The Charm of Insolence


by Gore Vidal
Random House, 244 pp., $6.95

Gore Vidal
Gore Vidal; drawing by David Levine

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. Along with her other charms, Myra had, in addition, an inimitable voice:

Myra Breckinridge is a dish, and never forget it, you motherfuckers, as the children say nowadays.

Alas Myra met with an untoward accident just above the Santa Monica Canyon and Myron re-emerged—this time, straight as sarsaparilla.

In Vidal’s sequel, it is 1973. Myron, stanch Nixonite and stalwart husband of Mary-Ann, owner of the “San Fernando Chinese Catering to Your Home Service,” an adept in sensitivity training and “highly motivated,” has just fallen through the tube while watching the Late Late Show (the perils of normalcy) and mysteriously landed on the set of Siren of Babylon, an apocryphal flick starring Maria Montez, being made on the back lot at Metro in 1948. The minx here, naturally, is the mutilated Myra, a wrathful goddess mischievously risen from her grave (buried in Myron) in order to return to the paradisal glitter of Hollywood at high noon, repossess the fractured Breckinridge psyche, and magniloquently “save the world at the eleventh—twelfth?—hour.”

These bold beginnings over, though, the book (alternately the diary jottings of Myron and Myra) then shuttles back and forth, to no particular purpose (malefic influence of the nouvelle vague?), between a translucent ’48 and a weltering ’73, with Myra at the prow and Myron at the helm, or vice versa. Eventually Myra does away with Myron completely and becomes Maria Montez. Eventually Myron does away with Maria Montez completely and becomes—Myron. Further oxymoronic events follow before we reach the gnomic splendor of the last page:

!sevil aryM

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…

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