Sucking in the American Century

A stunt novel tracks the rise of the state and the decline of the country.


Daisy Buchanan's Daughter, by Tom Carson, Paycock Press, 628 pages, $24.95 

National history is supposed to be a set of agreed-upon facts, but in the history of the United States, the most entertaining facts are the disputed ones. Was the sinking of the USS Maine a remarkably convenient accident, a false-flag operation, an attack by perfidious Spain, or something else? Did Tom McLaury have a gun during the gunfight at the O.K. Corral (which, like the Battle of Bunker Hill, isn't even named for the place where it happened)? Did Gen. Anthony C. McAuliffe turn down a Nazi surrender demand at Bastogne with the word "Nuts" or something more pungent? 

Gray areas like these don't just open up avenues for revisionist history. They reveal the degree to which history is itself a convention, built out of assumptions, inherited culture, narrative expectations, and so on. The story of any nation is a particularly busy and overpopulated type of literature. 

Tom Carson may be the greatest overwriter of our time. This is no small feat when every year and month sends forth a new literary lion cub, often sporting a three-part name, crafting fat-yet-slight novels of intricate verbal dimension filled with footnotes, diagrams, volvelles, recipes, and pop-up constructions. I mean "overwriter" in the best possible sense: The National Magazine Award–winning critic's style is compulsively, exhaustingly inventive, loaded with Homeric epithets, ellipses, polymathic allusions, improbable similes, imagery so idiosyncratic you may wonder who—other than author—understands what it means, and a habit of pastiche that leads to what may be a newly invented form: prose doggerel. 

This is a style that really fits only one genre: the "encyclopedic narrative" described by Edward Mendelson in an influential 1976 essay tying together Dante, Cervantes, Rabelais, Joyce, and the then-celebrated Thomas Pynchon, creators of a type of all-encompassing book that "predicts its own reception and literary assimilation" and requires readers to "provide external order for literary experience." 

The encyclopedic narrative in Daisy Buchanan's Daughter mashes up most of 20th century American history and fictional culture, following the pattern set by Carson's 2003 novel Gilligan's Wake, which tells the story of America from the '20s through the '60s via the seven passengers and crew of the S.S. Minnow. In that exercise, Thurston Howell III becomes a clubby insider who gets Alger Hiss his job at the State Department (Dean Acheson believes Mr. Howell is joking when he mentions that Hiss is a communist); the Skipper runs a World War II PT boat along with fellow commanders Jack Kennedy and McHale; the Professor is an amoral Manhattan Project alumnus whose dirty tricks include instigating the Suez Crisis and starting the Apollo space program; and in the book's most inspired bit, the ever-virginal Mary Ann, a Russell, Kansas, neighbor of Bob Dole, heads off to late-'50s Paris for a romance with Jean-Luc Godard that both echoes the plot of Breathless and provides an eerily believable portrait of the New Wave filmmaker. 

It's a strange mix—an extremely high volume of material deployed for extremely low stakes—and it wouldn't be fair to call it an acquired taste: Either you like this stuff or you don't. In particular, if you want suspense or a propulsive narrative, you should look elsewhere. These are books to randomly dip into for weird-but-true historical tidbits and fictional-but-alarmingly-realistic inventions. 

The pedigree of Daisy Buchanan's Daughter, in this post-highbrow culture, may not be more respectable than that of Gilligan's Wake, but it has more academic support. The title character is Pamela Buchanan, the child of Daisy and Tom Buchanan, who gets a 250-word cameo in F. Scott Fitzgerald's interwar classic The Great Gatsby

As a fictional launching point, this is a smart choice. Gatsby is that rarest of works: a mainstay of high school English syllabi that readers actually like. Fans of the book, if they remember Pammy at all, will be relieved to learn that she survives (and barely recalls) Jay Gatsby's tragic end, endures the subsequent early deaths of both her parents (bullheaded, entitled Tom in a riding mishap; frail and self-indulgent Daisy by her own hand), goes through three high-profile husbands and participates in a substantial chunk of real and fake U.S. history. 

