The discussion of The Great Gatsby begins today in my course on it—an entire course devoted to a 180-page book—and in rereading it, I was struck for the first time by the apparent irrelevance of the opening paragraphs. You’ll remember them. Nick Carraway, who has not yet divulged his name, quotes advice from this father, warning him, in much the same way the Los Angeles Review of Books warns reviewers of first-time authors, not to say anything if he can’t say something nice. Nick reflects:
Fitzgerald himself, according to Matthew J. Bruccoli’s biography, received eight votes in a poll of Princeton’s class of 1917 for Thinks He Is Biggest Politician (he also received seven votes for Wittiest, and fifteen for Thinks He Is Wittiest). In at least one respect, then, the passage is grounded in autobiography. And perhaps this accounts for the pseudo-intellectual tone of the general observations: “The abnormal mind is quick to detect and attach itself to this quality when it appears in a normal person,” “the intimate revelations of young men . . . are usually plagiaristic and marred by obvious suppressions.” These sound like the grand pronouncements of a recent undergraduate, although Carraway (as we learn later) is just about to turn thirty.
Fitzgerald’s social and academic position at Princeton was anxious and unsettled. Unlike Carraway, his family was not “prominent” nor “well-to-do”: his father was a failure in business. He was one of the few Catholics at Princeton—the only Catholic whom Edmund Wilson knew there—and though he did not flunk out, he never took a degree. Because he was never in good academic standing, he was never able to hold office in the Triangle Club, the undergraduate dramatic guild (he coveted the presidency). Fitzgerald must have been exquisitely sensitive to accusations of “being a politician”—a suck up, as we might now say, a brown noser.
What he has done in this early paragraph is to transfigure the social anxiety into the plausible explanation for his narrative—the fiction of the fiction of Gatsby. Few critics have bothered to answer the question that the Amateur Reader recently asked about the novel: “Why is Carraway writing?” How does he account for his 180-page manuscript?
The answer is that Nick Carraway has the “habit” of listening to the “secret griefs of wild, unknown men”—men like Gatsby, for instance. His “inclination” to reserve judgment has repeatedly cast him in the role of onlooker narrator, although perhaps third-party narrator or confessor narrator is more apt in his case. An “intimate revelation” like Gatsby’s is nothing new to him. Why, even the sensation he reports later upon listening to Gatsby’s war stories (“like skimming hastily through a dozen magazines”) is nothing new. Gatsby too offers up revelations that are “plagiaristic” and “marred by suppressions.”
It has generally been recognized that, at least as far as Nick Carraway understands what he is doing, The Great Gatsby is not a novel. “[O]n Gatsby’s side, and alone,” he is “responsible, because no one else was interested.” As far as he knows, he is telling a true story—as true as he can make it. But if he is not writing a novel, then, what is his writing? He is transcribing an intimate revelation as confessed to a “normal person,” an unremarkable person, who is accustomed to reserving judgment even for the unsought monologues of “curious natures” and “veteran bores.” The fiction behind The Great Gatsby, the device that plausibly explains its place in the world, has rarely been remarked upon, because Fitzgerald has been as masterful in concealing it as in devising it.
 Matthew J. Bruccoli, Some Sort of Epic Grandeur: The Life of F. Scott Fitzgerald, 2nd rev.ed. (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2002), p. 72.
 Bruccoli, p. 57.