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Vidal, Gore 1925–
Vidal is an American novelist, playwright, screenwriter, short story writer, essayist, and critic. His fictional subjects are often drawn from historical and political sources. In his work Vidal examines the plight of modern man, whom he sees as a victim of a valueless society and its corrupt institutions. His work in all genres is marked by his brilliant technique and urbane wit. Vidal has published detective fiction under the pseudonym of Edgar Box. (See also CLC, Vols. 2, 4, 6, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
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Vidal says, "Of all tasks, describing the contents of a book is the most difficult." Such is certainly the case with [Matters of Fact and of Fiction], which presents the many glittering facets of a truly witty mind. Some will object to his recurrent use of epithets such as the "Great Golfer" and the "First Criminal" to refer to recent Republican presidents. Others will object to his incurable habit of name dropping, his penchant for sweeping generalizations, and his petulant tone of self-righteous superiority. Still others will object to feelings of being left in the dark as Gore recounts some of the cute goings on of his past in "Some Memories of the Glorious Bird and an Earlier Self," an essay full of obscure allusions to events in his personal life.
In spite of these blemishes, the book holds up because its author is a man of wit and style. If you like paradox, you will find it: "After all, social climbing is one of the most exciting games our classless society has to offer." If you like puns, you will find them: "I fear that the best one can say of Solzhenitsyn is goré vidal (a Russian phrase meaning "he has seen grief")." If you like striking figures of speech, you will find them. Writing of Louis Auchincloss' position in a "literary society of illiterate young play-actors," Vidal observes, "Louis was indeed like a platypus in that farmyard of imitation roosters." If you like generous doses of cynicism directed chiefly at the academic critics of literature and the powers behind the power in our democracy, you will find this book an almost pure delight. (p. 122)
Francis X. Jordan, in Best Sellers (copyright © 1977 Helen Dwight Reid Educational Foundation), July, 1977.
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[In an early essay Vidal wrote] that the shrinking audience for fiction was really a good thing, because it left the novel only "the best things: that exploration of the inner world's divisions and distinctions where no camera may follow."… (p. 1)
[In contrast,] "Kalki" is a potboiler: subspecies, disaster movie. Drugs, sex, espionage, apocalypse, even the morally damaged Vietnam Vet, who has become whatever-comes-after-ubiquitous—the synopsis reads, as in part the novel does, like a compendium of television specials. Recalling the language of Mr. Vidal's 1958 essay, it should be noted that this novel is careful never to go where the camera may not follow with ease….
"Kalki" is so calculated, so replete with salable clichés that it raises in the sharpest way the question that must nag even Mr. Vidal's admirers: How can taste and intelligence so palpably superior spend themselves on such trendiness?
The question isn't rhetorical, and there are at least two ways to answer, sympathetic to Mr. Vidal; his quality as a critic earns him at least two benefits of doubt. The first is to say that Mr. Vidal isn't exploiting the trendy, he's parodying it. Consider Theodora "Teddy" Ottinger, who narrates "Kalki." Getting to know her, we're meant to have Erica Jong's "Fear of Flying" in mind…. [Teddy is] the world's best jet pilot, and the best-selling author of "Beyond...
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Motherhood," about her "life and hard times as a flier, woman, mother, and would-be know-it-all."… Poolside at the Beverly Hills Hotel, just out of earshot of Merv Griffin, she is invited by a smarmy New York press lord to do a magazine piece on Kalki [a Vietnam veteran who claims to be a reincarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu], for much money, but quickly, so as to scoop Mike Wallace's "60 Minutes."
Handling such a scene, Mr. Vidal is, as it were, at poolside himself. He clefs away, or drops names outright: Joan Didion, Clay Felker. He is utterly beglamoured, and can't take his eyes off the passing stars. It's bitter social satire: of course, of course. But, as we know, there is a certain high intensity of attention that, however critical in tone, is tantamount to love itself….