The plot, such as it is, revolves around a set of blog posts Pam puts up while awaiting a congratulatory 86th birthday call—on June 6, 2006—from President George W. Bush, during which she intends to shoot herself. That last part is ostensibly intended as a protest against Bush's "awful and unending war," but Pam is a rare left-centrist honest enough to admit that what really bugs her about Bush is not so much his policies (which, wars included, were solidly within the centrist continuum) but his demeanor. In short, Bush reminds her of her late father. 

This is a cheap shot against Bush—who did not as far as history knows show any interest in Madison Grant–style scientific racism—but it's not totally off the mark. There really was something unreflective, bullying, and aloof in Bush's personal style that recalled Tom Buchanan. Carson is just as skillful in performing the same trick in the other direction: It is absolutely right that Gatsby narrator Nick Carraway—perceptive, humane, and a bit of a pill—ends up as a zealot for Catholic Worker, the do-gooder movement founded in the 1930s by distributist convert Dorothy Day. And while I'm an admirer of Day, I can't really argue with skeptical Pam's depiction of her as, deep down, a horse's ass. (Gilligan's Wake readers will recognize the portrait of Daisy Buchanan as a mostly checked-out morphine addict.) 

As these examples suggest, Daisy Buchanan's Daughter is historical fiction but not quite in the same genre as those thousand-page picaresques where Hermann Göring or Benjamin Franklin occasionally drops in to advance the plot and then goes on his way. Pam Buchanan goes everywhere: a French girls school; a career in committed-leftist magazines (with some apt commentary on the bone-deep humorlessness of political journalists); wartime correspondence at Anzio, Omaha Beach, and Dachau; Hollywood; Israel; a diplomatic interlude in some fictional African country whose general description and time-frame suggest it might be Gabon. 

But the book's mix of history and fiction (Carson's and others') has both less narrative energy than your average historical potboiler and more critical texture. The reader needs to provide his or her own external order to just about every page, and had better be pretty well read going in. It is only quite a while after coitus that the reader learns the up-and-coming congressman and bogus Silver Star winner who brought Pam into his office for a wartime quickie was the young Lyndon Johnson. (Attentive readers of Robert Caro might catch on earlier, and in any event LBJ hangs around too long in the book, just as he did in reality.) 

Similarly, a section among the New York cognoscenti features an appearance by theater critic Addison DeWitt, who seems like a historical figure but is actually a character played by George Sanders in the movie All About Eve. Pam chastises the greedy psychiatrist Dr. John Ray for publishing a popular edition of the non-fictional clinical work Confessions of a White Widowed Male, and you may or may not recognize that book as Lolita, a work of fiction by Vladimir Nabokov—another tireless, sometimes tiring, literary gamester. While Daisy has as of this writing received many reviews (including a less-erudite-than-it-thinks pan by Tadzio Koelb in The New York Times), I don't think anybody has noticed that the "ben Canaans" Pam meets in a young Israel are actually characters repurposed from Exodus, Leon Uris' popular but (in my view) underrated novel about the founding of the Jewish state. 

Or maybe they're from Otto Preminger's equally popular and critically reviled movie version of Exodus. One of Pam's recurring peeves is the way movies like Saving Private Ryan and Phil Yordan's weirdly snow-free Battle of the Bulge misrepresent events she has witnessed. That's an odd complaint in a book that turns real and made-up history into a seamless tissue, but it fits the character's combination of knowingness, bemusement, and irascibility. 

In books about the "American Century," the World War II parts are always the crowd pleasers, and this one is no exception. The disputed questions are, again, the most interesting: Should we consider Gen. Mark Clark a butcher for his gruesome, slow, and strategically pointless slog up the Italian boot or a great American for shielding Bill Mauldin's iconic Willie and Joe cartoons from Army censors? Why were our supposedly finest commanders surprised when the Germans launched the Bulge in the same place they had already shown a preference for in 1914 and 1940? 

Here I think the book stops being a tribute to its own cleverness and becomes a narrative of the way the bewilderingly total prerogatives of the state have replaced those of the citizens. Pam runs through a vast number of adventures and role models—Dorothy Parker, Martha Gellhorn, Marguerite Higgins, and Pamela Harriman, to name a few—but Carson has a particular interest in diplomatic life. He is both knowing and merciless about the ivied Northeast Corridor set that crafted 20th century U.S. foreign policy and in the process destroyed the republic. 

