With fashion resurgences and a 2012 movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel The Great Gatsby captures not just a period of time, the 1920s in America, but a lifestyle that seems to be perennially fascinating to a wide audience. However, it is very much a product of its time and lacks representations of diverse characters. Activating Fitzgerald’s work in a new way, Nghi Vo’s novel The Chosen and the Beautiful is a magic realism reimagining of The Great Gatsby which adds a layer of magic to a parallel story of Jordan Baker, a young Vietnamese woman who was adopted as a child and has found herself in Gatsby’s orbit. The book itself is wonderfully constructed with magic interwoven with the established images of the roaring twenties to create parties, night clubs, and extravagances that are even more outlandish than in Fitzgerald’s original. But bound up in the magic and the demonic dealings are narratives of queerness which at times feel just as impossible as potions that make you float or underground bars in secret subway stops.
Jordan Baker’s queerness is as much a part of her socialite aesthetic as their clothes or drinks of choice, all of which Vo drops casually onto readers. It is not a coming out story and The Chosen and the Beautiful shows no interest in building tension around the identity of queer characters. They are strong in themselves and feel no need to really hide their wide-ranging preferences. It is the kind of normalized LGBTQ2S+ representation that the community has been pushing for and as a reader who dislikes stories where the major theme is fear of discovery, The Chosen and the Beautiful offered me characters who couldn’t care less about how their sexuality is perceived. Jordan puts far more effort into hiding the extent of her magical abilities than she does her physical partners, and in a disruption of the original text, Gatsby’s obsession with Daisy exists alongside his flings with men. More than just offering queer readers characters who are recognizable and relatable, Vo’s casual inclusion of a range of sexualities in the roaring 20s suggests a way of imagining our queer ancestors. The social and political context that Fizgerald wrote in means that his novel was never going to include the kinds of representations of queer folks that we might want to see, but that doesn’t mean that those people did not exist in his time and context. In the new setting of Vo’s work, which is filled with magic, the inclusion of queerness is an element of realism, a making visible of identities and experiences of LGBTQ2S+ folks which had been hidden in the cultural cannon that Scott Fitzgerald’s novel is a part of.
Clearly I personally got a lot out of The Chosen and the Beautiful and I think that it reasserts queer presence in places where heteronormative culture may try to erase it, but the connection made between queerness and magic in Vo’s novel at times loses an empowering representation into the aesthetic of the roaring 20s. The world that Jordan Baker moves through is fueled by magic: the fashion trends include painting a nail black to imply that you have sold your soul to a demon and Gatsby’s parties feature pools that turn the swimmers into enchanted fish. In her world, prohibition is not just against alcohol but also the demoniac, made from magical blood that causes a different type of high. Vo does an admirable job blending these fantastical elements with the established aesthetic of the 20s, but in doing so, queerness gets caught up into the depictions of impossible feats. If the wild parties are made possible by magic, there is also the potential to read queerness as just another part of the aesthetic, similarly shallow and disconnected from the real.
These contrasting readings of sexuality in Vo’s novel are reconciled for me by considering the money and privilege that shape the characters of The Chosen and the Beautiful. These characters behave as if nothing could touch them because yes, they have magic to help bend the world to their will, but also because they have social prestige through their wealth. Jordan and Gatsby are able to discuss their shared lover in a queer night club that magically judges your worthiness to enter, because they have the means to put on the performance required to enter. Their transgressive behavior in celebrating relationships beyond straight monogamy is allowable because they already lead lives beyond what a regular person, even one in a fictional world of magic, could dream of. Vo does not show her readers how working class or poor people experience the world she has imagined; we are caught up in the lives of the wealthy and the powerful.
So like most things, The Chosen and the Beautiful is best viewed through a lens of intersectionality that can see both the celebration of queerness and the ways that those experiences are shaped by privilege. It is a novel that revels in the aesthetics of impossible parties created by magic, while also reimagining a past where LGBTQ2S+ characters can live open lives. By thinking about how Nghi Vo links magic and queerness, readers can also see how access to positive LGBT2S+ experiences is limited by other elements of privilege, most notably financial means and class positioning. As Jordan Baker’s life falls to pieces around her, the aesthetic of the never ending party collapsing, she ends the novel reaching for something more substantial: “Under the wrack and wreck of what had come before, the sky was new, and I reached for it with a yearning eager hand”. And as readers stepping out of the world that Nghi Vo created, we are encouraged to continue to seek out queerness in ways that are celebratory without relying on aesthetics of consumerist life that will be inherently unattainable for many people.
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