A Homage to The Great Gatsby

The past few years saw the rise to prominence of several new voices in the vast world of literature. We saw the debut of names we have never heard of. As their voices rise above the din, they usher new ideas and they explore established subjects through a different lens. Some take it up a notch higher and win prestigious literary awards. This continuous evolution is one of the facets that make the world of literature interesting. Whilst some fail and some succeed, this endless array of voices ensure the future of literature as a whole. True enough, quality trumps quantity but one never runs out of options. For sure, if one looks long enough, or reads long enough, one can find a voice that is suitable to one’s taste.

One of the new voices that is slowly ascending the ladder of literary success is Nghi Vo. Prior to 2021, she has already produced two prominent novellas – The Empress of Salt and Fortune and When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain. I have never heard of her before nor have I read either of her novellas. Nevertheless, her debut novel, The Chosen and Beautiful captured my imagination and interest. It was earlier this year, while researching for books to include in my 2021 Books I Look Forward To List that I came across this interesting new voice and work. When I chose Nghi Vo’s The Chosen and the Beautiful to be part of my 2021 Books I Look Forward To List, it was primarily due to two merits. The first element that immediately captured my attention was the book’s stylized cover. One can never miss that. The second reason reason was the book’s premise.

The Chosen and the Beautiful marketed itself as the story of a queer Asian female who thrived in the glitzy and glamorous world of the Jazz Age. In literature, when one mentions the Jazz Age, it is the memory’s reflex action to evoke images of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s timeless classic The Great Gatsby. Both the book and its movie adaptations leaves deep impressions. Opening The Chosen and the Beautiful, I didn’t realize that I would find myself yet again in the world of Jay Gatsby.

“The night before her wedding, Daisy taught me that after the world ended, you still had to get up in the morning, and the things that you ruined would still be there, needing to be fixed. When I looked at famous Jay Gatsby, soul gone and some terrible engine he called love driving him now, I could see that for him, the world was always ending. For him, it was all a wreck and a ruin, and he had no idea why the rest of us weren’t screaming.”

~ Nghi Vo, The Chosen and the Beautiful

It opened with Jordan Baker in the company of Daisy Buchanan and her husband Tom. I didn’t immediately connect the dots. And then everything started to make sense when Nick Carraway made his entrance. I can’t believe I missed the connections. Jordan Baker was one of the characters in the Fitzgerald classic. Also, one of Fitzgerald’s novels was titled The Beautiful and the Damned. To be honest, learning about the connection between Vo’s novel and The Great Gatsby somehow dampened my mood a little bit. I nearly closed it the moment I finished the first chapter. But I did promise myself to complete every book I opened. Whilst I was on the fence about the book that was before me, I was still driven by the belief that each book carries with it a new experience. I then told myself, let us see.

Like its predecessor, The Chosen and the Beautiful was related through the perspective of a third voice that was privy to the events surrounding the life of Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan. The original story was primarily related by Daisy’s cousin, Nick Carraway. In Vo’s retelling, the perspective was shifted; she made Jordan Baker her novel’s primary voice and character. To the uninitiated, Jordan was Daisy’s best friend although in the original text, she was mostly an inconsequential character. Her aloof nature and sarcastic streak, I guess, were the major contributor to this. Through Daisy, she has become Nick Carraway’s girlfriend.

Basically, Nick and Jordan shared the same accounts of the events, at least where the fated lovers were concerned. The Chosen and the Beautiful did not deviate from the original manuscript. Reading The Chosen and the Beautiful was akin to reliving every vivid detail captured in the book and in the movie. It was also due to the movie that I did not have any major concerns unravelling the events that transpired. As such, Vo’s novel also underlined the social inequities that Fitzgerald has underscored in his narrative. The novel also resonated with the familiar trope of star-crossed lovers and how the cruelties of fate intervene.

To her credit, Vo did insert her own unique elements in the ageless classic. As the narrative was related through the point-of-view of Jordan, the readers get to know more about her backstory. This was perhaps, the only deviation from the original text. In the original, Jordan Baker was inspired by Edith Cummings, a premier amateur golfer. In contrast, Vo’s version of Jordan was Asian who was born in Tonkin. After she was abandoned by her parents, Jordan was adopted by Eliza Baker and was raised by Eliza’s parents after her untimely demise. The Bakers were an affluent family in Louisville, Kentucky.

“When I looked at famous Jay Gatsby, soul gone and some terrible engine he called love driving him now, I could see that for him, the world was always ending. For him, it was all a wreck and a ruin, and he had no idea why the rest of us weren’t screaming.”

~ Nghi Vo, The Chosen and the Beautiful

To make Jordan’s story even more interesting, Vo also incorporated some elements of magic. Because of her heritage, Jordan can make cutouts come to life. Her talent was instrumental in winning Daisy’s friendship when they were younger. At a young age, Jordan realized she was queer. In an era where people fear what they cannot understand, it was not difficult to see this as one of the reasons why Jordan was aloof and sarcastic. She also started to realize that for all her social status can provide, there are doors that remained close to her due to her physical attributes and her heritage. In her retelling, Vo also posited a different angle upon which to observe and appreciate the original characters.

