Being only three, and not terribly important in the drama unfolding among her mother’s paramours, Pamela Buchanan didn’t get a starring role in the novel in which she first appeared: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. But lucky for her, there are authors who enjoy saving even the most peripheral figures in canonic works of literature from bit-part status. Like Hamlet’s pals Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Odysseus’s missus Penelope, and Pip’s benefactor Jack Maggs, the young Miss Buchanan now gets to be a marquee player.
At more than 600 pages, Daisy Buchanan’s Daughter is a star vehicle on the scale of Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra. Presented as a series of blog postings by Pamela (Pam for short), written on her 86th birthday, the book has the requisite cast of thousands, too. Not only do we get to see Daisy’s little girl all grown up, but we learn of her encounters with U.S. presidents (she enjoys banter with JFK and a quickie with LBJ, though shouldn’t that be the other way around?), similarly authentic historical figures (like Depression-era activist Dorothy Day) and others who refuse to stay entirely fictional (Pam’s social circle includes Eve Harrington and Addison DeWitt, characters otherwise found in All About Eve).
Nick Carraway is also here, though in his post-Fitzgerald incarnations as a Chicago ad man and as a Thomas Merton-like monk. Pam’s mother, however, checks out early in the story, dying by suicide after marrying a Belgian businessman.
They’re all united in the universe created by Tom Carson. A long-time writer for GQ and Esquire, Carson is an old hand at such metafictional hijinks, having spun off the characters on Gilligan’s Island in many bewildering new directions in his 2003 novel Gilligan’s Wake. Daisy Buchanan’s Daughter is an even nuttier proposition and twice as ambitious as a survey of American life between the 1920s and 2006, the year that Pam – in a gesture of protest over what she repeatedly calls “this awful and unending war” – plans to make her last by blowing her brains out during a planned birthday call by the sitting U.S. president. (The name of George W. Bush is conspicuous by its absence here.)
But Pam’s got plenty of life in her yet. Indeed, she rarely loses steam as she careens through her childhood in Connecticut and Paris, her time among leftist playwrights in New York, a sojourn in Hollywood and various diplomatic postings with her third and final husband.
Messy and sprawling Carson’s book may often be, it’s also a very engaging showcase for the most distinctive voice to be found in any recent American novel. Like the author himself, Pam’s fond of pilfering the imaginations of other writers (“mimsy borogoves” is her appellation for her eyes, a phrase that comes courtesy of Lewis Carroll). But she’s responsible for much of her prose’s particular snap, crackle and pop, Pam having honed her chops as a reporter during the Second World War (her keenest competition is real-life correspondent Martha Gellhorn). The tone is punchy, profane and endlessly lively, somehow synthesizing Damon Runyon, Thomas Pynchon and the heroine of a screwball comedy.
Not that Pam’s memories are all happy ones. She recalls how she spent the hours before the D-Day invasion, “sloshing toward Omaha as the sea starts to grow cascading grey fir trees from the German artillery and we see that Martian alphabet of destructive contraptions that still haven’t been blown.” She finds her discoveries at Dachau even harder to shake.
Pam’s experiences during the war may prove to be the most indelible with readers, too. Yet her saga’s later stages have much that’s nearly as vivid, especially her times with her diplomat hubby in an African nation you won’t find on any map.
What also comes to the fore is Carson’s core concern, which is finding a way to make the past come alive for readers who already feel overwhelmed by the relentless data streams of the present. Maybe building a cockamamie epic out of a maddening jumble of cultural and historical ephemera is the only way to really do justice to the American century in all its chaos and contradictions. Even if it isn’t, F. Scott Fitzgerald still owes Carson a drink for trying.
Jason Anderson is a Toronto-based journalist and the author of Showbiz. He also contributed to Errol Morris: Interviews, published last year.