Author Nghi Vo almost got run over in her high school parking lot the same day she received “The Great Gatsby” as a sophomore in high school – eerily, narrowly avoiding the same fate as a main character in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel.
“That isn’t a huge feat. I was a pretty clumsy kid and, high school parking lots being what they are,” she says, ruminating on what inspired her to write her own version of the story – “The Chosen and the Beautiful” (Tordotcom, 262 pp.), out Tuesday – now that the original is in the public domain.
“The Great Gatsby” tells the ultimately tragic story of Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan from friend (and Daisy’s cousin) Nick Carraway’s view, perhaps most famous for its eye-popping party scenes and all things 1920s.
Vo writes the seminal novel from Daisy’s golfer friend Jordan Baker’s point of view – but that’s not the only update the text gets. A fan-fiction connoisseur, Vo writes Jordan as queer and Vietnamese American.
“Spins on identity are sort of par for the course (in fan-fiction),” Vo says. “What happens if you change something and how does it change your understanding of it is always at the heart of a lot of the work I do.”
Did we mention the book also mixes in magical realism? Because (spoiler alert) it does – and it will pique your curiosity about all t side characters Fitzgerald didn’t flesh out.
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What readers don’t see in ‘The Great Gatsby’
Like many American students, Vo was presented with the book as the great American novel about identity, ambition and the American dream. She swooned for the sweeping, soaring emotion the book possessed.
“When you’re a teenager, everything is so very big and so very dramatic because you’re feeling it for the first time,” she says. “That was the first time I think I’d seen it really reflected in, ‘good, important literature.’ It wasn’t exactly like those people felt the same things I felt, but they seemed to feel them on the same scale that I did.”
Vo vowed to stay as close to the structure of “The Great Gatsby” as possible, partially out of admiration and partially to break the book apart and fill in Fitzgerald’s gaps.
“In the original, Jordan is absolutely having conversations that we don’t see with Jay Gatsby, she’s having conversations we don’t see with Daisy and most of her relationship with Nick Carraway is offscreen,” Vo says.
Readers regularly revel in the inherent queerness embedded in “The Great Gatsby”; many suspect Nick is gay or bisexual. Giving Jordan the explicitly queer role invites zero room for sapphic speculation. Vo – who is queer herself – aimed to leave readers with the impression that the 1920s were a time of excess and emergence from both World War I and the shadow of the Spanish flu pandemic.
“I think that does something to people, and I think it helps them embrace things that they might otherwise have turned away from, or been afraid of in the past,” she says.
In case you missed (yes):Are new ‘Great Gatsby’ adaptations in our future? The classic’s copyright is set to expire in 2021
The metaphoric magic of ‘The Great Gatsby’ comes to life
“The Great Gatsby” feels magical – fashion, forbidden romance, 1920s New York – but Vo livens up the story with literal magic. Jordan can cut what she wants out of paper and bring it to life, even people. Paper-cutting is a pan-Asian art form associated with women and the interior of the house, as well as good luck and aesthetics, Vo says. Her brain linked this aesthetic idea with 1920s America.
Are any characters in the book actually paper versions of themselves? Pay close attention to “The Great Gatsby” original text for a clue.
Speaking of the original: “The Chosen and the Beautiful” readers will immediately recognize Jordan’s famous lines from “The Great Gatsby”: “I like large parties. They’re so intimate. At small parties there isn’t any privacy.” But then we see her commentary: “I said it defiantly, daring Nick to bring us back to our host.”
“It’s both a lovely line, it’s both a throwaway, socialite line,” Vo says. “And it’s also deeply true.”
Daisy’s husband Tom Buchanan is openly racist in another scene – as he was in “The Great Gatsby,” though readers in 2021 react differently than readers a century ago – but having a person of color in the room heightens the tension.
“We know that Tom’s reprehensible,” Vo says. “We know he’s that guy at the party, you know, but I don’t know if it was ever really opened up for us that Tom is genuinely racist.”
Vo posits that Fitzgerald didn’t slip a sentence into the novel without purpose.
“The original novel is so short, everything that’s in there, I think, is making a point,” she says.
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