The Chosen and the Beautiful, by Nghi Vo; The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald; and an unexpected family connection

Second paragraph of third chapter of The Chosen and the Beautiful, by Nghi Vo:

When I mentioned Gatsby in Daisy’s own house, in front of her own husband, there was nothing in my mind that connected him with Lieutenant Jay Gatsby. That man was fresh out of Camp Taylor with a commission purchased with the very last of his money from Dan Cody and only one pair of decent shoes. The eager young lieutenant had a wondering hungry eye, and the beautiful man in the lavender suit pin-striped in gray had obviously never been hungry a day in his life.

I’m more than a little dubious about the Hugo Award for Best Editor, Long Form. It seems to me that most Hugo voters, as readers, are not well placed to judge the extent and value of an editor’s contribution; if a nominee happens to have edited a lot of good books last year, is that luck or judgement? Be that as it may, last year’s Hugo packet included this as part of the credentials for Ruoxi Chen, who went on to (relatively narrowly) win the award; I didn’t read it then but I have read it now.

Folks, it is a real treat. I had no idea. It’s a re-telling of The Great Gatsby from the point of view of Jordan Parker, the #2 female character in the original, just as the original story is told from the point of view of Nick Carraway, who is definitely the #2 male character in the story. But it’s not quite Gatsby as we know it. Jordan and Daisy are still from Lousiville, Kentucky, but Jordan is an adoptee from Vietnam. Everyone (well, every main character) is queer and polyamorous. And magic works; not everyone can do it, but Jordan can, critically altering some of the key moments in the book.

I don’t know Gatsby well, but I found myself compelled to have it to hand to read in parallel with The Chosen and the Beautiful to enjoy even more what Vo has done with such a classic text. The overall arc is the same – it’s almost surprising how little the emotional dynamics are affected once you know for sure that everyone is shagging, rather than merely suspecting it – but it’s very pleasing, very moving and very nicely done. If you didn’t save it from the Hugo packet last year, you can get it here.

I went back and reread The Great Gatsby, properly as well. The second paragraph of the third chapter is:

Every Friday five crates of oranges and lemons arrived from a fruiterer in New York—every Monday these same oranges and lemons left his back door in a pyramid of pulpless halves. There was a machine in the kitchen which could extract the juice of two hundred oranges in half an hour if a little button was pressed two hundred times by a butler’s thumb.

When I first read it in 2004, I wrote

[A] very good short novel, with the setting of 1920s New York and Long Island vividly described, including barely surreptitious widespread use of alcohol and a surprising amount of promiscuity, but overlying this a much more interesting story of personal aspiration. Strongly recommended.

ObBalkans: Gatsby had a war medal awarded to him by the King of Montenegro

I enjoyed it again. It is very digestible, and the emotional arcs of young(-ish) people hurtling into a new age are tremendously convincing. You can get it here.

Since reading it first time around, I’ve been getting acquainted with my American grandmother’s early life; she was three years younger than Fitzgerald, and so almost exactly the same age as the fictional Daisy Buchanan and Jordan Parker. In fact Fitzgerald knew and corresponded with my grandmother’s step-brother, Van Wyck Brooks, though they were on somewhat different literary wavelengths, and Edmund Wilson even wrote an imaginary conversation between them for The New Republic in 1924, the year before Gatsby was published..

Browsing Fitzgerald’s biography, I was struck by a familiar chord in a mention of his colonial-era ancestors in Maryland. (He himself was born in St Paul, Minnesota and was always conscious of his Mid-Western origins.) A little digging, and I worked out that we were in fact fifth cousins three times removed, both of us descended from Philip Key (1696-1764), who emigrated from London around 1720, and his first wife Susanna Gardiner (1705-1742) whose ancestors had been in Maryland since the 1630s. F. Scott’s Fitzgerald’s full name was Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald; he was named after the composer of “The Star-Spangled Banner”, who was his second cousin three times removed and my second cousin six times removed – we are all descended from different sons of Philip and Susanna.

I doubt that either my grandmother or her step-brother, let alone Fitzgerald, were aware of the genealogical connection. According to his daughter, Fitzgerald was not very interested in his Maryland ancestry. On our side, the link was through my great-grandmother, who had died when my grandmother was six, before my great-grandfather married Van Wyck Brooks’ mother (who had also been widowed). My grandmother was brought up to a certain extent by her dead mother’s sisters, who would certainly not have approved of Gatsby (either the character or the book) and anyway she lived in Europe and Asia for most of her adult life.

But sometimes it’s a small world, isn’t it?

The Chosen and the Beautiful was my top unread book by a writer of colour. Next on that list is The All-Consuming World, by Cassandra Khaw.