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Tom Carson on television, American history and his new novel, Gilligan’s Wake

Thursday, Jan 16 2003

Take seven stranded castaways -- a first mate, a skipper, too; a millionaire and his wife; a movie star; a professor; and a Mary Ann -- lost not on an uncharted desert island but in the American history that might have made them (and the history they might have made), and you have the makings of Tom Carson‘s lively and strangely moving comic novel, Gilligan’s Wake. Essentially a series of satirical fantasias knit together by the elastic imaginings of a “shadow narrator,” whose own story is buried inside the others -- “It‘s not whodunit,” says Carson, “it’s whotoldit” -- the novel sets a course through the last century‘s political and pop culture, from New York to Hollywood to Washington, D.C., from World War II’s Pacific Theater to existentialist Paris, offering a beguiling mix of sophisticated pastiche and almost refreshingly dumb puns. There are appearances, and mutant re-appearances, by figures real and less real -- from Nixon and Kennedy to Daisy Buchanan and Godzilla to Bettie Page to Jean-Luc Godard to . . . Brett Sommers (!), with nods to works as various as Un Chien Andalou, Rio Bravo, Waiting for Godot (the ur-sitcom), Who‘s Next, Ramones, “Howl,” “The Wasteland” and more sitcoms than you can shake a remote at (“She was wearing acres of green petticoats, and I called her the hyacinth girl; sometimes we even talked alike”).

With a father in the Foreign Service, Carson spent the first 12 years of his life in West Africa and West Berlin. He lives now in Arlington, Virginia, “just a few miles” from where he went to high school. This is his second novel; the first, the “rock novel” Twisted Kicks (which its author recently called “immature” and “overwrought”), was published 24 years ago. In the meantime, he has written copiously, and originally, on music and politics and media -- he was, in fact, the television critic of this paper in the early ’90s -- and currently writes Esquire‘s Screen column, for which he won a National Magazine Award in 2000.

L.A. WEEKLY: Are you a journalist who first set out to write fiction?

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TOM CARSON: I certainly started out thinking of myself as a fiction writer, who was doing journalism as a way of keeping body and soul together, and it ended up being a much longer detour than I thought it would be. I never stopped writing fiction, but I spent years wrestling with an appropriate form for the kind of things I wanted to say, and I spent way too many years trapped in trying to write a novel that conformed to my idea of what great fiction was -- something like The Tin Drum. It took me a long time to realize that whatever my skills were they weren’t in that direction. One way that the dam burst was that while I was working on this misbegotten novel I was also writing a political column for The Village Voice, which just kept veering off into all these slapstick cartoon fantasies that mixed up politics and pop culture, and I realized that that was actually much more a natural style for me.

Did the book start with the title?

It did start with the title, and at first I just laughed, and after a couple of days I found myself thinking, hmmm, maybe I can do something with that, and then it just became irresistible.

The show was never one I had a particular attachment to, if anything kind of the opposite. But part of the appeal of using Gilligan‘s Island is that it doesn’t matter if you have no fondness for the show, those characters are part of your cultural landscape. That was one of the reasons it was fun to treat them as if they were mythic characters, because in a very real way they are. I started by falling in love with the idea of giving them these fantasy life stories that would let me pretty much wander all over the map of what we used to call the American Century. And then the understory just started to emerge as I went along. I think I had some semiconscious notion right from the start that I wanted something to bind all these stories together; not just the Gilligan‘s Island characters, but everything else I bring in, whether it’s other TV characters or characters from literature or historical figures. I wanted to write about how our minds sort of mulch all that and transform it into the autobiography of our imagination. And so I started to think, who would be making up these stories, and then gradually the shadow narrator -- which is an unwieldy term, but I haven‘t come up with a better one yet -- started to become more noticeable.

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