Try This: Borrow a Page from Fitzgerald
Christmas and Death Go Hand-in-Hand
What’s up with Christmas and death? From A Christmas Carol to A Child’s Christmas in Wales, death helps fill the longest nights of the year. In our family the 1886 novel Carol Bird’s Christmas — originally titled The Birds’ Christmas Carol — was a grim favorite about a frail girl born on Christmas, who makes elaborate gifts for a nearby poor family and subsequently dies on a Christmas day. Of tuberculosis. “Merry Christmas, kids! Now die.”
From History.com: Furthermore, spooky storytelling gave people something to do during the long, dark evenings before electricity. “The long midwinter nights meant folks had to stop working early, and they spent their leisure hours huddled close to the fire,” says Tara Moore, an assistant professor of English at Elizabethtown College…. “Plus, you didn’t need to be literate to retell the local ghost story.”1
Look here, and a lyric that never made sense, now does.
“Whenever five or six English-speaking people meet round a fire on Christmas Eve, they start telling each other ghost stories,” humorist Jerome K. Jerome wrote in his 1891 collection, Told After Supper. “Nothing satisfies us on Christmas Eve but to hear each other tell authentic anecdotes about spectres. It is a genial, festive season, and we love to muse upon graves, and dead bodies, and murders, and blood.”3
Yes, blood and Christmas. How better to resolve loss before the Auld Lang Syne of New Year’s Eve? Not to mention It’s a Wonderful Life, a feel-good movie that contains a lot more death and misery and haunted houses than it does wonderful.4
Which brings us to The Great Gatsby, more specifically to the most famous space break in American literature. We know from the glib, rushed beginning of the novel that our young narrator, Nick Carraway, has moved east from Minneapolis to New York. He’s quickly plunked into a cottage, gets a dog, gets a cook, the dog runs away, and he goes to dinner at his cousin’s nearby manse. At dinner, they establish the calendar date as being two weeks before the longest day of the year, thus the novel begins around June 7th.
Summer and youth and romance, these all stretch out ahead of us. The promise of fun, sex, and adventure. Then, not so much.
As the summer ends, the party’s over. Gatsby is murdered amid the autumn leaves in his swimming pool. His blood dissolves toward the pool’s drain just as Myrtle Wilson’s blood mingled with the roadside dust. No one comes to view his body as it lies in state in his vast house. At the internment, only one from among the summer’s thousands of guests arrives to stand in the pouring rain beside the open grave. There, the owl-eyed man says the eulogy, “The poor son-of-a-bitch.”5
Then what?6 At the lowest emotional moment of the novel, where can the author go that won’t be an anticlimax? Put another way: How can F. Scott Fitzgerald wring even more emotion out of this — the death of such a heroic character?7 Witness:
One of my most vivid memories is of coming back west from prep school and later from college at Christmas time. Those who went farther than Chicago would gather in the old dim Union Station at six o’clock of a December evening with a few Chicago friends already caught up into their own holiday gayeties to bid them a hasty goodbye. I remember the fur coats of the girls returning from Miss This or That’s and the chatter of frozen breath and the hands waving overhead as we caught sight of old acquaintances and the matching of invitations: “Are you going to the Ordways’? the Hersheys’? the Schultzes’?” and the long green tickets clasped tight in gloved hands. And last the murky yellow cars of the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railroad looking cheerful as Christmas itself on the tracks beside the gate.
After just a tiny space break, Fitzgerald ties up everything. We jump essentially from the longest day of the year to the shortest. Summer to winter. The sweltering heat at The Plaza Hotel to the wintery midwest. A funeral to Christmas. Youth to middle age. Death to life. From Gatsby’s recent drunken parties to the innocent parties of long ago. We see Nick Carraway retreat into the past, and how the future no longer shines for him. He’s now thirty years old, and his hair is thinning.
Most importantly, we jump from the most painful moment to the most pleasant. This is such an intuitive self-comforting strategy that it heaps pain upon pain.
Tom Spanbauer always taught that a character has to speak from a broken heart. In effect, we’ve all suffered injuries, most of which we can’t recall, but that those events will color our perception for the rest of our lives. Most of writing a first draft is the discovery of that broken heart. It’s only once we’ve discovered how the narrator’s heart was broken that we can go back and write a draft fully colored by that injury. In the passage immediately after Gatsby’s funeral we see — implied — that Nick will turn tail and return, defeated, to live the same banal life he’s tried to escape.
Here, let’s talk about juxtaposition. Place the color green beside the color orange, and green looks different than if you’d placed it next to, say, white.8 In my own work I usually begin by creating almost-random sentences and passages or paragraphs, each depicting a very different aspect of the subject. Once I’ve got a critical mass of such fragments I look for a unifying device with which I can mortar them together.9 That device can be a nonfiction element, a chorus, or a contexual envelop story. In the short story Fight Club — chapter six of the book — I use the business meeting with Microsoft as the context, and I use the rules as the nonfiction chorus, but really I’m just gluing together10 the various fragments of how I imagine a fight club would be.
Having done that, I mix and match. I cut and paste to test how each element resonates when placed next to another.
This allows me to cut narrative as if I were editing a film. Many Fitzgerald folks say his books, primarily The Great Gatsby, are filmic, in the sense that the story flows as if it were a movie. And when you read that book next to work by authors like W. Somerset Maugham or E.M. Forster, the latter two seem so expository and old-fashioned, related more to the 19th century than the 20th.11
It’s only when you cut story like film that you can butt green up against orange for the strongest contrast. And that’s what Fitzgerald gets to do by placing his narrator’s greatest sorrow beside his greatest joy.
And maybe that’s why ghost stories seem appropriate for the holidays? Because it’s only within our greatest sense of happiness and security that we can contemplate death and terror and the grave. Maybe the darkness of death and ghosts makes Christmas morning seem to shine brighter. And maybe the joy of Christmas makes the absence of our dead loved ones seem all the more painful.
If nothing else, try the Fitzgerald trick. Heighten pain by butting it up against joy. Place orange next to green. Yellow against purple. It’s a trick that works.
Plus! It’s a Wonderful Life includes the device of a character deaf in one ear. This allows people to risk telling him emotional truths that he can’t hear. A great method of disconnected dialog that allows the author to state expository intentions without losing tension between characters. “George Bailey, I’m going to marry you.”
Page 183 Scribner’s authorized edition.
I always advocate for twisting the knife further. How can we rub salt and lemon juice into our reader’s open wound?
Do you remember “color clash chic”? In the late 60s and early 70s the culture was filled with turqouise juxtaposed with tangerine orange. Lime green next to day-glo pink. From airplane cabin interiors to doctor’s offices, everything seemed to shimmer with jarring color combinations. At the time it made no sense, then someone told me that the introduction of color televison had spurred the trend. Early color televisions needed to heighten the effect of color so that people would spend more money to buy new sets. The market had to really hit people over the head with COLOR. The stage sets and costumes had to make your eyes bleed with contrast and intense hues. The rest of the world followed the lead of television, hence color clash chic was born.
And you thought my masonry only applied to rocks. To me everything is a game of Tetris!
In the spirit of full disclosure I’ve watched everything on every streaming service and I’m spending the holidays rereading all the work of Maugham and Forster.