Saturday, March 31, 2012

The American dream

Title: The Great Gatsby
Author: F. Scott Fitzgerald
Publisher: Scribner (1995, PB, 216 pages)
Price: (Please check for prices of different editions)

The traditional dream of American authors has been to write the Great American Novel, to reconcile within one work the sprawling energies, contradictions and aspirations of a nation that, to take a phrase from Walt Whitman, contains multitudes.  Not a few authors have managed to present an artistic vision of America with lasting aesthetic power; one of the best examples is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.  Gatsby has arguably the strongest claim to be the definitive “Great American Novel” because it takes as its subject the American dream – an idea that, more than any other, lies at the heart of what it means to be American.

The novel’s characters and themes are drawn from fundamental notions of American identity.  The eponymous Jay Gatsby is a wealthy but mysterious figure in a fictionalized Long Island, New York community.  Gatsby, both less and more than what he appears to be, is that quintessentially New World creature -- the self-made man.  He embodies the economic and social mobility at the core of the American identity, rising from humble circumstances to success through desire and intelligence and hard work.

As Gatsby is gradually revealed to us, we learn he’s driven by the romanticized ideal of Daisy Buchanan, a woman he loved and lost years ago.  Having intermingled memories of Daisy with notions of success and happiness, Gatsby devotes himself to material success as a means of winning her back.  Gatsby tells the story of the climax and tragic results of these efforts.

Fitzgerald’s presentation of the American dream is laced with ironies.  Gatsby’s fortune is derived from crime; his dreams are romantic illusions that end in tragedy; his pathetic funeral suggests the ultimate futility of his life.  Yet to Gatsby it did not seem so.  One of the novel’s most affecting passages finds him staring across the distance at a green light on Daisy’s dock, which represents not only her but the American dream. Striving to reach it gives Gatsby’s life meaning by providing an outlet for his energy and offering hope, a fantasy that in the end proves more satisfying than its realization.

Fitzgerald famously claimed that “there are no second acts in American lives.”  Given that most of his adult life was spent in decline, this view is perhaps unsurprising.  But it may be wrong.  No one in America who is born poor, or who fails, needs feel that his condition is permanent.  The idea of the America dream is rooted in possibility, endless invention and re-invention.  This quality, this freedom from history and the burdens of the old world, has for generations inspired countless millions to seek their own second act, or third act, or fourth.  Fitzgerald is not wrong to suggest the darkness that lurks around the edges of  the American dream – doing so gives the novel integrity and power – but the shading is best seen as an accent, serving to set off the essential brilliance of the dream itself rather than giving it a sinister cast.

Fitzgerald’s prose is simple and direct, but with moments of lyricism.  I particularly commend to readers the last few paragraphs of the book for their beautiful summation of its ideas.

A copy of The Great Gatsby is also available for loan at the Lincoln Corner at KL Library, on 1 Jalan Raja. The Lincoln Corner collection is constantly refurbished, please send any recommendations for new acquisition (fiction or non-fiction) to

Guest reviewer
Adam Zerbinopoulos.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

King of the Sea

Title: King of the Sea
Author: Dina Zaman
Publisher: Silverfish Books (2012)
Price: RM30.00

King of The Sea (a collection of short stories) took Dina Zaman (the author of I Am Muslim) about 13 years to complete. The stories began as part of her project  she was a masters student at Lancaster University in 1993, inspired by her homesickness,  and her longing for the ‘ Terengganu air’.

She explores themes of love, grief, loss and longing, and the magic in our lives. A young boy, grieving for his late father, meets a ghost who tells him that he is the king of the sea.  Alia, a missing child, comes back as a chicken to bewildered parents. A daughter witnesses an  affair by her unfaithful mother, but she is not sure if she was hallucinating. A young man arrives on an island, and marries a jungle spirit, a bunian. Hell breaks lose in a small village when a brash modern city woman decides to live there. A teacher who longs for a more glamorous life, literally, disappears into a movie screen.

Dina Zaman, a survivor from the I Am Muslim tsunami, has been writing in the Malaysian media for over 17 years. Her first book, a collection of short stories, night & day, which was  part of the Black & White series, was published by Rhino Press in 1997. She has had her works of  fiction, and non-fiction, published  in many journals and periodicals, locally and regionally. She is currently studying saints, and other holy men and women, and their impact on Malaysia for her next book Holy Men, Holy Women under the API Fellowship 2012-2013 programme that she has just been awarded.

Silverfish Books -- special offer
Dina Zaman's dynamic duo gift pack

When I am Muslim was published in 2007, it became a media sensation, not just for its controversial points of view, but also due to the author's uncanny blend of humour and pathos. Those who loved that will love King of the Sea, even if this is a work of fiction and the former was not. Buy Dina Zaman's latest, King of the Sea, and her best selling, I am Muslim, (two books) for 30% off (online and in-store). Offer valid until 30 April 2012