The novel is, however, critical and even harsh in tone, mainly because we observe the world, which is coming to its well-deserved end, through the eyes of Teddy, who has steeped her mind in the mordant skepticism of Pascal. Rational and unsentimental to the point of superstition, she is the nastiest possible slur on the reconstructed woman of the 70's. Here she is on a visit to Earl Jr.:
"I must have felt something for him once, I thought, staring through the martini's first comforting haze at my ex-husband's pale double chin.
"Tears came to my eyes. There were tears in his eyes, too. Love? Tenderness? Regret? No. It was the red-alert smog, creeping up the Santa Monica Canyon…."
Finding out that love is only air pollution is the sort of bland demystification that is found in the silliest feminist fiction. One expects that someone with Mr. Vidal's wit and social vision would detect the poverty of feeling in this humor; one expects that he would choose a narrator who detects the stereotype in herself. If she doesn't, or at least not consistently, perhaps it's because her sourness toward the emotional life is, without mitigation, her creator's own. (p. 22)
[When] we can't defend what is lurid and show-biz in Mr. Vidal's novels by saying that they're parodies, we can still take them seriously as the moral or philosophical allegories that they are ostensibly set up to be. "Kalki" is an end-of-the-world fantasy, resembling, according to the jacket copy, "Brave New World" and "1984." Its associations within Mr. Vidal's fiction, however, are with his two previous messianic novels, "Julian" and especially "Messiah."…
But as an allegory of the Last Things …, "Kalki" is worse than banal, it's irresponsible. Taken at its word, it is, after all, a big idea: big enough for Voltaire, or Pope. But Mr. Vidal cheats. He imagines an end to human life after showing us only the most tawdry and lamentable specimens. Who would regret such an end if the world were made up only of what we see in "Kalki": junkies on park benches, matrons bragging about their cancer operations, trash-minded media men from New York? Mr. Vidal doesn't portray people, or even caricatures, but, rather, insults of representation—condescending and unfelt. Not people, but cartoon figures die when Kalki dances. Dealing honestly with the significance of his theme would have required showing a fit sense, somewhere, of the greatness of the imagined loss…. Mr. Vidal lacks that sense, and lacks in general the humane fullness that the apocalyptic imagination of his story demands. (p. 26)
John Romano, "The Camera Follows," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1978 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 2, 1978, pp. 1, 22, 26.
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The first task in reviewing Gore Vidal's new apocalypse [Kalki] is to write six paragraphs without using the obvious epithet "mandarin"; the next is to look at the book's relationship to its predecessor and prototype, Messiah, and see how the eschatology business has come along since 1955. Vidal, it is acknowledged, rewrites history to make it appear even less planned, formal and elegant. It cannot be that he revises his fictions with the same purpose. Nor is Kalki a resuscitation or a sequel—the Myra/Myron transform. Rather it is a restatement: in a word, the last days seem closer, grimmer, and more final. Sardony, however, is holding up well….
Mr. Vidal is not averse to napalming a sitting duck, if it merits it. Among his sidelong targets, not all able to retaliate, thank heavens, are US senators ("not only sexually insatiable but impotent"), congress of all kinds, the Australian editor of a newspaper "dedicated to corrupting the morals of the lower IQs", and the White House, its furnishings and occupants recent, current, and potential….
It's an ingeniously dusty fable, but uneven: tropes of virtuoso buffoonery ("The eyes were now as round as those Spanish gold doubloons that were found by two surfers north of Trancas last year. The doubloons turned out to be counterfeit. The surfers were for real") and tracts of slightly arid whimsy. Arbitrary it may be, but never unintentionally: it's all Lombard Street to a mandarin orange that that's the way the author meant it to be.
Eric Korn, "We Are for the Dark," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1978; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), April 14, 1978, p. 405.
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[Kalki] might originate from musings on [the] common intimation that immortality is wasted on gods. But it is also a novel by a singularly astute observer of human behavior and student of human history, who has noticed that so far no one, when given half a chance, has been able to avoid human mistakes….
