Ceaselessly Into the Past

Washington City Paper is running my review of Tom Carson‘s new novel, Daisy Buchanan’s Daughter, a 600-plus-page comic tale whose protagonist, Pamela, gets a front-row seat to some of the key events and figures of World War II and the Cold War. Though the title suggests a kind of sequel to The Great Gatsby, the two books are about as similar to each other as Julie Andrews‘ “My Favorite Things” and John Coltrane‘s:

Right, about Gatsby. Though he expands on some of the characters in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel—Daisy becomes a junkie, Nick Carraway becomes an adman and then a monk—it’d be off-target to call Carson’s book a sequel. Carson makes no attempt to ventriloquize Fitzgerald’s writing; he’s clearly not interested in its concision. The spirit of Daisy Buchanan’s Daughter is closer to that of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which provides another rich mine of pun fodder for Carson. Yet Pamela’s voice is Huckish only in its defiance and common sense, not its sound. Carson riffs on his inspirations, but he never echoes them. Why bother? As Twain would say, we’ve been there before.

Daisy Buchanan’s Daughter has a closer kinship to Carson’s previous novel, 2003’s Gilligan’s Wake, which displays the same style of furious, pun-heavy riffing. (At least in the early pages; I haven’t finished it, but eagerly intend to.) Last month on the blog Work-in-Progress, Carson wrote about some of the connections between Wake, Gatsby, and the new novel:

This isn’t even my first trip to F. Scott’s attic. I’d borrowed Daisy Buchanan to star in an episode of my novel Gilligan’s Wake back in 2003 and didn’t want to try the same trick twice. But then a sentence I’d written fairly idly in the spiteful voice of the future “Lovey” Howell, Daisy’s imaginary crony in the Jazz Age — “Of course, her daughter, Pamela Buchanan, became a writer, and I suppose that’s as good a way as any to fritter away your life when you’re too homely to catch a man” — started insisting it was an embryo. The next thing I knew, my grown-up Pam was sharing a laugh with Jack Kennedy after her bestselling book Glory Be got beaten out for the 1957 Pulitzer Prize by JFK’s Profiles in Courage.

In plenty of people’s eyes, this kind of bricolage is literary and for that matter historical parasitism. That’s a legitimate take. I’ve never had any interest myself in reading, say, Lo’s Diary. Maybe one reason Nabokov never learned to drive was that he just didn’t want to deal with pathetic or obnoxious hitchhikers. On the flip side — and I’m leaving myself out of this comparison, just noting the extremes –who’d want to tell Tom Stoppard that writing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead betrayed his lack of originality?

The test of any idea is what you do with it.

True. And though the novel has its flaws—it gets saggy in places, and some of the gags get wearying—but Carson unquestionably has written something wholly original.

3 thoughts on “Ceaselessly Into the Past

  1. I very much enjoyed GILLIGAN’S WAKE, in large part because of its often esoteric puns and wordplay. But if you don’t like puns, Mark, why bother to bestir your Molotov on those of us who do? I understand two peas dangle beneath the cock between your tail, but you’re still quite bald about your fail to play well with others. Especially when an author has shown tonight that he’s bigger than Johnny. Surely you can come more gentlemanly than lately.

    1. I remember the old days, when he used to deny the New York Times editor a brownie all the time. That did not look like a desperate appeal for attention coated in the sweat of anxious insecurity. No, not at all.

      At this late date the sweat has grown pretty rank, but every bit of his schtick is tired and lame and probably bores even himself.

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