Old Sport.” on the end for effect. “Veblen’s more precise assertions,” he appended, “go to the effect of ‘Sports satisfy… requirements of substantial futility together with a colorable make-believe of purpose… The addiction to sports, therefore, in a peculiar degree marks an arrested development of the man’s moral nature.’ And that says a lot about the internals of Mr. Jay Gatsby, but it starts in what he projects outward.

“That said, I can’t recommend reading the turgid morass of words that Veblen called a book,” Scott continued. “I mean, he goes on and on about ‘conspicuous consumption’ blithely ignoring how conspicuously he’s consuming his readers’ time. But if you think about the animals I included, Veblen calls them out: Tom’s stable, as you noted, ‘ministers effectually to his master’s impulse to convert the “animate” forces of the environment to his own use and discretion and so express his own dominating individuality through them.’ But the extension of the dog to Myrtle and from Myrtle to Tom is harder to develop without Veblen’s specific description of the dog/master relationship. Veblen says that the dog ‘is the filthiest of the domestic animals in his person and the nastiest in his habits. For this he makes up is a servile, fawning attitude towards his master, and a readiness to inflict damage and discomfort on all else. The dog, then, commends himself to our favor by affording play to our propensity for mastery, and as he is also an item of expense, and commonly serves no industrial purpose, he holds a well-assured place in men’s regard as a thing of good repute.'” Scott paused to inhale. “And that’s one of his terse assertions, mind you,” he added.

“But the point is that if you look at how I describe Myrtle — with thickish figure, in her middle-thirties which makes her older than Nick, stout with ‘surplus flesh,’ and ‘her face… contained no facet or gleam of beauty.’ I’m deriding her fashion sense all along the way, and on the next page she’s even got ‘rather wide hips.’ If you want to see a mis-cast role in a Hollywood film, just look to Myrtle: nobody will believe that a man of power would have an affair with such a thing as I describe because it’s just too difficult for film — at 24 frames per second! — to convey the desire for the mere attitude of such a person. While Daisy had grown cynical and distant, Myrtle was all to eager to be fawning over Tom.

“But Veblen continues: the dog ‘is often spoken of, in an eminent sense, as the friend of man, and his intelligence and fidelity are praised. The meaning of this is that the dog is man’s servant and that he has the gift of an unquestioning subservience and a slave’s quickness in guessing his master’s mood.’ So Myrtle’s crucial inadequacy, which results in Tom breaking her nose shortly after we meet her and then gets her run down like a dog on the highway later is her inability to accurately guess her master’s mood.”

“I thought you said that Myrtle getting run over was iconic deus ex machina,” protested Mr. Dame.

“It works on multiple levels,” replied Scott, balancing patience and terseness, “That’s why it’s great literature.”

“Okay, but it’s still not working for me at the level where Tom, having the universally desired Daisy, would also want — and in some ways prefer — Myrtle.”

“The difficulty with, or rather of, Daisy,” Scott explained patiently, “is that she wants to be a real character, but is mostly just Tom’s chattel, a status symbol, a home ornament — all Veblen’s terms. She can see society transforming itself, as directly manifested by Ms. Baker, right, but also Women’s Sufferage had only come into being in New York in 1917 and didn’t go nation-wide until 1920, but she feels like she’s missing something. Social reality is becoming an empowerment party to which she has nothing fashionable to wear, as it were, because she chose a life of dis-empowered ease. She tries to sour-grapes her way out of feeling bad about her self-imposed helplessness by claiming that she’s ‘been everywhere and seen everything and done everything,’ but the mettle of her character is about as sharp as a spare tire.

“The only reason Tom really wanted her was because ‘Her voice is full of money.’ And I didn’t mean she’s got an inheritance or dowry. After all, if she actually had the money then Gatsby wouldn’t have fussed over not being a good enough provider for her because everything already was provided by the power of nepotism. No, I mean ‘full of money’ because Tom had to spend inexhaustibly to ensure that Daisy would do nothing that would compromise the pristine state of her looks or voice. Other than bearing some genetic offspring to inherit the estate. Even then, Daisy doesn’t even get to be a mother as the nanny takes over that responsibility; Daisy only supposes that her daughter talks and” — Scott let the words trail as he’d written them — “eats and everything.”

“But that only confuses things further,” said Mr. Dame, “because Daisy’s claim was that she wanted her daughter to be a fool because it was the best thing a girl could be. But what you’re saying is that she could see otherwise… so how could she claim that?”

“Because Daisy was successfully entrenched in the leisure class, and if she believed herself capable of progressing out of unhappiness then she would’ve been forcing herself to change. Conversely, by claiming that she was already at the pinnacle of progress with her material wealth and elite status that everybody else envies, she can hope for ignorance for her child while having a much-needed excuse to maintain her status quo,” Scott explained.

“But she didn’t like the status quo.”

