Gore Vidal Essay - Vidal, Gore (Vol. 6)

Vidal, Gore (Vol. 6)

Vidal, Gore 1925–

Vidal, an American novelist, playwright, critic, and essayist concerned with topical political, social, and moral issues, is noted for his wit, his intelligence, and his cynicism. Among his well known works are Washington, D.C. and Myra Breckinridge. He has also written detective stories under the pseudonym Edgar Box. (See also Contemporary Authors, (Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

Myra Breckinridge (1968) was a comedy in a completely classic mode. It presented, gave itself over to, a character who was funny because of her steam-roller way of thinking (with rhetoric to match) and because both she and Vidal had the necessary—brazen and remorseless—courage of her convictions. It's an ancient formula, logical consistency followed without deviation to logical but absurd conclusion, and when done right guaranteed to work: it's the flame that burns inside a Dogberry or a Ted Baxter or a Myra B., consuming them, perhaps, but making us laugh. Take it away, snuff it out, and what's left are only the trappings of comedy—(simple setups, scatological one-liners, timely pratfalls—around an empty shell. Relentlessness is all. Myra's sexual transformation (and jokes thereupon) or idiotic adoration of the worst and tackiest of Hollywood films (and getting her info all mixed up—insiders' camp) are not what is centrally funny about her: what's funny is the intensity and inner logic of her righteousness, her driving, buoyant spirit that will be deterred by nothing. (p. 90)

Satirical humor is by its very nature not in "good taste." It trades on human vulnerability. Its assaults come when the pants are down. Whatever boundaries of "good taste" remained in 1968 (none, really; none since Swift), Myra Breckinridge trampled over. In strict terms of who does what to whom with what, Myron is no more offensive than Myra was. But it seems so. Without Myra really dominant, at stage center all the time, attention wanders to where it shouldn't—to the backstage ropes and pulleys of plot (quite a tangle in Myron, what with all that plunging back and forth in time), to the lack of any strong supporting characters (there were several memorable ones in Myra), to the overreliance on standard fag gags and other easy setup yuks. (A nice, if worthy-of-Mel-Brooks touch: the names of the Supreme Court justices who backtracked on obscenity are substituted throughout for genital words.) Even Parker Tyler is missing: the real-life butt of jokes in Myron is instead—pathetically—Richard Nixon. Myra, in her prime, wouldn't have bothered with such a has-been, unoriginal, no-challenge target.

So: camp, and very little more. A laugh's a laugh, and Myron offers more of them than some other highly touted novels I've read lately…. (p. 91)

Eliot Fremont-Smith, "Second Prize in the Camp Sweepstakes," in New York Magazine (© 1974 by NYM Corp.; reprinted by permission of New York Magazine and Eliot Fremont-Smith), October 21, 1974, pp. 90-1.

Once again, Gore Vidal proves that in a market crowded with literary hookers, he is a true courtesan. He respects the values of entertainment and can deliver a novel for practically any taste. Last year's bestselling Burr is an excellent example of the author's skill at packaging a bit of class in a good deal of excelsior. For Myron, he tricks out his peeves and hostilities with the malicious energy that has made him the best—if not the most original—of our hardcore satirists. Myra/Myron is the perfect mate for Vidal's cold-blooded gifts. If the caricatures, derision and raillery sometimes outpace the action—or the point—it is because even Vidal is not immune to the satirist's most common affliction: premature expostulation. (pp. K13, K17)

R. Z. Sheppard, "Myra Lives!," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), October 21, 1974, pp. K13, K17.

It is Gore Vidal's fancy that in every Myron a Myra is struggling to be born. That is an old fancy. Jehovah had it too. Only Vidal, though, seems to have pursued it, in novels and essays and plays, with such civilized abandon and amiable malice, either as a sly vendetta against our puritanical past or as a prophetic fable of our androgynous future.

