Gatsby’s Hydroplane has for decades been a tantalizing problem in literary studies. Though the articulations of this problem have become, in recent years, arcane and layered, the problem itself is relatively simple. Researchers have good reason to assume that Gatsby’s Hydroplane exists and yet they have not been able to find it in the novel.
In Chapter III, Nick Carraway, newly arrived in West Egg, attends a party at Gatsby’s mansion. At the party, Gatsby tells Nick that he has just purchased a hydroplane and that he plans to “try it out” the next morning. Gatsby invites Nick on the outing—“Want to go with me, old sport? Just near the shore along the Sound.”—an invitation he repeats later in the evening: “And don’t forget,” Gatsby says as he bids Nick good night, “we’re going up in the hydroplane tomorrow morning, at nine o’clock.” This hydroplaning scene, however, has never been discovered. Despite eighty years of rigorous investigation, researchers have found no trace of the hydroplane, and many have begun to speculate, with an unveiled sense of despondency, that it will never be found.
“The missing hydroplane creates a lacuna,” said Dr. William Mays, professor of literature at Tucker-Hayfield College.
“Is that like a fissure? Or rupture?” I asked.
“A lacuna is a hole,” Dr. Mays said.
“A hole in the novel?”
“A hole in American letters.”
“American letters since 1925?”
“1865 to present,” Dr. Mays said. He rubbed his eyes hard with his knuckles. His office is much smaller and shabbier than English professors’ offices in films and on television. The sunlight through the window on this particular day was thin and wintry. “Just a bastard of a lacuna,” he said, polishing his flask with the cuff of his jacket.
Over the past four decades, Mays has written extensively on the “contour” of the hydroplane scene: privileges of perspective … male bonding … water landing … ambivalence … memories of war … gleaming dials and gauges.
There was a cane hanging from the doorknob and a wrinkled, yellowed strip of paper thumbtacked to an otherwise empty bulletin board behind Mays’s desk. The writing on the paper was not legible from where I sat. It may have said, Just near the shore along the Sound.
“I’ll know it if I find it,” Mays said.
It is quite possible that Dr. Mays will not have to wait much longer to behold the fabled hydroplane. A maverick team of literary scientists at KnowQuest, a Philadelphia-based research company, has begun to create a far more detailed picture of the hydroplane than scholars ever believed possible. Using imaging technology that was originally developed by the Office of Homeland Security, the KnowQuest researchers are resolving the problem of Gatsby’s Hydroplane pixel by pixel.
The team began by creating a complicated computer model designed to match Gatsby to a hydroplane. Team members know what kinds of hydroplanes were being manufactured and sold in the Northeastern U.S. in the years following World War I, and they also managed to acquire fairly thorough ownership records, so they can match specific buyer types to specific planes. The challenge then became to feed the computer a very deep profile of James Gatz (AKA Jay Gatsby). At the time this article went to press, the team had entered over 50,000 discrete variables on Gatz in order to find his hydroplane.
“It’s painstaking work, but we’re getting there,” said team leader Eric Lampley, who is perhaps best known for his controversial work on Lady Macbeth (one child, a boy, possibly club-footed). “The hydroplane seems to be coming gradually into focus.
“We think it is twenty-one feet from wing tip to wing tip, though it seems larger than that to a passenger or a casual observer. We think the dashboard is magnificent. We have good reason to believe that the hydroplane, upon Gatsby’s tragic death at the hands of George Wilson, is impounded by authorities, then auctioned.”
“What color is it?”
“Everyone of course wants to know the color and it’s just far too early to answer definitively,” Lampley said. “However, we have good reason to think that it’s white with burgundy accents.”
The complete image of the hydroplane is still months away, said Lampley, who does indeed have a ponytail, an earring, a nervous energy, and a boyish smile. He speculated boyishly that the recreation of the missing hydroplaning scene might take up to five years. “We know that the engine would have been too loud for Nick and Gatsby to talk,” he said, “but we’re starting to get some interesting clues as to their burgeoning camaraderie, as well as to just the way things on the ground look from very high up.”
Predictably, Dr. Mays is not impressed with Dr. Lampley or the imaging technology. “Crimson accents?” he asked, grinding his eyes.
“That’s the wrong plane.”
“How do you know?”
“Wrong plane. I may be Stone Age, but I…” He trailed off, kicked me out. His office left small patches of powder on my clothing.
When I called him there late at night, he picked up the phone without saying anything.
“Lacuna,” I whispered.
“Young man,” he began, but then he went silent and hung up.
[Read an interview with Chris Bachelder.]