In the last pages of my novel revision, I was looking for inspiration and guidance, and I turned to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. I read the novel last fall for the first time since college, and I was taken by its story structure. In some ways, it’s quite simplistic. Not that much happens, really, but the way Fitzgerald fits the storylines together, the way he pits the values of the characters against each other, well the result is forceful and dramatic. Now I’m reading the ending, over and over, examining transitions and content and details and how he brings loose threads to an end, and, really, it’s just perfectly done. But in my search to find an avenue for my own writing, the following passage stood out:
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 good-by. 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 matchings of invitations: “Are you going to the Ordways’? the Herseys’? the Schultzes’?” and the long green tickets clasped tight in our 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.
When we pulled out into the winter night and the real snow, our snow, began to stretch out beside us and twinkle against the windows, and the dim lights of small Wisconsin stations moved by, a sharp wild brace came suddenly into the air. We drew in deep breaths of it as we walked back from dinner through the cold vestibules, unutterably aware of our identity with this country for one strange hour, before we melted indistinguishably into it again.
What I notice are the singular details, and not just details, but details in movement: floating clouds of breath, waving hands, clasped tickets. Also, Fitzgerald is recalling Nick’s memories of the West, his home, before he went East and found Gatsby. He wants to ground us in what Nick once new and contrast it to what he found when he went East. He does it so succinctly, so powerfully. Look at that third sentence, how the images just keep coming, one after the other. And then how he goes from the tiny concrete details to the abstract description of the place and the self, the emphasis, “and the real snow, our snow,” and then finally “we melted indistinguishably into it again.” Brilliant!