Book Review

Gilligan’s Wake

Tom Carson.
Picador, 2003.
352 Pages.
ISBN 031229123X; Hardcover $25.00

Review by Richard Romeo

Given the current – and often surreal – smorgasbord of rampant technology, infinite juxtaposition, and built-in irony (served, of course, with the knowing wink), it seems fair to question how novelists of today can possibly stay relevant. We conceivably cannot be shocked, surprised, or experience wonder anymore without each scene or event being moderated in some way by a spokesman, an expert, or talking head. The best bits are already on our TV screens, the Web we’re surfing, or the billboards we pass each day. At times it seems that we know everything, and in many cases, we wish we didn’t know as much as we do. And yet, we still hunger for mystery; for something new to surprise us, provoke our interest, and engage our emotions. So the question becomes: is it possible to out-surreal the surreal, but still retain some semblance of earthly concern for an increasingly confused humanity?
Just such an attempt is made by Tom Carson in Gilligan’s Wake, and thankfully, Carson’s heart is just as big as his brain. A disturbing but funny tale of seven stranded castaways – yes, those seven castaways – Carson’s novel functions like a modern Canterbury Tales, tracking the history of the United States during the long, strange trip that was the 20th Century. On the way, Carson gobbles up high and low culture alike, from James Joyce to those seven castaways we know and love so well – though after finishing the book, you’ll realize that you never really knew them at all.

At first glance, this description might tempt one to dismiss Gilligan’s Wake as yet another postmodern trifle. After all, much of the overworked venue that is postmodernism has fallen into a morass of feckless obscenity or hollow pastiche, with fragile stories built on the whim of literary theory, dissertations masquerading as fiction, and heartless novels too clever by half. However, Carson’s book is funny, compassionate, and actually has something unique to say about what it means to be an American as the U.S. emerged from isolation to the eminent political and military power it is today.
Gilligan’s Wake is told in seven long chapters, each focusing on a different castaway – and if you know the old theme song, the order will come as no surprise. Appropriately, the novel begins in a madhouse, where Carson echoes the layered prose of Finnegans Wake through the bebop, thorazine-addled consciousness of a poor guy who thinks he’s Maynard G. Krebs. As this pre-Gilligan ("and I remembered what the G in my old name had stood for...") beatnik receives shock treatment, the novel’s main symbols, themes, and secondary characters emerge in a frenetic and surreal overture, from the Maxwell House Coffee clock outside the window to Richard M. Nixon, pregnant (yep) in the room next door. After shocking “Maynard” into a new level of consciousness, Carson turns to the Skipper, spinning a small war story involving PT boats, a certain naval commander named McHale, a dead Japanese soldier, Nixon (again), and a seemingly invincible, certain soon-to-be president. Thurston Howell III arrives next, a hilarious, buffoonish member of the upper class, harboring a secret love of jingoistic action comics and pining away for his Lovey. Like Coover, who brilliantly mustered up the soily, pathetic inner workings of Mr. Richard Nixon in The Public Burning, Carson shows Howell to be oblivious to the Cold War machinations revolving around his well-insured head as he helps Alger Hiss get his first government job. After so much mawkishness about his darling “L.,” Lovey’s chapter is a chilled martini flung in the face. A shallow socialite with a vague Electra complex, she wanders across a jazz age panorama, cultivating a heroin addiction and falling into a dysfunctional affair with The Great Gatsby’s Daisy Buchanan. Although the idea of a lesbian affair between Daisy and the future Mrs. Howell might seem a bit too-clever on paper, their scenes have a brutal honesty that cuts right through the intertextual high-jinks, exposing the emptiness and brittle despair at the center of their sad lives.
Next on the bill is the movie star, and here Carson slightly alters tack: Ginger, a curvaceous dynamo from Alabam’-don’t-give-a-damn, is all too aware of her hallowed place in the sordid fantasies of the book’s male readers, and she’s the first character to question her own role in Carson’s tangled narrative. Trying to make it in Hollywood while avoiding being made by every drooling director and sleazy photographer in town, she eventually encounters the Rat Pack, who are socializing with – surprise surprise – a seemingly invincible, certain soon-to-be president. After Ginger’s Palm Springs epiphany, we are presented with a very scary “Professor X.” Seeing past the TV character’s nerdish, asexual charm, Carson recognizes the Professor as the object of countless schoolgirl crushes, and he responds with a creation of savagely ironic proportions. A priapistic maniac, Professor X is a sexual predator of cripples and mutants of both genders (if you think the X-Men you’d be right), who along with his pal, Roy Cohn, becomes intimately involved in every phantasmagoric American deceit, outrage, and conspiracy imaginable, from the Manhattan Project to the space program to the rise of Ronald Reagan. From a base of operations at a literal Foggy Bottom (if you think an evil James Bond you’d be right again), the Professor carries out his career of debauchery and evil, barely aware of his own grotesque metamorphosis into...well, something else.
Finally, we come to the lovely Mary-Ann, who is given the longest chapter in the book. If Professor X symbolizes the worst of America, sweet Mary-Ann epitomizes her endless, virginal naiveté and good faith, emerging from a midwestern Brigadoon with boundless enthusiasm and a head full of dreams. While on a summer fling to her nearly mythical Paris, Paris, Paris, she becomes the lover of soon-to-be famous film director, Jean-Luc Quel-que-chose. After she returns home – though Carson demonstrates quite clearly that one can never truly return home, especially to also-mythical small towns in Middle-America – the novel enters its final stage. Following a series of baffling revelations, Mary-Ann is subjected to a literal deconstruction of the novel’s themes, her panic mounting as the narrative winds to a close and reveals what’s really been going on. Or sort of.
In many ways, the end of Gilligan’s Wake takes us back to the chaos of the beginning, with both ends posing the question: Who, or perhaps what, is Gilligan? After all, he is most conspicuous by his absence, and even “his chapter is told through the persona of Bob Denver’s other famous alter ego. And since this is Gilligan’s wake after all, do the recurring themes that appear in various permutations throughout the book relate back to him? Indeed, there are so many interconnections between each of the seven stories that the above synopsis cannot possibly do them justice. Suffice it to say, however, that some tropes are easily detectable, such as the betrayed lover and the missing father; and these are often the themes that resonate most strongly on an emotional level. (Mary-Ann’s attempt to connect with her dead father, killed in action on Iwo Jima, is especially memorable – a scene at the top of Eiffel Tower with Jean-Luc even more so). Certainly these elements relate to a hidden first cause, a central storyteller, the Gilligan in the Wake. (Carson, like Joyce, allows his title to engage with multiple meanings. Is Gilligan causing the wake, the soon-to-be-reborn subject of the wake, or perhaps dreaming a-wake?) Like Tyrone Slothrop’s incarnations and ultimate scattering in Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, “Gilligan” is represented in some way in each story, casually masked by an anagram of his name. He may be an American sailor, a Russian spy, a defiant servant, a pornographic director, a drug, a terrorist group, or a marine’s son wounded in love. Unlike Slothrop, however, Gilligan scatters from the very beginning. As modern readers, we are inheritors of chaos; all narratives today are unfocused, subject to interpretation, and ultimately unknowable – which in a certain sense may be a blessing.
Such plausible uncertainty is also what’s missing from much so-called “realistic” fiction and novels that are just weird for the sake of being weird. Unlike the former, Gilligan’s Wake does not condescend to have all the answers; unlike the latter, it supports its uncertainties with emotional depth and a well-made structure, albeit one hard to tease out. Like many great novels, there’s so much going on (literary, historical, mythically) in Gilligan’s Wake that it invites a rereading, a chance to fill in some of the holes, like Alice, you might have fallen in the first time. Whether Gilligan represents the messed-up consciousness of a drug-addled madman, the homonymous avatar of an omnipotent narrator, or Tom Carson himself is an open question; but a little mystery in a novel, as Don DeLillo has eloquently noted, is a good thing. And if Gilligan’s scattering alludes to the loss of a central narrative to us wanderers in the here-and-now, we can at least smile knowingly: this is a postmodern tale after all.

