20th-Century Cruise
Tom Carson on television, American history
and his new novel, Gilligan's Wake
by Robert Lloyd / L.A. Weekly, January 17, 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?

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.

At times the narrator seems to be you -- he’s revealed, for instance, as a TV and music critic.

Well, at that jokey level, sure, but in the ways that matter he‘s very different from me; certainly the whole business where he turns out to be a CIA brat, and his father ending up as a minor player in the Watergate scandal, that’s very different from my experience.

Like him, you did grow up abroad.

Yeah, but I was a State Department brat, and believe me, the CIA kids, they are at a whole other level of neuroses and self-dramatization and fucked-up narcissism.

Did you know those kids?

Oh, sure. You‘re often part of a quite small community in those foreign posts, and when my family was finally posted back to the States, we were in the northern Virginia suburbs, and the place was just sprinkled with CIA brats and Army brats. So it was sort of a reluctant subculture. And certainly one thing I do have in common with that character is the unrequited relationship to American life. Because you daydream about it when you’re thousands of miles away; you want that normal suburban life that you hear about. And then you get home, and first off, you find out it‘s not normal, and second, you find out that you aren’t normal, because you have this whole other range of experience that makes you a square peg.

When did your family move back here?

In ‘68, which was an amazing year to re-encounter the United States. Because I had nothing to compare it to, I just assumed that life in the States was like this all the time, with assassinations and riots and political conventions. It took a while for me to understand that, no, this was all out of the ordinary, even in the States.

Did you see American television before that?

Actually, no. When my dad was stationed in West Africa, there was no television at all -- there were barely telephones. And when we were posted in West Berlin, about the only TV I ever saw was very frizzy reruns of The Red Skelton Show, which didn’t exactly inspire me, and all these bizarre East German spy shows where the Americans were the villains.

So you encountered it all at once on your return.

One of the reasons that this book came out the way it did is that when you grow up here, you absorb it naturally without finding it remarkable, but when you grow up estranged from it, and fascinated with it, the impact of being plunged into American pop culture, and American society, can be fairly overwhelming. You‘re very conscious of your relationship to it, and you don’t take anything for granted. At one level I think it‘s very funny not only that I ended up writing this particular book but that I ended up writing so much about television as a journalist, but I suspect it has something to do with the fact that it just registered for me, in a more vivid, idiosyncratic way than it might have if I had just grown up with it from the start.

Did you binge at first?

I wouldn’t call it bingeing, because I was very much the snobby aesthete in my teenage years. I looked down on a lot of this stuff -- much more then than I do now.

Is there an ideal reader for this book?

My publisher gave me a questionnaire a long time ago that asked more or less that question. I think their version was ideal buyer, and I think what I said was something only half flippant, that my perfect reader would be a Nabokov fan who loves dumb pop-culture jokes -- and promptly warned my publisher that if those were my only readers they weren‘t going to move too many probably. But I didn’t think that the sensibility that I was trying to put across in this book was really all that idiosyncratic, or esoteric; I mean, I really think this is how all this stuff, this 20th-century stuff, works in our heads.

Some of the humor does require special knowledge -- not only of ‘60s sitcoms, but of politics, punk rock, Beckett or French.

I tried to fit in those little allusions and jokes so that they would be a sort of extra little charm if you did happen to catch them, but wouldn’t hang you up or make you feel excluded if you didn‘t. Because I certainly don’t like the kind of books that set up this kind of barricade to readers, in the sense of saying, “Unless you‘re up to speed on my frame of reference you’re not going to be able to follow this.” I really wanted to keep the book as accessible as I could -- I mean, writing an inaccessible book based on Gilligan‘s Island would just be the height of fatuousness, wouldn’t it?

How does living near the capital affect your daily outlook?

Well, I‘m on a nice quiet residential street about a mile from the Pentagon, so that certainly affected my outlook on 911. But otherwise, I’ve always thought that Washington was kind of a rotten place to live if you were connected to the government, because then it‘s a company town, and filled with monomaniacs who don’t really have what you would call a really well-rounded life. On the other hand, if you have nothing to do with the government, Washington is a lovely place to live. An old friend of mine said it‘s a really good place for a writer because it’s a backwater that has really good bookstores, which is true. But I think in terms of what I think you were really asking, it‘s sort of a chicken-and-egg question. With my background, politics and issues like America’s role in the world were something I just imbibed like mother‘s milk; so does living in Washington sharpen that, or is the reason that I ended up moving back here that I was drawn to that as a subject, or a milieu? Again going back to my teenage, and even more my college years, one of the real adjustments for me was just being astonished at how little Americans knew about our engagement with the rest of the world, and how uninterested in politics they are, compared to people in an awful lot of other countries. I think it might surprise readers of this novel that there is so much politics in it, and again, that’s not something imposed on the material, that‘s a natural part of my sensibility.

There’s a strong strain of feminism in the book. The female characters seem fuller and more acute than the male.

Absolutely, on both counts. I do think that the stories of the women characters are the heart of the book. And in a roundabout and oblique way, I think of this book as very much a tribute to feminism. Certainly when I‘m talking specifically about the suffrage movement, in Lovey’s chapter. It‘s transposed back 60 or 70 years, but one thing I had very much on my mind when I was writing that was the way the Ann Coulters of this world sneer at ’70s feminism, when if it hadn‘t been for all those “awful women” that she and Phyllis Schlafly can’t stand, they‘d never have the kind of clout or influence that they do. Thinking about how that hasn’t been done justice made me think about how much the fight to win women the vote -- which is just a wonderful story -- has been utterly forgotten, too, and if it comes up at all it‘s usually treated in ridiculous terms. And it is an extraordinary story. Alice Paul, who gets mentioned in that chapter, and was quite real, was the head of the National Women’s Party who led the last demonstrations that did finally win women the vote; she‘s one of my great heroes, and her name probably isn’t known to one in a hundred thousand Americans.

One last related question: Ginger or Mary Ann?

I should have seen that coming, shouldn‘t I? One of the little things the book is saying is that’s kind of a false choice. I will say that in terms of my versions of those characters, Mary Ann is my absolute favorite. On the other hand, both my editor and agent say that Ginger‘s chapter is their favorite. But I suspect that has a little bit to do with their feelings for Tina Louise, not anything in my writing.

© Robert Lloyd 2003 and 2011