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:
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 simplicity of its predecessor. That long, hilarious, famously sly sequence between Myra and Rusty at the infirmary of the Academy of Drama and Modeling—“Now you will find out what it is the girl feels when you play the man with her,” Myra shouts, straddling her student’s “slippery hips” and plunging deeper through the forbidden door—is as outrageously lewd as anything in modern lit.
True, Vidal’s particular deviltry was heightened by the spirit of the times, the ideological crossweavings of feminism and camp, the one attacking patriarchal attitudes, the other satirizing the macho mystique (both unprecedented on the American scene), but, in general, his gorgeous—indeed brilliant—nastiness holds up just as well today. Certainly nothing comparable exists in Myron. Or even equivalents of the earlier book’s supporting buffoons: the memorable flag waver, the Singin’ and Shootin’ Cowboy, Buck Loner, or the insatiable talent scout, Letitia Van Allen, miraculously reaching “the big O,” screwed as she’s falling down a flight of stairs at her Malibu hideaway.
Understandably uneasy, no doubt, over the weightlessness of his current effort, Vidal adds and pads at will. Specifically some heavy stuff about the simultaneity of time, the void one can’t avoid—or words to that effect; inside stuff about the “beautiful couple,” lovers William Eythe and Lon McCallister, rolling along in a convertible, setting Myra’s heart aflutter; classier touches à la Calvino, Borges, Carroll, the Henry James short story “The Sense of the Past” (Berkeley Square on stage and screen), and other sci-fi notables.
Odd bits of self-cannibalization too: Vidal resuscitates the slang term “jam,” from The City and the Pillar; while the schitzy byplay between Myra and Myron, Myra’s mirror writing, and the references to Westinghouse suggest, if I’m not mistaken, a TV script about split personality which Vidal wrote for Geraldine Fitzgerald in the early Fifties. Moreover, it’s sad to observe so elegant a fabulist resorting so often to the traditional one-liner, scraping the bottom of the funny barrel along with the rest of America, including, surprisingly, President Ford. From a recent speech: “I don’t think Governor Reagan dyes his hair, I think he’s just prematurely orange.”
Happily, though, like Hannibal with his elephants, the book has one good running gag. As Vidal announces in his preface: “I have replaced the missing bad words with some very good words indeed”—the names of the justices who concurred in the Supreme Court’s majority decision to leave to each community the right to decide what is or is not pornography.
Burger, Rehnquist, Powell, Whizzer White and Blackmun fill, as it were, the breach; their names replace the “bad” or “dirty” words. I have also appropriated the names of Father Morton Hill S.J. and Mr. Edward Keating, two well-known warriors in the battle against smut.
It is a piquant jest. Resurrected Myra, for instance, is an old rehnquist-teaser and powell-cutter who likes to burger studs in their blackmun so she can keep her sweet whizzer white to herself—an irriguous organ only to be reclaimed, of course, after her transmogrification as the other M. M. Meanwhile, Myra (or hapless Myron in drag) is full of daffy remembrances of her fabulous silicone father hills (reminiscent of Harlow’s knockers in Hell’s Angels, “seen at their best four minutes after the start of the second reel”), and thinks of herself, as always, as hot keating. But diverting as these language games are (and one would enjoy hearing the reactions of the justices to them), ultimately they pall; for if the icing is fresh, the cake is stale.
It’s hard to know what, beyond his usual benevolent interest in the American Grotesque, Vidal is really after here. Of the seven possible degrees of affront, for example, he employs, oddly enough, only the retort courteous, the quip modest, and the reply churlish—and these seem largely slapdash, a Broadway actor haphazardly performing in summer stock. Worst of all, Myron’s tone and character, to the extent he’s supposed to have either, are insufficient, a dim reprise of Buck Loner’s; though Myron, clinging fast to his last shred of virility, doughtily garbed in cowboy gear and carefully walking “like some kind of bear with arthritis to show how deeply and sincerely butch I am,” isn’t too bad. Myra, typically, is more formidable, trilling and jilling in her winsomely disdainful way, with her Irene Dunne chuckle, her Joan Leslie smile, and a “dark throaty Margaret Sullivan quality,” new to her, to be used when the going gets tough.
There are Myra’s customary contemptuous allusions to the novel, an “art form whose only distinction is,” as she archly tells us, “that it prepared the way for the movies, much as John the B. prepared the way for big J. C.,” and innumerable references to the wonders of Culver City—an inventory not always exact. (It’s The Crusades, Myra, not The Crusaders; the song, “Sentimental Journey,” from the flick of the same name, was a favorite in ’46 not ’48; a priestess of porn and pop who can write such interesting critical essays as “The Banality of Anality or Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo: The Gunner’s View” ought to be aware of these things.)
Other characters pop in and out with the distressing familiarity of drunks stumbling through the doors of Third Avenue bars (circa The Iceman Cometh), most, I suspect, as putative members of Vidal’s keating list: the Feds, the Beatniks, the Kennedys, “an uppity dinge from Albany, New York” whose identity I can’t fathom (unless it’s—“golden bowel” and all—Henry James in black face), and Nixon himself burbling and bribing in a manner that must already seem nostalgic (“How does a million dollars grab you? It would be wrong but…”), and most, I think, unnecessary. That is not the case, however, with the cruel raucous caricatures Vidal has seen fit to draw of two other lit champs, since if the Schadenfreude of his readers is notably high these hysterical lampoons might well prove the real pleasure—or scandal—of his book.
