Immigrant. Socialite. Magician.
Jordan Baker grows up in the most rarefied 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, Asian, adopted, and 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.
When I think back on the experience of reading The Chosen and the Beautiful I think of freshly pressed silk slipping over skin and fingers sliding through hair and delicate cords of bright pearls shimmering on bare throats like sunrise on water. And a glimmer of something else too, something sharp beneath the smooth surface: shards from a mirror that tipped off a shelf and shattered and rivulets of molten blood and faint scratches from a single nail painted slick black. Such are the beautiful, ruinous, indelible images this book built in my mind.
“Death doesn’t come to Gatsby’s,” went the rumor, and it might even have been true. Certainly ugliness didn’t, and neither did morning or hangovers or hungers that could not be sated. Those things waited for us outside the gates, so whoever wanted to go home?
Nghi Vo reimagines The Great Gatsby with sensuality, queerness, and a glass-sharp beauty, and it’s like returning to a love-worn poem that had melted away into half-remembered snatches, and finding that it contained a new meaning. Everything is new, and everything is familiar, all at once.
Fitzgerald never managed writing as ravishingly beautiful as this. Vo’s writing, with its luxuriance and precise command of tone, has a meticulous quality to it, as if every word was a jewel laid out very carefully on a tray. I gnawed over the prose, read passages out loud, rolled them out around my head, found out how they moved on my tongue, until it felt like I was absorbing them, or they were absorbing me. Until there was no room in me for anything else.
The plot of The Chosen and the Beautiful skims forward with languid grace, dropping like petals from a blown rose. I liked how the novel unwinds itself in its own way and in its own time, unfolding its clever, complicated machinations with wicked skill. How it hoards its secrets like a miser their stash of gold, and reveals its answers slowly, patiently. Without tolerance for the pace and withholding nature, a reader might not find the novel to their liking, but those willing to be patient will be richly, amply rewarded.
The Chosen and the Beautiful, however, isn’t only a remarkable achievement of craft; it is a skillful feat of reinvention as well. The places where old memories meet new, new money meets old gods, and the beautiful mundane is interrupted by papercut magic—the places where the two stories crisscross, mash, and fight where they intersect, the novel’s own tense dance with its source material—constitute the novel’s most rewarding experiment.
The Chosen and the Beautiful knifes through the canon from which it sprung, sinks its jaws down to the bone, devours what’s rotten about it, and delicately chews it into a vivid evocation of the immigrant experience, a very deliberate indictment of white supremacy, and most winningly, a sharp, clear-eyed, and deep-diving delineation of the human nature, in all its complicated glory.
Much like Jordan Baker’s magic allows her to feel the spark in all paper and nurse it forth to make it grow into flame, Vo digs up characters we think we already know and shows us that they can be far more complicated and interesting than we ever dreamed.
Jordan Baker, the original, is a minor character in someone else’s play, required to stay in the story no matter how hard she resisted. But in Vo’s hands, she is rendered glaringly alive and impressive. Nghi Vo’s Jordan Baker is a dazzling, cruel rendition of the original: she is a beautiful, mordant socialite who sharpened herself into the kind of girl who wasn’t easy to shatter. She is a queer orphaned immigrant—plucked as a child from the soil of Tonkin by a white missionary woman and brought to America, where she snagged halfway between “a charming oddity and a foreign conspiracy”—who taught herself how to slip, like a silken ribbon, through predominantly rich, white, and cishet spaces. She is a magician learning how to lay more than just secret furtive claims to her heritage, as though it were a sun-warmed stone that is too hot for the touch.
Nghi Vo lets Daisy slip her moorings—Daisy who is only true when she breaks, when all that was sweet in her withers and falls away, like a new apple splitting its rind to reveal a core crawling with maggots—and draws as much fire from Nick’s character—Nick who had severed the strands of his past like stray threads before they could tie knots in his heart only to bind it in Gatsby’s coils. And, of course, there is Gatsby, with his elegant cruelty, his tender malevolence, and his eyes which pulled like the tide, no matter how hard you swam against it. Gatsby who had risen so far in the world by bartering away his soul, and had the whole city dancing to his tune, glittering in his halls, stumbling drunk, stupid with freedom, and crammed with demoniac. Gatsby who was unburdened by everything except desire, destroying himself in longing for magic, for money, for Daisy, for belonging, until the price was paid, and it was too late to claim it back.
Through her glittering and terrifying characters, Nghi Vo tells a violently stunning story about existing half in one world, half in another, disdained and desired by both, and unable to decide where you belong, about the clenched fist of hunger in your belly that wants to seek, to be seen, to belong—the relentless, gnawing kind that you can neither take away nor set bounds upon—and the dreams that look like plumage, but sit on your shoulders like a cloak lined with lead, threatening to press you, boneless, to the ground.
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.
I am truly, uncomplicatedly in love with this book. There is something like sweet, syrupy catharsis about Vo’s reimagining of The Great Gatsby that still washes over me in waves: how it folds back the curtains on what’s missing, and fills in the gaps, how it invites questioning, and lights up the dark shadows our monuments cast. How it feels edged, like a challenge: we will carve out a space in the stories that refuse to make rooms for us, and we will watch as new flowers spring up through the cracks, upright and open to collect the light.
CWs: racism, homophobia, abortion, domestic abuse, death
Thank you to Tordotcom and Lauren Anesta for providing me with an early copy of this book in exchange for an honest review!
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