A few years ago, toward the end of the jouncy militancy of the Sixties, the transsexual temptress Myra Breckinridge née Myron, marvelously gifted with the dizzy, affecting, egomaniacal banality of a film star confiding her inmost thoughts to her bubble bath, appeared on the frantic scene to tell her bewildered admirers what was what. About the nouveau roman, about Lévi-Strauss, about McLuhan, about Parker Tyler, about the American Empire, about (above all) the New Jerusalem of the polymorphous perverse—pour encourager les autres…. Alas Myra met with an untoward accident just above the Santa Monica Canyon and Myron re-emerged—this time, straight as sarsaparilla….

Of course Vidal is a master farceur—vulgar, autocratic, quaint—and Myra Breckinridge is, I think, a classic—of a sort. It has the true charm of insolence, what Nietzsche must have meant when he wrote that after reading the New Testament he had to reread the "prankish mocker Petronius" to become clean again. Myron, however, seems to me vieux jeu. A vampiristic vaudeville, baroquely cadenced and cleverly done, it is, nevertheless, no match for the ineffable ease and raunchy simplicity of its predecessor….

True, Vidal's particular deviltry was heightened by the spirit of the times, the ideological crossweavings of feminism and camp, the one attacking patriarchal attitudes, the other satirizing the macho mystique (both unprecedented on the American scene), but, in general, his gorgeous—indeed brilliant—nastiness holds up just as well today. Certainly nothing comparable exists in Myron. Or even equivalents of the earlier book's supporting buffoons….

It's hard to know what, beyond his usual benevolent interest in the American Grotesque, Vidal is really after here. Of the seven possible degrees of affront, for example, he employs, oddly enough, only the retort courteous, the quip modest, and the reply churlish—and these seem largely slapdash, a Broadway actor haphazardly performing in summer stock. Worst of all, Myron's tone and character, to the extent he's supposed to have either, are insufficient. (p. 13)

Suave and exuberant, the master of a cool if mellifluous prose touched with a demotic tang, Vidal is a stylist who seduces at once, his skill and his charm immediately apparent. Yet if we compare him with the best of the other stylists of his generation (more or less), we see that these are stylists who always have, however subtle or idiosyncratic, personal characteristics. There's a tart inscrutability about Capote, an invincible boyishness about Roth, a disheveled intelligence in Bellow. Vidal, though, seems to me largely a stylist with impersonal characteristics.

The most successful of his fictions—Myra Breckinridge, The Judgment of Paris, Burr—each unlike the other, each unique in its way, full of grace and swank, are also totally unexpected in their varying emphases and concerns. Yet they appear to be performances more than creations, masks rather than roles, terrific displays of their author's commanding mimetic powers. Of course in his essays Vidal is distinctly himself, has indeed a tone indisputably his own. As an essayist he is one of the most attractive writers America has produced. Yet even there, more self-assured than self-aware, a certain narcissistic smugness or intellectual hubris continues to be a small, but prevailing, fault.

Defeat, moreover, seems never to have crossed his path. With Vidal, there are no rules left, only the various transgressions. In one way or another, he speaks again and again in favor of a "splendid comic idea" as against "mere tragedy." His books, consequently, are often as empty of the ordinary hardships and doubts and humiliations, or of the lyric impulse, as they are prevalent with the games people play, adventures up the slippery pole, chronicles of the banausic muse havocking about the Western world. He is a miniaturist of power (Julian, Messiah, Burr), of arrivistes (The Judgment of Paris), of careers (Washington, D.C.). The lure of the "mysterious" or "mystical," of loyalty and love—these as subjects of fiction are not for him. If he confronts them it is only to mock them, as he does wittily enough in the character supposedly modeled after Anaïs Nin in Two Sisters, who keeps speaking of "the flow … the flow." And though he can cast an avid eye on the vanities of others (on Henry Miller: "For a man who boasts of writing nothing but the truth, I find it odd that not once in the course of a long narrative does anyone say, 'Henry, you're full of shit'") he has yet, despite a deft and knowing humor, to cast its full glare on himself.

