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The Itch of Writing Bookshelf 4: Careless People by Sarah Churchwell

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CARELESS PEOPLE: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of The Great Gatsby, by Sarah Churchwell

Just as the young, rich(ish) Mid-Western writer Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda were packing for the East in 1922, a very ordinary, young married woman and her lover were discovered in New Jersey, shot through the head. The murder case became a national sensation,  and Fitzgerald followed it as he and Zelda settled in Long Island, drank, drove and danced their way to and from New York, travelled to Europe, came back to America with their marriage on the rocks ... and all the time, Fitzgerald was, inch by inch, working on the novel that he was determined would be in a different league from anything he'd yet done in its ambition and seriousness. As Churchwell puts it, Careless People is "an histoire trouvé about what was in the air as Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby, including the unfolding of a remarkable tale of murder, adultery, class resentment, mistaken identity and the invention of romantic pasts."

Why I enjoyed it

At first I though I would avoid Careless People. I love Gatsby, and so much writing about the "true" origins of novels and other art is in some way reductive: publicity urges you to read a novel because it isn't really fiction; Author's Notes appease the reader who resents not being able to tell which parts of the novel are "made up"; articles focusing on the "real story" of what happened end up explaining away the complexity and fascination of how the fiction happened.  But then I got fascinated by the New York and Long Island that Churchwell describes. Seen from Europe, it's both extraordinarily modern and fast-moving, and astonishingly primitive, frontier-like and undeveloped. The book plaits together the story of the murder and the investigation; the wider world of bootleggers, prohibition, poverty, ordinary people and extraordinary money; the Fitzgeralds and their friendships; and the strange, alchemical transmutation that goes on when a great writer takes the stuff of the real world, and of the imagination, and spins them into something better and more satisfying that a mere "real" story ever could be. Instead of explaining away what Gatsby is, Careless People makes you want to go back to it.

Three reasons for a writer to read it

1) Churchwell reviews for The Guardian and elsewhere, but she's also Professor of American Literature and the Public Understanding of the Humanities at East Anglia, and both show in her ability to unpick, most clearly and delicately, exactly how Fitzgerald's storytelling works. It doesn't read as formal literary criticism, faithful though she is to academic standards of explanation and proof: her skills are put to the service of illuminating the alchemy that goes on between the world which Fitzgerald lives in and observes, and how the story ends up working on the page.

2) The portrait of the trials and complications of trying to survive as a writer both creatively and economically - even a bright, new, young, celebrated writer in the glory days of newspapers and magazines - is oddly warming. Fitzgerald seems like such a golden boy in both talent and charm, and it's easy to see his breathtaking alcoholism as sheer self-indulgence. And yet he still struggles, still has to break off to write other things for quick money, is still derailed creatively by his emotional life going wrong, and still minds desperately that his ambitious new novel should succeed.

3) Do you need a reason to go back to The Great Gatsby? If you do, then think about what you might learn from it: about how a narrative may not be the narrator's story;  about how to drop scraps and hints of information not as bafflements, but as sweets dropped in the forest to lead us on; about how some of the best prose to come out of the USA in the first half of the 20th century actually works; about how a story in which no single character is likeable or endearing in any of the normal ways can still make you (all right, me) feel at the end at once so sad, and so happy.

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