Is Kalki a god? He does destroy humanity; but his lack of malice, his serenity of character, seem godlike; also, his fit of pique, which leads him to kill the only other fertile male on earth, even when his own reproductive scheme has gone awry, is of the sort gods are given to. It is the narrator, Teddy Ottinger, who unwittingly distributes the sinister germ that drops the human race in its tracks. She spreads it around the world on a goodwill mission….
It is art that accounts for this being a wise and charming, rather than a horrid book. Certainly horrid things abound in it: murders on television; followed by the death of billions; many unpleasant characters—senators, ex-husbands, ghost-writers—abound, at least until the end. But the swift, absorbing plot does not allow the reader to pause too long in painful reflection. And it is hard to resist the witty pragmatism of the narrator, whose unsparing view of the world as she finds it (as it is), reminds us that whether or not the world should be saved at all is very much an open question.
That it should be saved is the unspoken assumption of most apocalyptic literature. Perhaps that is what is unconvincing about novels of apocalypse. But utopian novels, from Utopia itself to science fictions of today, have uniformly failed to convince us on the other hand that alternative societies would be anything but worse. Amazingly, Vidal avoids the snares that beset novelists of utopia and apocalypse alike. He has more in mind than the doomsayer's wish to hector us into better behavior, has the historian's suspicion of progress. Has, in addition, a good novelist's ability to fascinate. One hears, it is true, the author's voice—he is saying "repent, repent"—but the message is tactfully faint while the tone, being, as usual, his own, is inimitably diverting.
Diane Johnson, "Gilding the Lotus," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), April 16, 1978, p. E3.
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Until now, Gore Vidal's fiction has mostly been wickedly clever. With his latest novel, Kalki, Vidal ascends into a new category: diabolically clever. I say "diabolically" rather than the more innocuous "devilishly" because what has increased is not the cleverness but the nastiness. Kalki is a hybrid: part social satire; part slick entertainment (in the Graham Greeneian sense); and part doomsday comedy in the manner of, say, Stanley Kubrick's cinematic black comedy, Dr. Strangelove.
Some of Vidal's diabolism manifests itself right away, in the plot's construction. For Kalki is a thriller, and by an ancient and honored custom, reviewers are not allowed to give away the main twist in a thriller's plot. What comes to their aid, however, is that the twist tends to be a single fact near the end of the book, one that the critique can easily sidestep. Here, however, the presumably unbetrayable twist comes much earlier and permeates and affects everything before and after it….
Still, if I tell you that in Kalki the world does come to an end, I am not committing an unpardonable crime. For such is Vidal's cleverness that the suspense continues beyond Armageddon and hinges on such fascinating posers as "Will anyone survive?" and "If so, who?" and, above all, "Can a new race arise, and if so, what will it be like?" With such tricks still up his sleeve, Vidal can go on flaunting his mastery of suspense within suspense (p. 31)
[The novel's first problem lies in its heroine, Teddy Ottinger]: She is too multifarious to be a fully believable character. At the very least, she is distressingly twofold: the bright, enterprising, but also eminently fallible thirty-four-year-old female dilettante and the omniscient author of Kalki….
Not only is Teddy at least two people, she also is at least two styles—perhaps rightly so for a bisexual, about whom one of her presumably favorite authors might have said, "The styles are the man-woman." Though much of what she sets down is sharp, pertinent, and virilely concise, she will also resort to the kind of sneaky shortcut appropriate to what used to be referred to with the now justly obsolete term "the weaker sex." At such times, Teddy (or Vidal) merely invokes a phrase like "as H. V. Weiss would have put it" and blithely plunges into blatant platitude. And even when she is not Weissianizing, Teddy fluctuates disturbingly between an enlightened best seller style (better, to be sure, than an unenlightened one) and an intermittent finer thing. Exactly what that is is hard to define; call it an American approximation of Evelyn Waugh—just as deadly, but a shade less funny.
