Thursday, May 26, 2011

Guest in Progress: Tom Carson on His New Novel, Daisy Buchanan's Daughter, and Gatsby Himself!

Obviously, I am helpless to resist this forthcoming book: Tom Carson’s Daisy Buchanan’s Daughter, an imagining of what happens post-Gatsby to Tom and Daisy’s little girl. The pre-pub praise is enticing:

“Tom Carson’s new novel is simultaneously an epic sequel to The Great Gatsby, a tour-de-force meta-narrative of the last 90 years of American history, and a dazzling feat of old-fashioned storytelling. The octogenarian narrator of Daisy Buchanan’s Daughter is by turns wistful, sarcastic, bemused, nostalgic, furious, and scathingly funny as she evokes — intimately, pungently, and in gorgeous detail — the best and worst century in human history (so far). She is the first great literary character of the new millennium, and her all-encompassing story is some sort of crazy masterpiece.”

— James Hynes, author of Next and The Lecturer’s Tale

Even better, the book is being published by Paycock Press, run by the fabulous Richard Peabody (DC’s literary heart and soul; read this recent Washington Post profile of him if you don’t believe me.)
And best of all, here’s a GREAT piece by Tom Carson that explores Pammy’s “birth” and offers some (scandalous!) thoughts on The Great Gatsby. Warning: You’ll be clicking on the “how to buy” link at the end of this piece!

F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jay Gatsby and Me
By Tom Carson

I really don't know what Fitzgerald fans are going to make of me swiping little Pammy Buchanan from The Great Gatsby and turning her into the octogenarian narrator of a 628-page novel that gallivants all over the 20th century and beyond. I wanted her to bear fictional witness to the whole shebang, from her stint as a war correspondent in WW2 (she lands on Omaha Beach on D-Day and is present at the liberation of Dachau) to her crotchety disgust with George W. Bush's appalling presidency. She's done time in 1950s Hollywood, West Africa in the early '60sas a U.S. Ambassador's wife and Vietnam-era Washington along the way.

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. In my case, I'm essentially a parodist. Can't help it, that's how my imagination smells the coffee. I sometimes compare these mashups of mine to the way an op-ed cartoonist will use Wile E. Coyote chasing the Roadrunner or Lucy grabbing the football from Charlie Brown to make a point about some real-world event. Both halves of the equation are instantly recognizable, hopefully the juxtaposition says something new about both, and as self-serving analogies go, that one seems less immodest than muttering to myself about how much skinnier The Oxford Book of English Poetry would be if most of the contributors hadn't had access to Greek myths as a trove of available characters, conceits and whatever.

What's funny that I'm also likely to disappoint any reader who picks up my novel thinking it's somebody's sincere try at a sequel to The Great Gatsby. And worse, wants to read one. My repurposing of Pammy either works or it doesn't, but competing with Fitzgerald would be either stark lunacy or a candid admission you don't mind peddling shoddy goods out of the trunk of somebody else's Rolls-Royce. I was poleaxed when one well regarded editor who rejected the book back in its thankless days of making the rounds of mainstream publishing houses complained that he'd been hoping for a fun novel about Tom and Daisy's sordid but high-stepping lives after l'affaire Gatsby and I hadn't given him that. It's not just that it's pointless to tell any writer what book he or she should have written. Whatever its failings, I knew the one I had written was a lot more conceptually interesting than the knockoff he was apparently hoping for.

Instead, I made sure to kill off both of Pam's parents early. The name "Jay Gatsby" never appears in the text. I happily murder Tom Buchanan right at the get-go by having his horse throw and maul him after he cheats at polo. Daisy sticks around a bit longer, but she blows her brains out with her Belgian second husband's revolver when her daughter is thirteen and we've got over 500 pages to go.

I wanted Pam to be an orphan, linked to but cut off from Fitzgerald's world in the same way the temporary charms of the Jazz Age were abrogated by the clatter and crap of the rest of the 20th century. For me, the vital thing about her fictional pedigree is that it gives her standing. She's a comic figure in some ways, but I wanted her to have some Joan of Arc armor when she challenges Dubya. It has to resonate when she imagines asking him, "Do you really expect me to put up with this shit?"

A 19th-century novelist would have concocted a family history that justified that kind of entitled disgust. Just making her Daisy Buchanan's daughter captivates me more, because I'm interested in the interplay between real American history and the fanciful versions that unspool in our heads. When Pam's in Hollywood, her best friend is Eve Harrington from All About Eve; it turns out that the screen version of Pam's silly war-correspondent memoir was the movie Eve announced she was ditching Broadway to star in. Maybe that's just fun and games, but I'm after something deeper when Pam acknowledges that one reason she hates Dubya is that he reminds her of her father.

As for my own lifelong entanglement with The Great Gatsby, any American writer who hasn't had to confront what it means to him or her at some point is one lucky fool. Most of us would probably agree that it's one of the most perfect pieces of fiction ever written, just in terms of technique. The line-by-line phrasing, the choice of incident and detail, the fabulous construction. It's perfect in the same sense that a Faberge egg is not destined to end up helping an omelet get made, and mea culpa.

