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Tom Carson’s Daisy Buchanan’s Daughteris an uproarious, antic, tender, and proudly huge novel, a turtlecrackingly thick book (“1.8 pounds” says Amazon.com) that earns its status as an American epic even while it redefines what a literary epic is. It is a novel of the District: Its 86-year-old heroine, Pamela Buchanan, hurriedly blogs much of her life’s story over the course of her birthday from her Connecticut Avenue condo, and she dishes plenty on the ’60s diplomatic corps and West Wing. But it is also a novel of the world, shuttling from Long Island to Los Angeles to Paris to West Africa. Today even big fictions can feel small, but Carson’s book has real weight, and he revels in the bulky life he chronicles. Here’s a take on the American century by a woman determined to debunk the convenient lies we’ve told ourselves about it.
Still, like many big novels, Daisy Buchanan’s Daughter can be a big mess. Its gags are occasionally strained, its sentences often overworked. “Beyond my Mac’s screen as I input with rheumatic fingers and lunetted mimsies by my living room window, where dawn’s cerise is already giving way to torched daffodils, Pam’s trophy bookcase looks eager to chip in,” goes one overstuffed sofa of a sentence in a book that is very heavily furnished. That doesn’t mean the novel is no fun or that it’s not worth the while. But some warnings and preparatory information is in order. So, then, a three-point action plan for those who wish to process the damnedest D.C. novel to appear in a while.
1. Increase your tolerance for puns. A lot. Pamela is a former journalist who covered D-Day and Dachau, and she prides herself on a facility with the “circus tricks of words.” Which is putting it mildly: Her sentences are clown cars of wordplay. “Nobody tops an ancient widow for putting the lay back in Rabelaisian, boys,” she writes of her sexual history. She recalls her “peripatetic e.e. comings and goings,” bemoans “Hollywood at its most Zanuckleheaded,” and recalls how her image on a book cover gave her a “saucy come-hitler look.” Writing about her stint in a St. Paul girls’ school, she remembers “the nasty communal showers back in Radclyffe Hall.” (Google that last one if it sails past you; it’ll clue you in to a central theme of the book.)
Pamela’s brassy, punny voice is the soul of the novel: It’s what keeps the story moving in a book that’s more about observation than action. And even if the gags sometimes irritate (“the text was abridged too far”), they’re to a purpose, part of Carson’s efforts to satirize some strategic targets: machismo, Hollywood, bureaucracy, sexism, romantic possessiveness, greed at the expense of truth. When you’re an octogenarian whose life story was bowdlerized onscreen and everyone seems to be spending their lives “making the beast with two greenbacks,” what can you do but laugh?
2. Recalibrate your notion of what a big literary novel is supposed to be. The hefty American literary epics of the ’90s and ’00s—Underworld, Infinite Jest, Freedom—tacitly defend their size by stacking evidence of flawed American-ness. They’re novels as cross-sections, exposing the broken-down systems inside a fading superpower. Daisy Buchanan’s Daughter has elements of a national critique, too: It takes place in 2006, on the anniversary of D-Day, and Pam is blogging to keep her hands busy as she awaits a phone call from President Bush during which she intends to shoot herself in protest of Middle East military adventures. But Pamela engages in little Dubya-bashing, nor does she express much concern about present-day politics. Yesterday, she writes, is “the world’s true fourth dimension,” and that’s where she intends to stay. The book is a picaresque tale that’s disinterested in the strategies of those pomo bricks or even Carson’s chief inspiration, The Great Gatsby.
Right, about Gatsby. Though he expands on some of the characters in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel—Daisy becomes a junkie, Nick Carraway becomes an adman and then a monk—it’d be off-target to call Carson’s book a sequel. Carson makes no attempt to ventriloquize Fitzgerald’s writing; he’s clearly not interested in its concision. The spirit of Daisy Buchanan’s Daughter is closer to that of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which provides another rich mine of pun fodder for Carson. Yet Pamela’s voice is Huckish only in its defiance and common sense, not its sound. Carson riffs on his inspirations, but he never echoes them. Why bother? As Twain would say, we’ve been there before.
3. As with all comic novels, pay close attention when things stop being funny. Pamela’s gift for wisecracks is her entrée as a writer, from Omaha Beach to cocktail parties where she freely mocks Norman Mailer to his face. (“‘Holy shit, Norman,’ I brayed. ‘You talk that way, too?’”) But the most revealing moments are the ones when she’s struck somber. One comes when she tells a joke about Eleanor Roosevelt to a group of female miners, who don’t see her sense of humor, the experience delivering a fast lesson to Pamela about middle-class female empowerment. The second is Dachau, where “the story of a single shoe in that place could’ve filled an encyclopedia.”
Both incidents clue Pamela into a world where prejudice is casually damning when it isn’t catastrophically cruel. This doesn’t make Pamela a noble crusader against injustice—she’s too much the skeptical journalist for that. What it does mean is that when LBJ sobs on her shoulder in 1968, she’s inclined to think of him as the signer of the Civil Rights Act instead of a pitiable warmonger. Instead of emphasizing the ways that politics shape humanity—the favored strategy in novels eager to broadcast their own importance—Daisy Buchanan’s Daughter stresses the humanity that transcends the squabbling. Are Carson’s longueurs on diplomatic parrying in Africa really required to make that point? Hell no. Are there plenty of passages where Carson is being too clever by half? Yes indeed. But however much she goes on, Pamela knows exactly where she’s going. “I’m so fucking old,” she writes. “Indulge me.” Oh, Pam, anything for you.