Here enters the second problem. Vidal conceives of the novel as a receptacle for all of his personal gripes. Settling a personal score by dragging in a real person from left field seems needlessly bitchy. And not only bitchy but also something worse: essayistic rather than novelistic. There was, of course, a style of novel writing in the eighteenth century that could accommodate the odd essayistic excursus, but amid Vidal's fast, nervous forward movement even a clever disquisition on Jewish princes and princesses in fact and fiction feels inappropriate—to say nothing of a less skillful harangue against politicians. Moreover, Vidal often makes things too easy for himself, as when he describes Weiss as a "cliché master and structuralist" and demonstrates only the former sin….
[Everyone] in the novel [is] a double agent of Vidal's—a pawn of his whimsy rather than a character real enough to dictate his own terms to the author, as truly successful fictional creations seem to be able to do. Here, however, a narc (a triple agent, but still a narc) will openly declare, "The single, nay, unique objective of the Bureau [of Narcotics] is the increased sale of every kind of drug all over the world," to which a demagogic senator running for the presidency will add that without international drug rings his richly funded Committee on Narcotics Abuse and Control "would wither away." (p. 32)
Satirist's privilege? Not so; in high gear, satire has its own crazy plausibility, as Vidal well knows. Thus when a television director for 60 Minutes says about the interview in which Kalki announces the date on which he will end the world, "This segment will run ten, ten and a half, maybe eleven minutes, you know, an in-depth study," this is barely, if at all, tampering with the preposterousness of things as they are. Or take a doctor's urging Arlene "to give up tequila in the morning. He begged her to switch to a good, light, refreshing breakfast wine from the Napa Valley. He himself owned a share in a vineyard. He would sell her his own brand." Vintage satire, that. (pp. 32-3)
A man who can so easefully carry off such sardonic effects ought not to settle for less. Yet Vidal will stoop to the heavy and obvious. He writes: "Dr. Ashok looked so crazed that, for the first time, I thought him not only sane but possibly serious despite the essential frivolity of his alleged employer the CIA." Here both the facile paradox and the unduly propaedeutic tone of "the essential frivolity of his alleged employer" seem to me miscarriages of satirical justice. Yet Vidal can do worse. He will become pontifical and leave a good piece of satirical raw material uncooked: "This was a commonplace in that era: events were only real if experienced at second hand, preferably through the medium of the camera." Moreover, he will mix metaphors (and not deliberately—the speaker is his alter ego, Teddy): "the dark caravans of words that cross the pages of newspapers to invade and ravish the delicate house of memory like killer ants." It is unnerving to have camels shrink in mid-metaphor to ants, however deadly….
But then, for a fastidious, indeed finicky, writer, Vidal can become remarkably sloppy. Thus the Hindu phallus is the lingam, not the linga; the Latin for duplicity is duplicitas, not duplicitatem; Chomsky's first name is Noam, not Noah; "imposter" is a vulgar error for impostor; "Myna birds" is a redundancy for mynas; "forthcoming" is not acceptable in the sense of communicative or outspoken; no Frenchman would write "de Vigny" for Vigny; "could not help but" is tautological; and so on.
But—and it is, as it is so often with Vidal, "but" time once more—there are also wonderful things in Kalki. There is at times a lightness of touch that nevertheless reduces the satire's butt to mincemeat: "I was able to read the odd page by Joan Didion, the even page by Renata Adler," which with the greatest gentleness makes both writers out to be unreadable…. And what about this splendid reductio ad absurdum: "The Australian press was unusually aggressive. Apparently, they had once been able to drive Frank Sinatra out of Australia. This feat had made them overconfident." And, most devastating of all in its lethal concision: "Ms. Brownmiller's book on men, and rape," where putting the declared subject last and what Vidal takes to be the real one (sour grapes rather than bitter rape) first is a masterstroke of ingenious—or insidious—ridicule.