His understanding of human nature or human betrayals, including his dark or madcap moments, is essentially "rational" not "existential." He is a courtier of dissent, surprisingly more libertarian than libertine. Sex and politics, Grecian health and Roman sobriety—these are the categories with which he's most at home. They capture his attention, ignite his fancy, because they're still, for him, the way of the world, at least as that phrase was understood in the Augustan age. The Swift whose favorite saying was, "Vive la bagatelle!"—that suggests something of the Vidal we know. The other and profounder Swift whose heart was lacerated by a savage indignation—perhaps as Vidal approaches fifty that's to be the prospect ahead. Now that his affair with Myra or Myron is over. Plaudite amici, comoedia finita est! (pp. 14-5)

Robert Mazzocco, "The Charm of Insolence," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1974 by NYREV, Inc.), November 14, 1974, pp. 13-15.

In … "Myron," Gore Vidal will delight fans anxious for a return to Myra Breckinridge's superkinky camptown—and he'll convince his critics that he's still the sly pornographer squandering his formidable gifts. "Myron" is the sequel to the perversely polymorphous "Myra Breckinridge," Vidal's black comedy of sexuality in which male and female identities struggle for the body of the hero-heroine. Myron redivivus is a supersquare caterer of Chinese food. But inside his body, Myra, temporarily suppressed, struggles successfully to get out in order to resume her twin goals: to restore the Golden Age of Hollywood and to "restructure" the sexes, thus averting the population explosion.

"Myron" presents Vidal in one of his several masks—Petronius with a time bomb concealed in his toga—and provides him a vehicle for his own private preoccupations: sexual strait-jacketing, the death of the novel and the new licentiousness. In a bit of solemn mockery Vidal replaces all the "dirty" words in his novel with the names of the Supreme Court Justices who voted to empower communities to set their own pornography standards. Thus "rehnquist" and "powell" become parts of the male anatomy, and to "burger" is an impolite verb. If the novel stalls too often in such self-indulgence and fails to reach the cheer-fully nihilistic heights of "Myra," it is clear nonetheless that Vidal wields a satiric needle sharp enough to keep his readers in stitches. (p. 97)

Arthur Cooper, "Gore Vidal on … Gore Vidal," in Newsweek (copyright 1974 by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), November 18, 1974, pp. 97-99.

Gore Vidal is nobody's dummy, and he knows as well as you and I do that sequels have a sorry reputation in our culture: the jerks ate it up the first time, they'll eat it up again, says the huckster on the way to the bank. We are more likely to think of Airport 1975 or The Godfather II when a sequel appears than of the occasional serious attempts like Rabbit Redux. Is our Novelist as Aristocrat selling out on his Muse or could he just not help himself? Was the allure of America's first transsexual hero/heroine too much to resist?

The more honorable explanation seems to me the likelier one. Vidal is a rare and happy example of the writer who is both a genuine artist and a phenomenal commercial success. He's full of surprises, moving in the last decade from Julian and Washington, D.C. to Myra Breckinridge without missing a beat, then Burr … and Homage to Daniel Shays: Collected Essays—which reminds us again of Vidal's brilliance as a polemicist—and now, back to Myron. (I've conveniently omitted several titles, including the awful Two Sisters.) It's not the progress of an opportunist but of an unpredictable man whose curiosity is as many-sided as his talent.

It had been a long time since the scandalous The City and the Pillar (although a revised version was published in the '60s), and Vidal seemed to be getting ever more serious and responsible, with a solid inquiry into the origins of Christianity, a sober look at the vagaries of power in our empire's capital. But then Myra Breckinridge burst onto the scene, and many thought Vidal had taken leave of his senses. It seemed to them neither serious nor responsible, a smutty joke at best, more alarmingly and more likely, evidence of some kind of kinky aberration. According to this scenario, the essays and Burr signaled a recovery of sanity and purpose, of health. Now, with Myron, he would seem to have suffered a relapse.

