Fletcher Moss on F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Valley of Ashes
When I was just a kid – and let me tell you I was two-hundred-percent-certified-bona-fide ‘just-a-kid’ when I first read The Great Gatsby – I thought the Valley of Ashes was just a depressing distraction.
Here’s why. I was the kind of teen who wanted dragons wheeling over shadowy castles trailing a firework display of carnage. I wanted cities of ice and bone built inside slow-motion waterfalls. I wanted bandits finding solace in the arms ample-bosomed innkeeper’s daughters the night before a council of elders held, inevitably and inexplicably, on some panoramic clifftop-clearing near a scary forest.
In short, I’d swallowed Tolkienbait hook, line, sinker and complementary copy of the Silma-flippin’-rillion.
Which meant that when I opened Gatsby and found Nick Carraway headin’ out East to live on Long Island it all seemed a bit yeah-yeah. Then came Gatsby’s parties and I remember thinking – well, here’s something. The orchestras, the dancers, the breaking and grouping and regrouping of guests, the starlight, the rumours and chatter, the butler’s thumb on the orange-juicer… this was fantastical and I liked it.
So as far as I was concerned at the time, Fitzgerald knackered it all by taking us through the valley of ashes. Grey men. Train tracks. Exploitation. Depression and degredation. Myrtle Wilson in laddered tights. And above it all, the empty eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg glaring down from a billboard blistering in the sun. Ugh.
Nowadays though, I know different. The power of plenty of locations lies in their contrast with others – the older me gets that. Bronte geeks, for example, will recognise that Thornfield Hall works one way because Lowood School works another or – to skip sisters for a sec – Wuthering Heights gives us one powerful impression because Thrushcross Grange gives another.
Maybe that’s why those massive fantasy epics can end up being a bit cloying, a bit too rich; like over-eating and having to sleep it off. By contrast, I love the simplicity of The Great Gatsby’s loctions. And though Fitzgerald’s valley of ashes might not be my favourite fictional place, it was an important one for me because it helped me figure out that balance and contrast count for a lot.
It can’t all be parties, right? There’s got to be some ashes too.
Fletcher Moss was an Alderman of Manchester who upon his death over a century ago, bequeathed a beautiful botanical gardens to the people of the city; a noble and generous gesture. This Fletcher Moss has significantly less to recommend him – he’s an Assistant Headteacher at a school in Greater Manchester who needed a pseudonym for the writing he fits in between lesson planning, marking and rattling around the M60 in his second-hand Citroen. He lives in Manchester with his wife and young daughter. He is working on his second and third novels at the same time – surely a recipe for disaster if ever there was one.