It's also one of the two or three novels I'd practically memorized by college. But even at my peak of infatuation -- and this is where some of you may start reaching for a garotte -- I was mystified that Gatsby himself never charmed me. No other Fitzgerald hero is so fundamentally humorless. He's most touching when his pomposity ends up making him sound forlorn, sort of like Elmer Fudd in his virile youth. When you think about it, it isn't all that convincing that Daisy Fay would ever have fallen in love with him, unless the uniform did all the work back in Louisville in 1917. It's interesting that Fitzgerald can only make him come across as a noble sort of chap compared to the Buchanans by denying him any gift for making himself entertaining, something Fitzgerald doted on in life.

Anyway, once I got older and the book's permanent lodgment in my brain began to shift around -- you know, like, we'll never get rid of that big sofa, hon, so how about we try it in the den this year? -- the more I realized it wasn't just Gatsby's personality that put me off. It was his whole project, which is magical and moving in the fairy-tale abstract and absolutely toxic as recommended behavior for adults. There are hints here and there in the text that Fitzgerald knew this, but he's too ardent for the dream to make Gatsby culpable. It fascinates me that the utter narcissism of Gatsby's agenda doesn't get more attention in the boundless critical literature -- especially from feminists, since it's a very male notion of martyrdom. In the world as I know it, smart women flee those moony-eyed and self-appointed "saviors" like antelopes at the Indy 500.

You remember that famous summing-up: "They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made." It's gorgeous from first word to last, but as an assessment of blame, it's moonshine. Good old James Gatz is the one who shows up and starts knocking things apart without any consideration of the consequences -- including the effect on poor, trivial Pammy, may I note as her advocate and stenographer. To whatever extent we're meant to judge these people as human beings and not just figures in a tragic ballet -- and Fitzgerald did believe in moral verdicts in fiction -- is Daisy backing out of a future with him really so unforgivable?

That's why I gave Daisy a speech in Gilligan's Wake describing the book she wants to write -- all about "a tyrant and a dictator who carries your head around on a stick even though he calls it his banner, because he's in love with himself but he can never admit that, and so he makes you his idol and loves himself, adores himself, worships himself for having one." In terms of grappling with the costs -- not just the beauty-- of romantic behavior, Tender Is the Night rings a lot truer to me in later life, its alleged structural "failings" and all.

So even though Daisy isn't a sequel to Gatsby, I suppose it is an answer of sorts to a book whose artistic magic I'll never stop being entranced by and whose pitfalls as a guide to life I'll never stop arguing with. My heroine is an 86-year-old broad who looks back on a long and gaudy life and decides she wouldn't swap it for anything. She too lost the one great love of her youth, and so what? "I wrote three books, saw a war, rode an elephant through the Pink City." One of my favorite bits is Pam's caustic comment on reading Gatsby itself: "Picture Daisy's dim life at forty with her bootlegger suitor and you'll see what a crock the whole thing is."

Of course, in her world, The Great Gatsby isn't a novel. It's Nick Carraway's unpublished memoir of her mother, which has gathered dust for eighty years when it's rediscovered among his effects, bearing the mysterious title Under the Red, White and Blue -- one of Fitzgerald's last-minute prepublication inspirations, which fortunately Maxwell Perkins ignored. Pam admits to being unprepared to learn that her parents' old friend -- and her own guardian in her bewildered adolescence, which is a bit of autobiographical three-card monte in terms of my relationship to Fitzgerald -- was such an astonishing writer. Since she's vain of her literary acumen, she boldly ventures her opinion that, under another title and published as fiction, Under the Red, White and Blue might very well have become some sort of small classic.

Pre-order the book

Read more about the book at
(There’s a link to the first chapter on this site.)

About: Tom Carson is the author of Gilligan’s Wake, a New York Times Notable Book of The Year for 2003. Currently GQ’s “The Critic,” he won two National Magazine Awards for criticism as Esquire magazine’s “Screen” columnist and has been nominated two more times since. He also won the CRMA criticism award for his book reviews in Los Angeles magazine.

Before that, he wrote extensively about pop culture and politics for the LA Weekly and the Village Voice, including an obituary for Richard Nixon in the latter that the late Norman Mailer termed "brilliant." He has contributed over the years to publications ranging from Rolling Stone to the Atlantic Monthly. His fiction and poetry have appeared in Black Clock. His verse and other random writings can be found at

In 1979, he was the youngest contributor -- with an essay on the Ramones -- to Greil Marcus's celebrated rock anthology, Stranded. With Kit Rachlis and Jeff Salamon, he edited Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough: Essays In Honor of Robert Christgau in 2002.

Born in Germany in 1956, he grew up largely abroad at the hands of the U.S. State Department. He graduated in 1977 from Princeton University, where he won the Samuel Shellabarger award for creative writing. A former resident of Washington, D.C., New York City, and Los Angeles, he now lives in New Orleans with his wife, Arion Berger, and can be found all too often at Buffa's Lounge on Saints' days.


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.