Growing Up Androgynous

Myra Breckinridge

by Gore Vidal
Little, Brown, 264 pp., $5.95

Vidal said, “Let them be there!” And they were there. Tens of thousands of copies of Myra Breckinridge on bookstore tables across America. No free reviewer’s copies. No advance publicity. Just Gore Vidal’s underground novel selling and selling and selling. To my mother. To the movies. To me. Selling with such astonishing rapidity as to make the book’s publication itself a parody of things underground. A parody so successful that one begins to wonder if the underground still exists, and where.

In the dreary days of the Fifties, when the underground was still at the old location, two of its hippest sections were the Black and the Gay. Both were mysterious, initiatory, and glamorous in the way things are glamorous when they contain the potential for both excitement and danger. If one was not directly involved with either, but still curious, the key to Black was jazz, and to Gay those peculiar books one came upon from time to time.

Along with Isherwood, Vidal was the most agreeable of tourist guides, having early moved past the then current mode of writing about homosexual life either as poignant melodrama or as campy dream. His seventh novel, The Judgment of Paris, was one of the pleasures of 1952—a vastly entertaining view of the sweet dirty life in Europe after the war.

But times after taste, and fun is where you find it. The Black underground surfaced, the invisible man became visible—would not, in fact, go away. As for homosexuality, lately the word has the echo of old corridors. A college boy says, “Last night I dreamed that Donovan was my lover. Wild!” and does not expect to be thought queer, even in long hair and silver chains. It seems at times, these days, that everyone is everything. By contrast, homosexuality implies an almost puritanical rigidity.

For twenty-two years Vidal has skimmed lightly over the waves of modishness, bending fashion to his own use rather than being its creature. He has been a popular writer, yet, if he has not been considered exactly “literary,” neither has he been dismissed. It is something in itself to have remained fashionable for two decades. It suggests remarkable staying power. Now, walking on the waters of polymorphous perversity and sexual revolution, Vidal has written the first popular book of perverse pornography—a book for which one does not need even the slightest special taste. With Myra Breckinridge, his preoccupations seem to have entered the mainstream. Or the mainstream has enveloped them.

A rather slippery book, it begins as a quasi-inside joke about a formidable woman intellectual intoxicated by movie culture. Myra, the New Woman, is at work both on a scholarly book on Parker Tyler and the Films of the Forties (a section of which she has submitted to Partisan Review) and on her journal—a kind of anti-novel—which forms the substance of Vidal’s novel. She is, she writes of herself, “disturbingly beautiful” with “superbly shaped breasts reminiscent of those sported by Jean Harlow in Hell’s Angels and seen…

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