“People are strange creatures, aren’t they,” Scott mused, finishing off the beer with a scowl and setting the bottle aside. “But you were asking why Tom would want Myrtle despite having Daisy. Daisy believed that perpetual ease was happiness and that money could buy ease, ergo money could buy happiness. But she has realized that ease is not the same as happiness, so she is disillusioned with the languishing ease that her position as Tom’s status symbol perpetually brings her. As such, she is now incapable of sincerely fawning over Tom as her status-giver. Myrtle, however, is not inoculated to leisure class ease and can thus fawn over Tom’s favor with utter sincerity, with the result that Tom prefers Myrtle — up to the point where Myrtle gets greedy for status and mocks Daisy, at which point Tom breaks Myrtle’s nose.”

Mr. Dame gazed warily at Scott. “You make it sound like it was Daisy’s fault Tom cheated on her: she was just too cold.”

“Not at all,” replied Scott, “because you have to recall that in the context of the leisure class, Daisy is effectively the property of Tom. If she fails to develop satisfactorily to his desires, it’s his responsibility — but in as much as he is merely treating her as property and not a person, he has no actually responsibility to her development. Thus, again on multiple levels, Daisy as a character is precluded by her idle leisure class chattel status with her human nature only putting the nails in the already-made coffin. She knows she wants to be happy, but she’s practiced at the lazy irresponsibility required of her by being married to a guy like Tom.”

“That’s appalling.”

“Yes, well, I did mention that I don’t like them very much.”

“Yet they seem to throw great parties?” Mr. Dame suggested as if apologizing to Scott for Jay Gatsby’s wealth.

Scott scowled coldly at Mr. Dame, his eyes set in a dead gaze as he took another swig of beer. Finally he settled on a reply. “There are two ways to get invited to the big parties: either be both rich and networked enough that you’re an invaluable trophy for the host, or strangely interesting enough to be a trophy for a real guest to prove their networking prowess. Which is to say, ‘what they do rather than anything useful.'” He stared at his shoes. “You can guess,” he said as if drawing courage to reach his conclusion out of his shoes, “which category of guest I was time and time again.”

Francis Scott Fitzgerald put down the now-empty bottle of beer clumsily enough to tip it over on the table, but his hand was already around the replacement and his feet shuffling his body towards the sliding glass door. “It started off well enough, mind you,” he said, staring out into the rainy night past the patio. “Come hang out and hob-nob with us, they would say. Seemed like both fun and publicity. But after a while — the third or fourth time out, you know? — you realize that these I-loosely-refer-to-them-as-people are just humanoids and the only reason they want to know anything about you is so that they can repeat it to somebody else, as if knowledge of you somehow makes them a better person.” Scott shrugged. “Fine, we can try to play that game: I’m an author. I write bloody phenomenal books. What do you do? Oh, you’re a leisure-class socialite. You meet people like me. Right. F-ass-inating, I’m sure.” The bottle hissed as Scott twisted it open. “That’s the path to being part-time chattel; I do not recommend it. I do, however, relish the irony of having written so well about such people.”

Mr. Dame felt something amiss in Scott’s response: no money changed hands. “Is it possible that your impression of the sitaution was tainted by your relationship with money?” Mr. Dame asked pointedly. Realizing his rudeness, he quickly added, “I mean, Gatsby gets his money by being a criminal and Tom gets his money from inheritance. There are no innovators, no builders, no titans of industry in your book at all. And even working-man Nick seems to be doing very little.”

“Well that does go back to Nick being too much of me and too little of an actual Wall Street man,” Scott confessed. “He’s journaling his whole experience. Look at the vibrant descriptions he gives to things. That’s not a bond trader stuck in some office! He’s practically never in the office, or studying the practice as he says he is. But more than that, I don’t show him making money even though he’s always hanging on with people who should be investing (and why not with him? Oh, because he never does a lick of actual bond trading in the whole story!) but they’re going zip zip zip languish all over the place. That kind of behavior runs up bills, son, and if you’re a no-vo-riche kind of guy as Nick is then he’d actually find that he’s got no money left after keeping up with the Buchanans and Gatsbys.” Scott paused to consider this claim and then added, “Unless he had a side business of illicit variety to keep him rich. But I didn’t. Between the woman and the social life, all of the many dollars that came in went back out again.

“It wasn’t the making of money that was a problem, it was the keeping of it. And that’s one of the other things I cheated on with the book because I didn’t understand it. Some people could be rich and never burn through their money fast enough to make it go away. Fine. And some people could seemingly make money appear, usually from petty crimes against suckers and incompetents who couldn’t burn through their money fast enough to make it go away. Veblen says it happens, and society’s kind of okay with it. What I found was that hanging out with people who could happily waste money on grifters’ schemes was particularly bad for my fiscal discipline. So my characters’ sources of income get hand-waved away because I know that I can’t actually keep up with what they’re doing, right? And even though Nick is very much an author, I have to make him a bond trader — Ha! — because I know that ‘writer’ is not a sustainable career for a man who’s going to be running in the circles that I have set out for him to run in.

