Last Friday, I spent eight hours reading The Great Gatsby – in Soho, in the dark, along with six hundred or so other skiving bibliophiles. This extraordinary experience, during which every single word of the novel was narrated on the stage of the Noel Coward theatre in an indefinable hybrid of play and audiobook, resulted in a standing ovation and four curtain calls for Elevator Repair Service, the valiant New York-based experimental theatre ensemble behind Gatz. Rebecca Mead captured its flavour in a piece for the New Yorker:
Watching Gatz is a heightened version of reading the book oneself, including the same moments of riveted attention and mental wandering. Part of the power of Gatzmay lie in the way in which it requires the audience’s submission to the exclusive experience of reading, without the distractions of family, television, laptop, or iPhone. Being shut up in a darkened theatre with Gatz is a strangely potent way to reproduce the increasingly elusive sensation of being enraptured by a book.
There is much to celebrate in how Gatz explores the concept of reading. In a neurotically connected world, I love the inherently anti-social nature of books, and Gatz offers an update on traditional oral culture that allows us to ‘read together’ in a way that feels anything but reductive or intrusive. However, for me the show’s biggest pleasure – and provocation – was the opportunity it provided to consume the novel in one sitting: start to finish, uncut and uninterrupted, except for a dinner break which was itself inevitably dedicated to fervently rehashing characters, metaphors and memorably glowing lines.
I can remember every single novel I’ve swallowed whole – well, beyond a certain age, because as a child I did it too regularly to remark upon. Some, like The Great Gatsby, encourage a single binge through their brevity; classics such as Mrs Dalloway and Lord of the Flies or, more recently, Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach and Tim Winton’s Breath, are naturally bite-size reads. But I’ve also managed a few beefier marathons with the likes of Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line Of Beauty, Robert Harris’s Pompeii and, in one wild, blear-eyed weekend bender, Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. Sure, I probably took the odd toilet break, muttered dismissals to family members and gobbled one-handed baked goods. I may even, in the case of Jonathan Strange, have slept for an hour or two. But these are the books that were basically allowed to consume my life until I was done consuming them.