It was in large part thanks to these geniuses that the end of the Second World War was also the end of a type of American possibility. The peace brought only a succession of wars, which started with Korea, "that reject pile of bits of World War Two that hadn't been fought at the time," and of which Iraq (only three years old during the book's time frame) isn't even close to being the most destructive. To blame George W. Bush for the permanent warfare state is absurd, as Pam dimly, and the author more clearly, understands. In a book full of aperçus, one of the sharpest is this one, concerning military cooperation with the postwar movie industry: "The Pentagon, as we were learning to call it, saw such quasi-commercials as useful in cementing everyone's dazed understanding that its wartime encroachments were now a fixture of our national life." 

In this frame, Carson's manic allusiveness suggests not only the rich density of America's culture but the unreflective nature of its decline. If there's one constant in our imperial mishaps it is their Groundhog Day repetitiveness, unalloyed by context or perspective. As reason's Brian Doherty wrote many years ago, when the decision to start the awful and endless war had been made but the country was still going through the motions of debate: "Ten years from now, whatever problems we are having with Iraq will be seen as fresh problems, with only pointy-headed blame-America-firsters linking them to any action of ours in the past." 

So it is with Pam Buchanan, who beats on against the current but is borne back ceaselessly into the past. In the end (spoiler alert) her lame protest never even happens. She dies before the president calls.

Tim Cavanaugh is a reason senior editor.

NEXT: Report: Fed Leadership Riddled With Conflicts of Interest

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  1. That lack of alt-text is obscene.
    And, Tim, you should write a book. Your talents are too great to be wasted on a blog.

    1. He writes articles, too.

      1. He could really bring a dead tree paper some class. Maybe one of those west coast papers south of SanFran?

  2. Good news – this book is available for download at the a low low price.

    Other good news (sort of) – it replaced solitaire on my iPad as a cure for insomnia.

  3. the then-celebrated Thomas Pynchon

    A trollin’ comes across the blog.

    B) You’ve made this book sound like exactly the kind of book I like best, but made totally the wrong way by a tedious dipshit. Like, the ‘encyclopedic’ style as I know and love it : this thing :: the New York Dolls & the Stooges : the latest Bret Michaels album.


    I might have bought it.

    (But the cover pisses me off, too.)

  4. Who’s the blond? Me want.

  5. National His-Story is supposed to be a set of agreed-upon facts…

    …according to His Story.

  6. Couldn’t have dropped that spoiler alert a little sooner? We speed readers will have seen the alert at the same time as the spoiler.

  7. Gatsby is that rarest of works: a mainstay of high school English syllabi that readers actually like.

    LOL That’s funny. I bet you even thought you ate at the cool table.

    1. I liked it because it was short, and thus fit neatly into the attention span I allotted school.

    2. Gatsby ain’t a bad story. In the ’90s, when I first read it, all the characters seemed so foppish and self-absorbed. Nowadays, they’re ripped from the headlines.

    3. Amen. I had to read it. I didn’t like it. I thought it was dull and tedious. Admittedly, being forced to read something has a way of sucking all the joy out of it, so maybe if I read it now I’d like it, but I sure as hell didn’t then.

  8. I’ve read The Great Gatsby twice, but all I can remember is “the holocaust was complete.” I can’t even remember who died in this holocaust or how they got killed.

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  12. That art you have on this article is really interesting. Who is the artist?

    1. The cover artist for the book is Glenn Arthur – http://www.facebook.com/artist.glennarthurart

    2. Agreed. Initially, I liked how the cover image is a combo of pinup art, Jugendstil, and steampunk. But after browsing the artist’s other works, I am left displeased with his overall works and his co-opting of the Art Nouveau style for nefarious cheesy, Hot Topic-esque purposes.

  13. Tim’s review by itself makes the book seem sprawling…

  14. Buoni articoli in grado di attrarre gli occhi di molte persone,

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