Careless People by Sarah Churchwell: The glamour and grimness of Gatsby

Sarah Churchwell's Careless People is as mixed and inclusive as F Scott Fitzgerald’s scrapbooks. Both offer 1922 as the chief exhibit to explain the jazz age.

Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of The Great Gatsby
Sarah Churchwell
Virago, 448pp, £16.99

F Scott Fitzgerald wrote his greatest novel in France in 1924, having exiled himself in order to get some work done. But during those ten months of intense writing, he thought his way back to the parties, quarrels, hopes and disappointments of his life with Zelda and their friends on Long Island in the feted and fateful year of 1922.

This is the world that Sarah Churchwell reconstructs for us as she lays out the raw materials from which The Great Gatsby was made. We meet the people Fitzgerald met: newspaper tycoons such as Herbert Swope and entrepreneurs such as Larry Fay, who made his money from liquor and taxis (and smuggling liquor in taxis) and spent it on his rainbow collection of beautifully tailored shirts. We start to learn the ropes of 1920s Manhattan: the colour of taxis, the customary length of skirts, the modish vocabulary. Eventually, we feel we might just telephone through to the Fitzgeralds (ask the operator for Great Neck 740). Dialling codes and lexicons – these details matter. The first readers of Gatsby thought it was all about themselves, a book of the moment. Today, we tend to admire its enduring mythology of aspiration and undoing. Churchwell brilliantly brings these two perspectives together as she holds in counterpoint the sprawling stuff of Fitzgerald’s daily life and the gleamingly taut prose poem that emerged from it.

It is too easy, Churchwell warns, to make simple equations between fiction and reality. She deals instead with hauntings, doublings and reverberations. The enigmatic green light across the dock, to which Gatsby stretches out his arms, is not literally related to the traffic lights recently erected in Manhattan. Yet there is just a shadow of shared meaning, a shadow that deepens and enriches the enigma.

The jazz age documented here is sadder and less glittering than Baz Luhrmann would have us believe in his new film of The Great Gatsby. Churchwell evokes the allure of the speakeasies but also the seediness of an underground world run by crooks without compunction: “Speakeasies had false fronts, barrels had false bottoms, drunk drivers gave false names to the police and upstarts depended on making false impressions.”

Fitzgerald conjugated the verb “to cocktail” but tired of the game after reaching the conditional subjunctive. The continuous round of drinking could turn, likewise, from pleasure to tedium. There is a photograph of a party at the Fitzgeralds’ house in which the guests look weary. “Where is the magic?” asks Churchwell. Where, indeed? As the parties went on through 1923, Fitzgerald had a sense of repetition and disintegration. “February: Still drunk . . . April . . . Another fight. Tearing drunk,” he noted in his ledger. He summed up the mood in a marginal note: “No ground under our feet.” There was nothing inherently enchanted about these lives. In his fiction, Fitzgerald kept writing about the awful realisation that magic cannot always be summoned.

Knowing that the good times would pass, desperately needing facts that would ground him, Fitzgerald saved things up. This was his counter to the carelessness of his milieu. He kept ledgers and scrapbooks, he made lists, he preserved cuttings. He had a profound need to archive and Churchwell takes her cue from him as she sorts through the flotsam of his life, honouring his curious relics. Here is a photograph of Zelda in the snow, faded to ghostliness. Here are notes on the back of a dinner menu, a yellowed rhyme saying “Flappy New Year”, a Fitzgerald autograph ready to cut out and keep.

Careless People is as mixed and inclusive as Fitzgerald’s scrapbooks. There are both glamour and grimness here. Even the typography varies between chic deco lettering and the blotchy ink of newspaper headlines. If Churchwell’s book is biography, literary criticism and social history, it is also a work of “detective non-fiction” that might be compared with Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher. The unfolding story of a long, botched murder trial is woven into every chapter, getting stranger and stranger by the page, exposing corruption, envy and ambition of many kinds. A shooting under an apple tree in New Brunswick doesn’t at first sound congruous with Gatsby but it comes to stand as a “phantom double” of the novel’s murderous denouement. The sordid and the tragic become difficult to tell apart.

The police investigating this murder were blunderers who let tourists walk all over the crime scene. The truth went missing, carted off by souvenir hunters. As Nick Carraway says at the end of Gatsby, “It was all very careless and confused.” Churchwell, on the other hand, demonstrates how careful detective work is done.

