“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past”: Alex George’s Contemporary Handling of Modernism and Our Relationship to It in Setting Free the Kites
Authors constantly write in conversation with their predecessors, by which they not only keep classic stories alive, but also attach themselves to a similar literary tradition or paradigm. Among the myriad of 21st century novelists who play with the ideas, as well as plots and characters, of his or her literary idols, Alex George places a contemporary twist on the quintessential Modernist text, The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald, in his recently released novel, Setting Free the Kites. The novel displays ideas that are illustrative to the traditional coming-of-age story, while introducing new, current interpretations on traditionally Modernist themes, like individual identity and mortality.
George’s protagonist, Robert Carter, an adolescent boy, whose brother suffers from muscular dystrophy and demands most of their parents’ attention as a result, experiences neglect firsthand at a critical developmental time of his life. Fortunately, Robert befriends the new kid in town named, Nathan Tilly, and together they explore the local amusement park and an abandoned mill, fueling the romantic yearnings of both young boys who wish for nothing more than to fulfill their wanderlust. Yet, casting a much more melancholic shadow on the remainder of the novel, Robert’s brother passes away, leaving perhaps only Nathan, a friend who becomes some semblance of a brother, to help Robert cope with his loss.
It is at this point that the novel begins to sound particularly Gatsby-esque.
Now working with Robert in the amusement park they once explored, which seems to parallel the Carnival setting of Gatsby’s parties, Nathan falls in love with the neighborhood bully’s girlfriend Faye, aligning him with Jay Gatsby, who, too, tragically pursues forbidden and dangerous love. George has also said that his inspiration for Nathan came from the renown acrobat, Philippe Petit (the man who walked between the World Trade Centers in 1974). So, Nathan is the risk-taker and Robert the onlooker. This leaves Robert, like Nick Carraway, with no choice but to watch his friend inevitably fall victim to his own quixotic imagination. And so, after first, losing his brother and then, his best friend, Robert struggles to find his place in a world that seems to want him to be alone.
George’s novel exists both independent of and dependent on the literary tradition of the Modernists. The story in itself is like something we as a readership have never seen before, in that it is about two boys from Maine struggling with their relationship to the world; but, one the other hand, Robert and Nathan’s story is uncannily familiar to numerous Modernist texts, such as William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, and certainly The Great Gatsby, which all deal with the existential question of individual value and purpose. George writes about the same topics that Modernists wrote about, and thank goodness he does! As humans, we still share with each other a sense of unfamiliarity concerning our place in the universe, and it seems that turning to literature might be the only immediate answer.
This, of course, begs the question: how would one describe the literary movement that we are in now? In some of my most recent conversations with fellow academics and creatives–otherwise dubbed, Lit. Nerds–I have heard quite a few different responses. One argues that, “We’re still Postmodernist,” to which others respond, “Postmodernist? Who is to say we’re beyond Modernism?” and then there is the self-proclaimed futurist, who inquires, “We are surely neither Modernist nor Postmodernist. We are Post-postmodernist.” In defense of my colleagues' confusion, we as a culture have not latched onto any such title, and so I suppose these matters are up for interpretation. But, what fascinates me about these responses is the single consistency between them, that is, we seem to agree that we are in relation to the Modernist literary tradition, which undoubtedly surfaces in Setting Free the Kites, making George, one of the fresh new faces of our contemporary discourse.
Grub Street Fiction Team Member
Fitzgerald quote in blog title: Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. 1925. Scribner, 2004, pp. 180.
Image source: (http://www.alexgeorgebooks.com)
The image above is "Flight" by Gillian Collins.