Yet there are those readers and critics (and I'm among them) who reject such a theory about Myra Breckinridge and who find it instead Vidal's best book. Like the historical novels and Washington, D.C., it offers an astringent and cheerless vision which has at its center a meditation on power and its misuse. The terms of power in MB are primarily sexual (which is what the feminists have been telling us all along), and Myra is a kind of Marquise de Sade, fulminating against the tyranny of Man and his sidekick Nature. Her mind is a wondrous stew of ideas about sexual roles, definitions of femininity and masculinity, the part movies have played in arriving at those definitions, and the relationship of all of these notions to our poor planet's most desperate problem, overpopulation. With great wit and malice, Vidal sweeps across the national landscape, blithely slaughtering one sacred cow after another and offending almost everybody. Most significantly, though, Myra emerges—Great Mother, creatrix of the New World, a curious combination of Candy Darling and Eleanor Roosevelt—to join Isabel Archer, Sister Carrie, and Daisy Buchanan, on her own pedestal in the pantheon of American literary goddesses. She may be found behind locked doors, like a Pompeian naughtiness in the museum at Naples, but she has made it.

Vidal might (should) have been satisfied, but he has obviously become Myra's thrall and I suppose we can look forward to periodic epiphanies. There is no necessity for them: goddesses don't change (unlike mortals like Rabbit Angstrom, who age, learn more, suffer more), and mere humans like the tyrannical Myron (with his all-American wife and life in Van Nuys) can't keep a good girl down. It's still a pleasure to observe the erratic but 17-jewel movement of Myra's logic (not unlike that of William Buckley, Vidal has said elsewhere): saving the world from self-annihilation and keeping MGM from going in the red are Myra's twin projects, and she finally convinces us the two are really one. Vidal's encyclopedic knowledge of B-movies from the '40s and '50s still inspires awe, and we are once again indebted to Vidal for his continuing exposure of what has happened to language and expression. One of Myron's snakelike sentences, glittering with every cliché the Silent Majority paradoxically never ceases uttering, is worth any number of sermons on the decline of the Republic.

But Myra's catechumens will be disappointed with her new adversaries and allies. There was something mythic (as Myra might have said) about Buck Loner, Rusty, Mary Ann, Letitia, Myra's doctor—a true MGM war-movie cross section of national types. The collection of souls who find themselves transported through their TV sets into a 1948 movie called Siren of Babylon is surprisingly colorless and lumpish. (pp. 20-1)

The plot is very complicated, what with all the H. G. Wells-type time machine tactics, climaxing, if that is the right word, in Myra's becoming Maria Montez. A pretty conceit, yet it masks what may be Vidal's real problem: that he recognizes what the reader has learned, sadly—that Myra drives her points home too often (!), she explains too much, she repeats herself, she blithers. Even a goddess, alas, can become something of a bore. The lesson is, I guess, that a second coming may turn out to be a big letdown. (p. 21)

James Boatright, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1974 by The New Republic, Inc.), December 7, 1974.

Gore Vidal's prose is so elegant, so accurately pitched between the flippant and the grave, that it's all too easy to dismiss him as a good read. Yes, he does read easily, but one shouldn't confuse a limpid style with superficiality. He's a very courageous writer. He takes his single-mindedness into the market place. Though part of show-biz, he's never become a 'personality' like his old friends, Longford and Muggeridge. He's preserved his integrity, his humane aloofness from the rabble. He's also preserved his keen aesthetic sense—witness his marvellous essay on John Horne Burns. And—his reliance on 'sort of' apart—he writes like an angel. (p. 134)

Paul Bailey, in London Magazine (© London Magazine 1974), December 1974/January 1975.

Gore Vidal, bravely insulting the American reader by offering more wit than he has coming to him, but shrewdly revealing to certain selected readers that they can catch up to the writer's demands, projects his fantasies … convincingly. In Two Sisters, which he calls a memoir in the form of a novel, he refries some of the gossip of his other novels and journalism. Over the years he has gradually revealed a generous complaisance for sexual ambiguity, bisexuality, homosexuality—something brave in this, always a half-step ahead of his readers. But a close reading of the works of Gore Vidal reveals that his Dirty Secret lies elsewhere, and all this apparently carefree, controlled foreplay is designed to hide the real issue. He fears becoming Fat. Would a weight problem make it difficult to appear on talk shows? Jogging is the best answer. (pp. 19-20)

Herbert Gold, in Saturday Review (copyright © 1975 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), February 8, 1975.