Vidal, Gore (Vol. 10)
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.)
Francis X. Jordan
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.
[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 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...
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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.
[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.
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...
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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...
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