Putting aside the novel’s ingenious conceit and dazzling execution, it’s good to report that Carson is also a great writer. While some of his phrases are occasionally a bit overwrought, his witty narrative is a joy to read – rich with fresh metaphors, shrewd observations, and brimming with exuberance. There’s also an occasional moment of near transcendence as well, such as this paragraph where Mary-Ann reflects on her girlhood notions of magical Paris:

In any case, I now had my girlhood’s magic thing, and no one ever knows what those will be. Becky Baum, who sat next to me in school, owned a dollhouse in which she kept discovering new rooms. Dorothy Haze, who joined us at lunch, had a turtle that talked to her, but only when they were alone. I had a mysterious place called the Sorbonne, which I soon learned was a university, not a restaurant, and which was magic because no one else but me had ever heard of it.

It would be hard to imagine another example from recent fiction where four sentences express such a sublime combination of magic, irony, and wonder.
Additionally, Carson directs much of his ire at the right targets. Instead of today’s nihilistic, everyone-is-shit, non-too-subtle critiques, Gilligan’s Wake aims its sharpest arrows at the rich, powerful, and well-connected: JFK’s impudence, Mr. Howell’s naiveté, Lovey’s arrogance and racism, the Professor’s political and professional hubris. A scene involving the Professor’s rape of a Nagasaki survivor is pretty incomparable on the evil-in-recent-fiction scale; and ranks as one of the most bitter indictments of blind, American power ever committed to metaphor. The Skipper, Ginger, and Mary-Ann come across more favorably – they develop believably as characters, and are aware and morally conscious of others. The Skipper is a foul-mouthed old salt, but one you wouldn’t mind having a few beers with, and you sympathize with his ghastly, wartime predicament. Ginger outgrows the racism of her mother in a Rat Pack scene that evokes both hilarity and warmth. Mary-Ann is simply impossible not to like, and her growing confusion at the end of the novel is a mirror to our own. Happily for us, we exist outside the book, and have a better understanding of what the final clicking of “knitting needles” might truly signify....

Part comic book and part myth, Carson is able to bridge the maw between high literary magic and the lowly pun. Like a kaleidoscope, familiar scenes from the TV show are illuminated, twisted, and moved off-kilter to give the reader a fresh view of what was believed to be all known and wrapped up for good. And on a final note – in no way does the author demean the real life actors who played the seven castaways. In fact, I hope that they, in some sense, would feel even better about being a part of, if not TV history, at least this one.

--Richard Romeo
12 June 2003


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