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  • Words by Mr John Lanchester

If you had to reduce all 20th-century literature to a single question, that question would be: who are you? And by extension, who am I? It's a question that operates at deep philosophical levels, touching on our innermost being and sense of self. It's a question about how we describe our selfhoods, and how we process what happens to us, and who we want to be, and what are our dreams and fears, our most private needs, the things we daren't say even to ourselves. But it's also a very basic question, a question we can ask on a daily basis about anyone we might bump into: who is this guy? What's his story? Who is he pretending to be, and who is he really?

One of the reasons why The Great Gatsby is such an extraordinary work of literature is that it takes this question, a question that's central to so much 20th-century writing, and turns it into the fulcrum of the story. It is, as screenwriters like to say, right on the nose. Who is Gatsby? Not just in a deep philosophical sense, but also in a very basic and literal way, who is this guy, and where did he make his money, and what's he up to? Is he for real? We can see the outside - the money, the parties, the bling - but where did he come from? It's part of Mr F Scott Fitzgerald's genius that he shows us how exciting this question is to the world around Jay Gatsby. The people enjoying Gatsby's fabulous hospitality are turned on by wondering about the mystery behind it.

Ms Mia Farrow and Mr Robert Redford in Mr Jack Clayton's version of The Great Gatsby, 1974

Gatsby is a modern archetype. Economic booms create Gatsbys. For all the recent difficulties, there are more rich people than there have ever been, and so there are more men like Gatsby than ever before. (I was going to say there are more people like him, but that's wrong: the Gatsby archetype is not gender-neutral. A female adventuress is a thing of wonder too, but is a different kind of human riddle.) In the past couple of decades, new categories of Gatsby came into being all around us: hedge fund Gatsbys, commodity Gatsbys, dotcom Gatsbys, start-up Gatsbys, venture capital Gatsbys and IPO Gatsbys and every other variety of man who's made so much money so fast that for the rest of us there is a kind of built-in mystery to them. Without that mystery, there's no Gatsbyism going on: these are the kind of men about whom people enjoy speculating. Exactly how was it he made that first million? It's always a faintly titillating question.

The other indispensable component for Gatsbyism is to be very good at spending money - by which I mean, lavish, un-conflicted, untortured, ambivalence-free. There is a type of very very rich person who attends to the spending of every cent as carefully as if they were very very poor. Gatsbys are the opposite of that. People are so troubled by money that there is something magical, and also troubling, about those few of us who seem not to be. Nobody understood this better than Mr Fitzgerald, and he gave this understanding to his most famous character.

Gatsby then; gatsby now

If the archetype still holds truer than ever, and there are more Gatsbys than ever all around us, that doesn't mean there haven't been some changes. The most important is that the new mystery men are more international. The modern Gatsby doesn't come from the place where he now struts his stuff - if he did, people would know too much about him. The mobility of the modern international rich is one of the most striking things about them. It's a mobility which parallels that of modern capital. The capital, which can go anywhere, goes to the place which is friendliest to it, and the people do the same thing. Contributing to this unprecedented mobility is the fact that the signifiers of super-wealth are now so international. The brands are the same everywhere you go; they speak the same language.

In terms of a tax regime's friendliness to international wealth, no great city beats London; add the ideal time zone and the language, and it's no mystery why London is the global centre of Gatsbyism. But the idea that place is important is a little misleading. Gatsbys live not in a place but in Gatsbystan, which might be in the sixth arrondissement, or Greenwich Village, or Knightsbridge, or their yacht. Just as it's not quite clear where they are from, it's also not quite clear where they live - in more than one place, for sure. Wherever there's a Gatsby, there's a string of empty properties somewhere else. There's also a party, and plenty of attractive people, and a whiff of mystery, and a sense that many of the people present are wondering exactly where and how all this ends.

Mr Lanchester's book on the economic crisis, Whoops! - Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay, is published by Penguin. The Great Gatsby is out on 10 May in the US, 16 May in Hong Kong and the UK, and 30 May in Australia.