Driving on Towards Death and Our Increasingly Fake World

Posted May 22, 2017

Every year when I teach The Great Gatsby to my 10th-grade students I can’t help but notice how relevant it remains. It shouldn’t be surprising since Fitzgerald was prophetic in its own right, and history tends to repeat itself, but I still find myself caught off guard each time I dive back into Fitzgerald’s world of money-fueled optimism and shallow emotions. Whether it’s the descriptions of the fragile economy, the callousness of social elites, the fleeting romances of the young, or the metaphor of happiness as a house of cards ready to tumble at any instant, there is always something that seems to strike a chord with the world outside of the school walls.

In 2017 it should come as no surprises that the aspects of the novel I can’t seem to look past is the “fake” attributes of every character in the novel and the supposedly lovely life they lead.

In a year in which “fake news” dominates every headline, duplicitous relationships have become national news, and a perverse, and misguided, desire for the past drove an entire movement, it seems as if the warnings presented in Gatsby are more relevant than ever.

The only difference is, my students are starting to take note too. Usually, it’s just been me, standing in front of the class like a budget Robin Williams, hoping to inspire them as a conduit for Fitzgerald’s admonitions.

Now, I’m sitting back and watching them notice it on their own. In part because teenagers are becoming increasingly aware that their lives are getting more artificial by the day.

My students first brought this growing artifice to my attention with a discussion about “Finstagram,” which, I admit, I had to actually go and look up. According to them, teenagers have recently felt the need to create two separate Instagram accounts: a “Rinstagram,” or “real Instagram” that connects to their legal name and is carefully curated for the purpose of accruing likes and maintaining social status, and a “Finstagram,” or “Fake Instagram,” which is not connected to them in name and displays the spontaneous behavior more emblematic of teens, without the pressure of fitting in.

What strikes me most about the trend is the irony that teenagers’ “real” Instagram accounts are obviously faker than their “fake” Instagram accounts. What somebody posts for the masses on their “Rinstagram” is just what they think people want to see or what will ensure them a positive social response.  What’s “real” is only what they know people will see. It’s “reality”; only, it’s not.

Just as Gatsby’s reality isn’t family money or an Oxford education, and Daisy’s reality isn’t a satisfyingly privileged marriage, our reality has become increasingly a facade. My students project fake images to their peers to promote the appearance of fitting in or being superior to others in terms of lifestyle, love, adventure, etc.  In just the same way, we take meticulously framed images of our food or share political stories from intentionally one-sided sources. In each instance, teens or adults, we often know that we’re promoting exaggerations or forcibly shining a light on something that we feel we should highlight for purposes of social status or intrigue.

Outside of our internal choices, our TV is littered with “reality” programs of inconsequential people edited to create a false narrative, and both our politicians and reporters are churning out alternative forms of reality more elaborate than Willy Wonka’s factory.

Instead of providing the next generation with examples of confident individuality and self-assuredness, we present them with clear bullshit. We show them that, if they lie about themselves enough, people will just take it as gospel. They’ll believe you didn’t say things you were recorded saying the same way they’ll believe that you’re dating a girl in a photo that is clearly the friend of a friend you only met that one time. You just have to say it enough times.

Why should they listen to anybody’s instructions to behave otherwise?  The world is increasingly built on lies. What’s more, when they do what teenagers naturally do and become better at something than the generation before them, in this case lying and manipulating reality, what will the world look like then?

So, despite the violent deaths that end the pages of The Great Gatsby and the palpable loneliness that drives almost every character in the novel, I continue to believe the world around us will increasingly resemble Fitzgerald’s masterpiece even more as the years go on. We seem content to prop ourselves up on the bullshit of short-sightedness and fabrication until we’ve tricked ourselves into believing it’s reality.

We “beat on, boats against the current” driving ceaselessly toward a world that we will no longer recognize.