The narrator of Gore Vidal’s new novel, Teddy Ottinger, is a surgically revamped bi-sexual beauty sharing many characteristics with one of his previous heroines. The hero she does most of her narrating about, James J. Kelly, a k a Kalki, has come to announce the end of the world. Not to put too fine a point on it, in Kalki Myra Breckenridge meets Messiah.
But just because two of Vidal’s long-term preoccupations can here be seen snuggling up to each other is no reason to be snooty. Their coupling is punctiliously discreet, intromission occurring with a minimum of fanfare (“I shall not describe Kalki’s genitals”) somewhere in the vicinity of page 79. Salaciousness is never permitted to intrude. However famous it has helped to make him, social satire is the most minor vein in Vidal’s work. Kalki, lacking even the sensationalism of Myra Breckenridge, ought logically to be minorissimo. Yet it somehow manages to be a very enjoyable literature invention—a term I borrow gladly from the publicity handout accompanying my proof copy. Kalki might not be the full thing as literature, but it is undeniably some kind of invention, even if several components of the mechanism are recognizable from earlier devices patented by the same busy man.
The main reason for the enjoyability of this new literature invention is the piercing sibilance with which Vidal’s obsessions come hissing through the seams. In his essays he has given us a body of sane comment for which it is difficult to be sufficiently grateful—few contemporary writers have told us so much about the world. But in his essays he does not really tell us a lot about himself, least of all when he makes a show of frankness. You would think, for example, that he despised power, wealth, privilege, and glamour without being drawn to them. But his literature inventions invariably demonstrate that he is very strongly drawn to these things. And it is valuable to find this out, since the knowledge lends his criticisms even more force. He would be a less impressive moralist if we thought him invulnerable to the passions he attacks.
Unlike Myra, Teddy is no movie buff. She is an aviation buff instead. It quickly becomes obvious that Vidal has less interest in airplanes than in the movies. Teddy’s enthusiasm is consequently a bit abstract. She worships the memory of Amelia Earhart. (Significantly, this particular idea comes most intensely to life when Teddy speculates about the possibility of ousting Shirley MacLaine from the title role in the projected bio-pic: Myra rides again.) There is a fleeting obeisance to Jacqueline Cochrane. Mention of these lady fliers sorts well enough with Teddy’s feminism, but it is not enough in itself to convince the reader that she finds liberation in the wild blue yonder. The only thing that would do that would be a vividly transmitted sense of what it feels like to be mad about flying.
But the author doesn …