Nghi Vo’s 2021 The Chosen and The Beautiful is a standalone fantasy reimagining of The Great Gatsby .
Chic athlete Jordan Baker is one of the Louisville Bakers. She is also Vietnamese (or as Americans of Jazz Age America call it, “Tonkinese”); she was saved from certain death by Miss Eliza Baker when Jordan was just a baby. Jordan’s social set see Jordan as delightfully exotic, a perfect China1 doll whom they certainly don’t mean when they discuss the need to expel Asians and other races from the US in a bid to keep America white.
Despite the background anxiety of the impending Manchester Act2, which will both hinder immigration from unworthy nations and facilitate the return to said nations of persons no longer deemed suitable for the US by its white elites, Jordan’s life is a whirlwind of parties, booze, and casual lovers of both sexes. This giddy existence is going to be greatly complicated by close chum Daisy Buchanan.
Daisy may not be able to articulate her goals clearly, not being the sort of person who invests a lot of time in methodical contemplation, but those goals are very clear. Daisy wants to be adored and she wants to be rich. Handsome Jay Gatsby adored her but he was poor and would not do. Instead, Daisy married wealthy Tom Buchanan. It’s just too bad that Tom is both rich and handsome and a philandering cad.
Refusing to accept defeat, Gatsby sold his soul in exchange for magic and wealth. He then used his good looks, money, deliciously forbidden magic, and lavish parties to establish himself in East Egg society. He may be nouveau riche, half a step up — if that — from being a gangster, but Gatsby has free-flowing booze and a lavish mansion, which is enough for many of East Egg’s young and beautiful set.
Determined to win Daisy from Tom, Gatsby drafts Daisy’s cousin Nick Carraway into his campaign. Nick being one of Jordan’s lovers, Jordan is entangled in the affair in two ways, via Daisy and via Nick. Thus, she gets a front row seat to the slow-moving disaster that ensues. A disaster in which she plays an important role.
Daisy is perfectly content to be adored by Gatsby. Gatsby’s expectation that she will be content to fit into his tidy vision of their shared domestic future is sadly in error, because Daisy wants what she wants, but Daisy never, ever pays. Consequences are for other people.
With all due respect to the constraints placed on the narrative by the original material on which Vo is riffing, many male elite American given names are essentially interchangeable monosyllables. Granted, F. Scott Fitzgerald was limited by the material he had to work with in the 1920s, but do be aware that distinctive names were not one of the hallmarks of old money families at this time, at least for sons.
It is not at all clear if Miss Eliza actually saved an infant Jordan from certain death at the hands of marauders or whether it might be much more accurate to say Miss Eliza kidnapped Jordan as a baby and carried the helpless Vietnamese child off to America. Second-hand accounts suggest that Miss Eliza certainly believed she saved Jordan, although it does not seem to be entirely clear when she came to believe this or whether the evidence supports this belief. In any case, child theft by higher-ranked humans is a characteristic human behavior.
To compensate Jordan for whatever she lost, the Bakers treated her as their own, ensuring she was raised as an American (at least until the Manchester Act is passed) while denying her any access to Vietnam’s culture (to the point of teaching her to call Vietnam “Tonkin”) Well, they meant well. A fair amount of the novel involves Jordan’s chance encounter with some Vietnamese entertainers; she learns much that had been obscured by her white upbringing.
Speaking of the Manchester Act, while it seems to be made up of whole cloth, its intent and effect is entirely within contemporary American norms. Exclusionary acts and bouts of ethnic cleansing abounded. Also plausible: the inability of Jordan’s chums to grasp that such acts will apply to people they know and like. It’s this combination of unquestioned privilege and total lack of empathy that ensures that the Daisy-Gatsby story is a true Romeo and Juliet tale.
While Vo takes some liberties with the setting — Gatsby only metaphorically sold his soul in the original, whereas here the bargain is no metaphor — the author is careful to paint within the lines of the inspirational work. Thus, any reader familiar with The Great Gatsby will know how the Tom-Daisy-Jay triangle plays out. Around this kernel, however, Vo creates an entirely new, fascinating tale told from the perspective of supporting character Jordan, who is in some significant details not quite the Jordan of the original. Vo’s narrative is longer than the original but then, there are whole stories here that the original did not address.
1: I am aware that China and Vietnam are different nations. The white Americans of that time and place might have confused them.
2; But there was the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the Immigration Act of 1917, the Emergency Quota Act of 1921, and the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924, among many other similar acts.. Xenophobic restrictions are as American as apple pie.