One is called, derisively enough, Maude, the mythomaniacal hairdresser, “the total snob,” “a damp-looking face like Peter Lorre with the same sort of damp-sounding voice that could make Chinese mushrooms grow even in your driest attic”; while the other, a pugnacious cook, is Whittaker Kaiser, “a small fat old man of fifty or so with a full head of wiry gray hair” and a “large cook’s blackmun wobbling like a bale of live cats”—bagged here with his usual burst of eloquence:
“Look, every man wants to make it with another man but the real man is the one who fights this hideous weak fag self and takes one woman after another without the use of any contraceptives or pill or diaphragm or rubber, just the all-conquering sperm because contraception of any kind is as bad as masturbation and because the good burger makes the good baby….”
Schopenhauer says that pederasty is really nature’s way of preventing man’s reproductive ardor from overpopulating and overwhelming the earth. Pederasty turns man now and then from the scent of whizzer white and soothes him with rehnquist and blackmun. Thus some sort of balance is observed. Though that’s not exactly Vidal’s message in Myra Breckinridge—he believes, more accurately, that bisexuality is our “natural” state and that exclusive heterosexuality or homosexuality are the “perversions”—in Myron the specter of mindless fecundity does indeed rear its ruddy head—with unfortunate satirical results.
Myra, originally, was a funky clown, an archcreatrix as deliriously on to herself as on to us, her erotic ubiquity always discouraging the messianic or sadistic dottiness lurking beneath her comic inventions from ever rising to the surface. Alas, that’s not so in Myron. Cute as a button, attracting one unsuspecting stud after another, the new Myra now wants not to unman but deman, “to see the future as it ought to be,” to settle the hash once and for all of “those sinister heterosexuals who breed.”
Listen to me closely. This is a biggie. I see this film in which Steve is turned into a girl before our very eyes. We’ll even show the operation. After all, you can’t cheat the audience. Naturally the surgery will be in Good Taste and should occur no later than the second reel. From then on we tell a happy story, the life not of Steve but of Stephanie—a joyous fun-loving sterile Amazon, living a perfect life without children, and so an example to the youth of the world, a model for every young male, and our salvation, humanity’s as well as Metro’s.
Scalpels and sperm banks, bloodied beanbags, vanquished rehnquists littering America—surely that is a peculiar vision, even as an absurdist joke. Fun, but weird, man. “Sir,” as Doctor Johnson remarked on another occasion, “a man might write such stuff forever, if he would abandon his mind to it.”
Vidal has always been amused by the inanities of a literary career. On the reception of The City and the Pillar, the “shock and disbelief” of its critics, he writes:
How could that young war novelist (last observed in the pages of Life magazine posed like Jack London against a ship) turn into this? The New York Times refused to take advertising for the book, and most of the reviews were hostile. The press lectured me firmly on the delights of heterosexual love, while chiding the publishers for distributing such a lurid “memoir.”
Suave and exuberant, the master of a cool if mellifluous prose touched with a demotic tang, Vidal is a stylist who seduces at once, his skill and his charm immediately apparent. Yet if we compare him with the best of the other stylists of his generation (more or less), we see that these are stylists who always have, however subtle or idiosyncratic, personal characteristics. There’s a tart inscrutability about Capote, an invincible boyishness about Roth, a disheveled intelligence in Bellow. Vidal, though, seems to me largely a stylist with impersonal characteristics.
The most successful of his fictions—Myra Breckinridge, The Judgment of Paris, Burr—each unlike the other, each unique in its way, full of grace and swank, are also totally unexpected in their varying emphases and concerns. Yet they appear to be performances more than creations, masks rather than roles, terrific displays of their author’s commanding mimetic powers. Of course in his essays Vidal is distinctly himself, has indeed a tone indisputably his own. As an essayist he is one of the most attractive writers America has produced. Yet even there, more self-assured than self-aware, a certain narcissistic smugness or intellectual hubris continues to be a small, but prevailing, fault.
Defeat, moreover, seems never to have crossed his path. With Vidal, there are no rules left, only the various transgressions. In one way or another, he speaks again and again in favor of a “splendid comic idea” as against “mere tragedy.” His books, consequently, are often as empty of the ordinary hardships and doubts and humiliations, or of the lyric impulse, as they are prevalent with the games people play, adventures up the slippery pole, chronicles of the banausic muse havocking about the Western world. He is a miniaturist of power (Julian, Messiah, Burr), of arrivistes (The Judgment of Paris), of careers (Washington, D.C.). The lure of the “mysterious” or “mystical,” of loyalty and love—these as subjects of fiction are not for him. If he confronts them it is only to mock them, as he does wittily enough in the character supposedly modeled after Anaïs Nin in Two Sisters, who keeps speaking of “the flow…the flow.” And though he can cast an avid eye on the vanities of others (on Henry Miller: “For a man who boasts of writing nothing but the truth, I find it odd that not once in the course of a long narrative does anyone say, ‘Henry, you’re full of shit’ “) he has yet, despite a deft and knowing humor, to cast its full glare on himself.
His understanding of human nature or human betrayals, including his dark or madcap moments, is essentially “rational” not “existential.” He is a courtier of dissent, surprisingly more libertarian than libertine. Sex and politics, Grecian health and Roman sobriety—these are the categories with which he’s most at home. They capture his attention, ignite his fancy, because they’re still, for him, the way of the world, at least as that phrase was understood in the Augustan age. The Swift whose favorite saying was, “Vive la bagatelle!“—that suggests something of the Vidal we know. The other and profounder Swift whose heart was lacerated by a savage indignation—perhaps as Vidal approaches fifty that’s to be the prospect ahead. Now that his affair with Myra or Myron is over. Plaudite amici, comoedia finita est!
November 14, 1974