“But that’s a very serious piece of advice nested in there, old sport: don’t let friends who have more disposable income than you control what little disposable income you’ve got.” Nod. Swig. “Also,” he added after a moment of reflection, “don’t marry some crazy parasitic bitch.”

“Oh, is that the secret? I wish you would’ve mentioned it a few years ago.”

“Son, that was almost a century ago and it’s been up on Wikipedia for some time now. I’m sorry you ran into similar problems, not for you per se, but rather because it hurts to know that as bad and obvious as my mistakes were, people are still going to blunder into their renditions of them.” Swig. Shrug. “And to clarify, it wasn’t all bad at the time even if I regret it in retrospect. Zelda made me who I am in many ways. To fight against that just because she was also a crazy parasitic bitch becomes me fighting against who I am rather than her per se. My life would’ve been very different had I not given so much control over myself to somebody or anybody else. If Daisy ever developed enough of a spine to leave Tom, she’d end up saying something similar.”

“Do you suppose that’s part of why you couldn’t keep a hold on you finances?” Mr. Dame asked, feeling an insight coming on and pulling open another beer. “What I mean is: Gatsby is totally pursuing Daisy, right? ‘Ah, I can’t have the girl everybody wants,’ he says, ‘so I’ll go to Europe and kill some guys then come home and become a criminal kingpin to finance my stalking of her with the intent to break up her marriage’…” — Scott winced slightly at Gatsby’s greatness so succinctly measured — “but as soon as he gets her, he’s all like ‘meh, whatever, I don’t know what I’m doing this for anymore.'” Mr. Dame took another mouthful of beer while this sunk into Scott. “But you had Zelda. So did you really know what you were trying to accomplish? Or did a lack of a particular goal beyond maintaining a successful marriage to this woman who wanted to be popular and larger than life prevent you from formulating a vision beyond that?”

“In much the same way that Daisy lost her ability to aspire while living in Tom’s shadow, yes, and Gatsby lost his ability to aspire as soon as he had Daisy. This is the essence of Goethe’s diabolical bargain: if Faust had ever grasped bliss, he would have lost his soul,” Scott said veering so hard onto a tangent that Mr. Dame looked hopelessly confused. Scott grinned widely, seemed to grow as he stretched his arms wide, precariously pinching the neck of the beer bottle between his left thumb and forefinger. “But now, to speak at last with meaning clear,” he began to recite, “Did nothing charm you in our upper sphere? For there you saw, in pageant wide unfurled, the glory of the Kingdoms of the World. For you with your insatiate mind, was there no tempting joy to find?” As the last word left his lips, he jerked slightly as if he was caught in a still frame just as his marionette strings had all been severed. Then he sank back into himself, looking smaller and smaller. “Oh, I found a tempting joy,” he said softly, “all beautiful and damned. I wasn’t strong enough to be intentionally insatiate. It’s so very hard to work at never being happy. So counter-intuitive. But I worked hard at being happy… but now I don’t remember actually ever achieving it.

“And that’s the other thing most people don’t pick up on, isn’t it?” Scott asked, lurching the conversation drunkenly sideways. “That Nick claims to pride himself on his honesty, but he’s complicit to all of the dishonesty an double-dealing in the book. He never calls anybody on anything. He’s too busy pursuing his happiness, even though he won’t remember being happy in any of those circumstances. I’m sure he seemed happy. I’m sure I seemed happy. My pocketbook certainly said I spent happy. But do I remember being happy now? Only vaguely, as if looking back through dirty eyeglasses of the wrong prescription. Oh, there was my happiness — but it is blurred and smudged and my eyes hurt if I try to focus on it more to such a point that it’s easier to see the blurring and the smudging than the happiness and thus conclude that I wasn’t happy; instead I was a liar.”

“I think you may’ve put down an unintentional truth in there, sir,” said Mr. Dame. “After all, a couple of years later the Great Depression would hit. Nick would be unemployed, probably destitute and heading into a mid-life crisis. At that point, he might’ve wished he had been an author with a cultivated reputation — at least relative to having been a bond trader who never showed up for work.”

Scott thought about this and nodded. “True enough. But right about now I’m hating him along with all the rest.” He glanced around the apartment, clearly unsure of how to excuse himself from his self-loathing. “I should leave you to your work, I’m sure,” he feebly offered.

“Yes, probably,” replied Mr. Dame sliding the empty beer bottles into a corner of the table that might qualify as organized, “but thank you for stopping by.”

“And maybe if I come again you can get some some proper whiskey and not this piss-water.”

“May-be, sir. Good night.”