Giving voice to a secondary character, one whose relevance to the original narrative most readers dismiss or disregard, was commendable on Vo’s part. Through her descriptive and lyrical writing, she gave voice to Jordan Baker. She managed to make her a more prominent presence in Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan’s circle. Vo’s version of Jordan was how she I envisioned her to be. Jordan steered the narrative despite the looming presence of Jay Gatsby. Beyond her aloofness and sarcasm, she has depth and feistiness. She also has a keen understanding of the people surrounding her. It came as no surprise that she showed resentment towards Jay Gatsby, as if she sees him beyond his veneer and the superficialities of the parties that he host.

What was lamentable, however, was the lack of exploration of Jordan’s heritage and provenance. Yes, we learn that she was from Tonkin but there were very little traces of it in her. There were some minor details but Jordan can pass over as an American – her behavior, her voice, and how she carried herself was bereft of any traces of her origins. In an attempt to reconcile this, Vo tried to make a belated connection later in the novel. However, it felt disjointed and almost came across as an afterthought. Khai’s entrance to Jordan’s life reminded the readers of Jordan’s Asian heritage and her capabilities as a magician. However, it felt out-of-place and the impact was mostly ephemeral. The limited exploration of sexuality and queerness weighed down in the novel’s elements of coming-of-age.

There were traces of Jordan’s struggles in making headways in the Louisville society. These were mostly attributed to her Asian heritage. However, the novel barely elucidated on these struggles, and were mentioned as if they were just afterthoughts. I surmise that the novel would have made more impact had these elements been explored further, especially in the context of the Jazz Era. Adding magical elements was an interesting move on Vo’s part. However, the magical elements were underwhelming, lost in the glitz and glamour of the original narrative. The magical elements were also inconsequential to the flow of the narrative. But Jordan did redeem herself in the closing pages of the narrative. With Gatsby’s death and her confession to Daisy, she travelled to the east, to Shanghai, in what I believe, is a journey to trace and understand her identity and origin.

“Down among the ashes, their faces and hands turned gray and grimy with the refuse of New York, I could see the men who lived and worked in the ash. It was their lot to shovel the ash that came in. It was a titanic struggle that I imagined they could only cope with by realizing that they were after an impossible goal and therefore were free to ignore it.”

~ Nghi Vo, The Chosen and the Beautiful

For all its flaws, I did enjoy Vo’s writing. It kept all the novel’s elements together. I was never bored even though I already have an iota on how the story will develop. It also made Jordan’s story come alive and complimented her character and personality. Apart from the story of Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan, The Chosen and the Beautiful was bereft of a plot that would have moved it forward. It was this loyalty to the original story that was the novel’s downfall. The original premise was interesting but its preoccupation with The Great Gatsby made its lose its shroud of mystery. This specially holds through for readers who have already read the original novel or watched the movie.

As a homage to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, The Chosen and the Beautiful was on point. However, it was Vo’s loyalty to the classic text that hindered her from creating an even more riveting and powerful story. The elements were already there. If only these new elements were explored more and seamlessly sewn into the tapestry of the main storyline. Vo’s Jordan Baker had the potential to be more impactful. She had the fire and the spunk. Nevertheless, The Chosen and the Beautiful was still an interesting interpretation of the literary classic and would work fine for those who have not read the original.

Ratings

59%

Characters (30%) – 22%
Plot (30%) – 14%
Writing (25%) – 18%
Overall Impact (15%) – 5%

Book Specs

Author: Nghi Vo
Publisher: Tordotcom Books
Publishing Date: June 2021
Number of Pages: 260
Genre: Coming-of-age, LGBTQ Fiction

Synopsis

Jordan Baker grows up in the most rarified circles of 1920s American society – she has money, education, a killer golf handicap, and invitations to some of the most exclusive parties of the Jazz Age. She’s also queer and Asian, a Vietnamese adoptee treated as an exotic attraction by her peers, while the most important doors remain closed to her.

But the world is full of wonders: infernal pacts and dazzling illusions, lost ghosts and elemental mysteries. In all paper is fire, and Jordan can burn the cut-paper heart out of a man. She just has to learn how.

Nghi Vo’s debut novel, The Chosen and the Beautiful reinvents this classic of the American canon as a coming-of-age story full of magic, mystery, and glittering excess, and introduces a major new literary voice.

About the Author

Nghi Vo was born in central Illinois.

Vo writes speculative fiction of all kinds. Her short fiction works have been published in a score of publications such as Strange Horizons, Icarus Magazine, Uncanny Magazine, PodCastle, Lightspeed, and Fireside. In 2014, her short story, Neither Witch nor Fairy made the 2014 Tiptree Award Honor List. She has also published two novellas The Empress of Salt and Fortune and When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain. For her works, she was nominated for the Hugo Award and the Ignyte Award finalist. She was also the winner of Reddit’s Stabby Award and IAFA’s Crawford Award. In 2021, she published her debut novel, The Chosen and the Beautiful.

Vo currently resides on the shores of Lake Michigan.