Fitzgerald offered the year 1922 as the chief exhibit when he tried to explain the meaning of the jazz age. It is an exhibit worth looking at very carefully. Careless People does so with a mixture of patience and panache and it would take a long time to get bored of that particular cocktail.

Churchwell evokes the allure of the speakeasies but also the seediness of an underground world.

This article first appeared in the 10 June 2013 issue of the New Statesman, G0

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Will the latest wave of revivals, with X-Files leading the way, serve or undermine loyal fans?

How fandoms are affected when their favourite characters return to their screens.

The X-Files has returned to television. The beloved sci-fi drama, which was on screen for nine years (plus two feature films, including nobody’s favourite, 2008’s I Want to Believe), wrapped up in 2002. More than a decade later, the show is back on FOX for a six-episode run, a length that’s standard in Britain but new to American broadcast audiences used to 22-episode seasons.

And last night, before the US watched the fourth episode, everyone in the UK who hadn’t already found another way to watch it saw the series premiere on Channel 5.

Watching America watch the premiere was a curious thing. I’ve never been an X-Files fan (for no particular reason, I just never got down to it), but spending your time deep in fan culture means having plenty of friends who cut their teeth on X-Files fandom in the mid- to late-Nineties.

Modern media fandom was born in online X-Files communities, laying templates for a lot of our current language and practices. The most prominent example might be the term “ship”, short for relationship, because the fandom was (and still is?) divided between shippers – proponents of MSR, or “Mulder/Scully relationship”, a desire to see the two leads move past platonic affection onscreen – and “no-romos”, who, as you might guess, wanted the opposite. Two decades later, “ship” has spread far beyond the fandom where it originated, or even beyond fandom at large.

The X-Files wasn’t just a fan favourite, though: far from some cult sleeper hit, it was the kind of mainstream success that the network tapped to air after the Super Bowl one year (that particular episode, in 1997, earned 29m viewers). So when the new series premiered, I watched with interest as America seemed to fall over itself in excitement. The start-time was pushed back due to a late NFL championship game, and the entire internet seemed to be clamouring to get the football off the screen. And when the show finally came on, I watched the collective glee.

It was fascinating to see a Nineties mainstay get the instant-collective-reaction treatment of the social media era, but I was abstractly worried, too: people who’d seen preview screenings were reporting that the first episode was pretty terrible, and I was ready for some serious backlash.

I messaged a friend, one of those whose first fandom experience was The X-Files, and she told me, with considerable confidence, that it didn’t matter. “Nobody cares,” she said.It’s not about that – it’s about having them on TV again.”

Sure enough, as the episode concluded, I gauged a similar sentiment among fans: “That wasn’t very good . . . I’VE MISSED THIS SHOW SO MUCH.”

I got in touch with a few long-time X-Files fans to ask if they felt this ambivalence. Aloysia Virgata told me that, despite initial trepidation (she’s been wary since the 2008 film), she was hopeful. “As the filming progressed, as David and Gillian proved to have developed a lovely friendship that was a joy to watch, as the promotional team got their feet under them, I found myself back in the Nineties, scheduling appointment TV.”

And Dasha K said: “Mulder and Scully are wonderful, complex characters and I'd watch them doing just about anything as long as we got snappy dialogue and longing looks between them. The X-Files revival is more than a nostalgic experience for me. It’s setting off with some old friends for new adventures.”

Fans tend to stick by their favourite characters. It’s sort of one of our defining features. Some people watch a film again and again to memorise every fact; others might build on fictional worlds in stories of their own – there are a lot of reasons to write fanfiction, but a common one is that you aren’t quite ready to give up the characters you love.

We hold on to them after shows are cancelled too soon, or after individuals or relationships are massacred in the writers’ room. But one question leaves us divided: if you could have these characters back, if this show could come back on the air, would you even want it to?

If the past decade has been the era of the reboot, we’re embarking on the era of the revival. The X-Files isn’t the first big show to be resurrected – Family Guy springs to mind, or the Netflix series of Arrested Development, or the 2014 Veronica Mars film, notable not just because it brought a show back from oblivion, but because it was literally done by fans, via a Kickstarter campaign.

