It may be no coincidence that so many “reality” shows—from Survivor to its reprehensible kiddy knockoff Endurance—use remote islands as their milieu of choice. Sure, they’re cheap and ready locations, but isn’t it also that modernity leads us to identify with the hopelessly marooned? Tom Carson, like his cultural forebears Daniel Defoe, William Golding, and, um, Sherwood Schwartz, thinks so. In Gilligan’s Wake, a dense, elaborate riff on the venerable ’60s sitcom, Carson attempts to excavate significance from a well-trod corner of the pop-cultural rubbish heap, with decidedly mixed results.
Carson’s three-hour tour de force devotes a chapter each to back-stories for the series’ seven familiar castaways, tying them together with recurring figures from history and 20th-century literature. Thus the Skipper, a PT-boat captain during World War II, rubs elbows with a young JFK, who turns up later for a romp with soon-to-be starlet Ginger Grant (who shares a Hollywood rooming house with the original Homer Simpson); “Lovey” Howell has a dalliance with Daisy Buchanan before marrying puppyish millionaire Thurston, who lands Alger Hiss a government job; the unnamed Professor, who heads a nefarious shadow government with pal Roy Cohn, helps Richard Nixon ascend to the presidency; and perpetual virgin Mary-Ann carries on with a randy Jean-Luc Godard while studying at the Sorbonne. To up the spot-the-references ante, Carson pointedly echoes scribes from Exley to Nabokov to Pete Townshend to—naturally—Joyce, and further complicates matters by framing his narrative as the grief-addled delusion of an institutionalized man who may or may not be Gilligan.
To call the premise absurd is to miss the point: Schwartz’s Gilligan’s Island is no Mrs. Dalloway or The Picture of Dorian Gray, to put it mildly, and Carson is well aware of its limitations as grist for the metafictional mill. And therein lies the problem. For all his professed admiration of the show, and despite the chutzpah it took to adapt it as a grand metaphor for personal and historical stasis, Carson’s jokey, insiderish style and cynical kitchen-sink approach seem designed to elevate him above the material. At best, it recalls the paranoid romans à clef of a giddier James Ellroy; at worst, the disorienting effect is like mock-DeLillo. As in the works of the very postmodernists and culture snobs Carson is taking the piss out of, what matters to him remains frustratingly unclear.