But—again but—this meticulous writer is capable of such lapses as having a singular child on page 245 turn into plural children on the next page. Such things are disturbing. But more disturbing still is the ultimate question this novel raises: Can one really pardon the feeling one gets in reading Kalki that Vidal would welcome the end of the world? This slips out time and again: "But then [if I were God] I would not have gone to the trouble of inventing the human race"; or "I did not believe that Kalki would switch off the human race … as desirable a happening as that might be." Not even Swift, in all his saeva indignatio, went that far.
And yet, and yet—one cannot help savoring a master satirist able to put down a whole subcontinent with a mere description of arrival at New Delhi airport: "The moon was still bright in the western sky. The dawn was pale pink. The air smelled of wood smoke, curry, shit." And who is able to dismiss the end of the entire world with, "You cannot mourn everyone. Only someone." (p. 33)
John Simon, "Vishnu as Double Agent," in Saturday Review (© 1978 by Saturday Review Magazine Corp.; reprinted with permission), April 29, 1978, pp. 31-3.
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Gore Vidal is rapidly becoming his own worst enemy, no small feat for a veteran of so many literary feuds and friendships that have gone sour. For years, Vidal has been railing against such abominations as the Non-Fiction Novel, the New Novel, and the University Novel. These literary forms, Vidal contends, may have some worth, but not as fiction. His own work, with one or two exceptions, has generally been in the traditional form exemplified by his favorite American novelist, Henry James. Since the publication of Burr, Vidal has enjoyed a reputation as one of the best novelists in the United States.
Lately, however, Vidal has begun to work against himself and his own best ideas by letting his novels become essays with stories wrapped around them. In the process, he is turning into the leading proponent of what might be called the Polemic Novel. In Myra Breckinridge, Vidal wrote, "The novel is dead"; he later explained that he really meant the audience for the novel is dead. Since then, he has evidently started to worry about the death of audiences for the essay and the talk-show as well.
Having once admitted that he had "nothing to say, only to add," Vidal seems to say in his latest novel, Kalki, that he now has nothing to add, only to repeat. (pp. 600-01)
The plot is clever, the story is well told, but it is all too easy. Kalki lacks the vision and conviction of Vidal's genuinely apocalyptic novel, Messiah, written 24 years ago. By comparison, the new novel seems a pale reminder of Vidal's prodigious but often wasted literary gifts.
There are echoes of voices from other works. Teddy Ottinger [Kalki's protagonist] comes across like Myra Breckinridge in a leather flying jacket; when she offers her opinions on population control and bisexuality, she sounds like Gore Vidal doing his tiresomely familiar bit on the Johnny Carson show. Vidal treats us once again to the attack on the French New Novel, first mounted in The New York Review of Books ten years ago. This genre was satirized to death in Myra Breckinridge; now the corpse has inexplicably been exhumed for another trashing in Kalki. The parody has no purpose here, if parody it is. Vidal is becoming trapped in his own satire and has unconsciously adopted the style he dislikes. The tone here is too breezy, too flippant, and frequently awkward, a jarring shift from the cool, masterful prose praised by admirers of Vidal's essays.
Kalki seems to be one long process of self-cannibalization. Even minor characters are reminiscent of previous creations….
Even worse, Vidal tries unsuccessfully to deal with ideas clearly suggested to him by other writers. Teddy Ottinger constantly remarks on the effects of entropy, laments that "everything is running down," and throws in references to the Second Law of Thermodynamics for good measure. This has already been done, as Vidal points out in his essay "American Plastic," by Thomas Pynchon in V. and Gravity's Rainbow. But where Pynchon makes intelligent use of scientific principles, Vidal makes pointless note of them and passes on.
For all of this, Kalki is not a bad novel. It is easy to read and frequently amusing; but it is also disappointing. One can only hope that in his next novel Mr. Vidal will stop stealing from himself and others and put his considerable talents and intelligence to better use. (p. 601)
Maureen Bodo, "His Own Worst Enemy," in National Review (© National Review, Inc., 1978; 150 East 35th St., New York, N. Y. 10016), May 12, 1978, pp. 600-01.