09 June 2022

A Classic Misdirection

I was still with Jordan Baker. We were sitting at a table with a man of about my age and a rowdy little girl who gave way upon the slightest provocation to uncontrollable laughter. I was enjoying myself now. I had taken two finger bowls of champagne and the scene had changed before my eyes into something significant, elemental and profound.

At a lull in the entertainment the man looked at me and smiled.

"Your face is familiar," he said, politely. "Weren't you in the Third Division during the war?"

"Why, yes. I was in the Ninth Machine-Gun Battalion."

"I was in the Seventh Infantry until June nineteen-eighteen. I knew I'd seen you somewhere before."

We talked for a moment about some wet, grey little villages in France. Evidently he lived in this vicinity for he told me that he had just bought a hydroplane and was going to try it out in the morning.

"Want to go with me, old sport? Just near the shore along the Sound."

"What time?"

"Any time that suits you best."

It was on the tip of my tongue to ask his name when Jordan looked around and smiled.

"Having a gay time now?" she inquired.

"Much better." I turned again to my new acquaintance. "This is an unusual party for me. I haven't even seen the host. I live over there—" I waved my hand at the invisible hedge in the distance, "and this man Gatsby sent over his chauffeur with an invitation."

For a moment he looked at me as if he failed to understand.

"I'm Gatsby," he said suddenly.

— The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

"Subverting expectations."

That's the flashy new phrase all the cool kids are using these days, when in truth what they're referring to is your basic old-fashioned misdirection. And it's been with us at least since the Greeks invented drama.

So. You know. Thousands of years.

The excerpt above highlights one of the best examples in modern literature of this sort of thing. And linked here is a mashup of this very scene from the novel portrayed in five different film adaptations done between 1926 and 2013. And each of them plays the scene a bit differently. The best of them build up the anticipation of the first appearance of the novel's mysterious titular character.

And when Gatsby does make his first appearance, it's practically anti-climactic. In person Gatsby is so unassuming as to be nearly forgettable, at least at first blush. The mundane reality crashes hard into the soaring fantasy of the Gatsby of rumor, of myth, of legend.

With the advent of Summer, Gatsby has been very much on my mind. This happens with me every late Spring. Maybe it's because Gatsby is in so many ways the ultimate "Summer Novel."

As such, I'll be reading it again, as I have done every Summer for the past twenty-five years. Every reading brings me delight.

A large part of the enjoyment I get out of Gatsby is from the way the reader's expectations are continuously "subverted."

Gatsby, while nothing like the legend which had grown up around him, is ironically the most honest person in the novel. Furthermore, every other character takes a cue from Gatsby in one regard: none of them is as they initially seem.

Not Gatsby's lost love, Daisy. Not her husband, Tom. Not her cousin, Nick. Not her friend Jordan Baker.

So here's my question for you, the reader: which novel have you found to most consistently subvert expectations? Give your response in the comments. and let's get to talking about it.

Next time around I talk about real life subverted initial impressions of real life individuals, how those worked out, and how these real world experiences informed my fiction in the best possible ways.

See you in the comments, and in two weeks!


  1. My 3 favorite summer novels: Gatsby, Cheri (by Colette), and Marjorie Morningstar (Herman Wouk). Each for different reasons.
    I'll get back to you about which novel I think subverts initial impressions the most. Of my 3, besides Gatsby, which I think you've nailed, Cheri also does a great job. Cheri - Cheri and Lea are the obvious gigolo and older woman, we all know how it's going to go, except they aren't and they don't we don't know (especially if you go on to read Le Fin de Cheri a/k/a The End of Cheri).

  2. Alistair MacLean pops to mind. In most novels after 1960, a major good-guy character will turn out to be a bad guy, or vice versa. We see modern examples, particularly on television (i.e, the series 24) where this kind of switchup seems more for the shock value than plot. The first Tom Cruise Mission Impossible felt like that. James Patterson does that.

    But MacLean's subversions were cleverly well-woven into the plots. The only downside lay in becoming too familiar with his magic trick to actively looking for it in his later novels, where subverting expectations became subsuming expectations.

    It occurs to me that I've included character misdirection in some of my stories. In one, a random pub patron is listening to a story, and the reader gradually discovers the story is about him. In another, a timid little guy becomes the story's hero. And in the final paragraphs of an MWA tale, the reader learns the presumed perpetrator is the victim and the victim is the perpetrator… and the carefully assembled motive and means comes unglued.

    As in real life, I like to be pleasantly surprised when something positive happens to change my mind about a person.

  3. Several Dickens characters but especially the convict in Great Expectations.


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