It’s easy enough to quibble over the differences between reboots, revivals, sequels, and franchise continuations – where exactly does Doctor Who fall, for example – but I’m specifically interested in the swathe of shows that we’ll see in the next year or two, most with the original casts, most following on from where we left our characters before. Friends, Gilmore Girls, Twin Peaks, Full House, and a new Star Trek (aside from the one in cinemas); I can already hear those critics moaning about how we’re stuck a morass of cheap and easy nostalgia.

Let’s be real here – most of the time, the sequel is worse than the original. And there are fundamental questions at work about narrative: whether shows with structural arcs and some semblance of closure should be resurrected from the dead (never mind that many shows end for other reasons, creative differences or squabbles over salary or flagging viewing figures).

I personally occupy a place that might seem paradoxical to people who don’t write or read fanfiction: I love my characters so much that I never, ever want them back in any “official” capacity beyond the initial text – I’m too busy doing unofficial (and, to me, much more interesting) things with them.

But like it or not, our characters are coming back. This always seems to stress people out who don’t get attached to things: revivals are prime targets for accusations of “fan service”. The term originated in anime and manga, where it often meant inserting gratuitous sexy bits into the story to, well, service the fan.

But in recent years it’s morphed into the suggestion that elements of a show or film are meant for the hardcore fan alone: complicated plots, winking in-jokes, meta- and intertextuality are all recipients of the accusation. Revivals are built on intertextuality; it’s rare that a cast and writing team will reunite and not work to build from where they left off.

The age of revivals owes a lot to rapidly changing television formats, viewing habits, and funding models – David Duchovny explicitly said the that they agreed to make this X-Files series because they were only locked into six episodes, after all. But it also owes a lot to the ever-increasing exposure of fans, whether they’re actively campaigning for a show’s resurrection or just very visibly continuing to flip out over and scrutinise and dissect and love a show that’s been off the air for nearly 15 years. I can’t help but think that when people complain about reboots and revivals, they sense that people stay loyal to a show, or to its characters, out of some sort of slavish inertia, which has no connection to what actually happens in fandom.

All of this isn’t to say that fans are looking for revivals that peddle nostalgia alone. In a review of the first three episodes of the new X-Files, the Guardian expressed its frustration:

The best reboots need to make a case for their very existence, otherwise it’s just the members of Fleetwood Mac getting together to play Rhiannon for the millionth time as we clap along and remember the good old days. New episodes should create something new, should take a series to a different place or comment on their legacy rather than just muddling around in the past hoping it’s enough for some good ratings.

Fans – who are rarely satisfied, and always ask for more from their media – want to push the story along, too. (The fact that they can do this while still enjoying clapping along to Rhiannon for the millionth time might baffle some critics, but what can you do.)

But developing the story may look different to different people: take the complaints (from George Lucas, but also plenty of other guys on the internet) that the new Star Wars just spins its wheels and plays to the crowds’ expectations. And then consider how the film, with its pair of leads being a woman and a black man, both wielding a lightsaber, arguably breaks more new ground than any series of plot twists every could. And if the audience enjoyed itself along the way, seeing something new while still revelling in the old things it loved, even better. Fans, serviced.

That’s not to say that the new X-Files is necessarily progressively forging into the future. (In fact, it’s come under fire for getting a bit stuck in the past.) But the television landscape is broad and varied enough that TV no longer has to mean one thing: we’re seeing the earliest hints of the long tail of the internet reflected back on our screens.

“Reviews in the US also indicate that the series vastly improves,” The Telegraph wrote in its review of the first episode. “But on this form, it’s hard to imagine anyone but the most loyal X-philes still believing.”

I understand that shows like to have broad critical or audience appeal. I’m just not sure there’s anything wrong with a show having deep fannish appeal instead. (And by the way, from what I gather from seemingly devastated fan friends and critics alike, the show does get much better. Like, they’re devastated by their emotions, not the quality of the writing.)

If this is the first year of the great wave of revivals – potentially a new format for media storytelling, fueled by fannish devotion – then I can think of no better show than The X-Files to lead the charge.

Elizabeth Minkel is a staff writer for The Millions, and writes a regular column on fan culture for the New Statesman. She is on Twitter @ElizabethMinkel.