In which Netty finally gets to grips with Gore Vidal and wonders why she waited so long …September 3, 2012
A brief recap for you, dear reader. In addition to the 12 books a year that Andy and I both read and blog on for our Reading Challenge, we also concurrently run a sort of mini-alterna challenge, consisting of an additional six books apiece. This year, the selection is authors/books chosen by the other person; among the six writers Andy picked for me is Gore Vidal – which turned out to be quite the timely choice after his death in late July at the ripe old age of 86 (er, that’s Gore, not Andy).
I’ve never read anything by Vidal before, and I’m not quite sure why. I think I might have put him in the too hard basket – too old, too literary, too camp. Not that I have, I hasten to add, anything against anyone being any of those things, but put together I didn’t think it added up to someone that I MUST READ RIGHT NOW THIS VERY SECOND. In my head, Vidal has often been lumped together with Truman Capote, who was also too old, too literary, too camp – and also quite dead. But I read Breakfast in Tiffany’s earlier this year, my introduction to Capote, and loved it; while In Cold Blood has long been a gaping hole in my library.
The other thing about tackling Vidal is the sheer size of the man’s oeuvre – literally dozens of novels, essays and non-fiction, and plays – and the fact that, unbelievably, considering his literary standing, a lot of his books are out of print here. And his publishers are yet to have rushed his work back into bookstores post his demise. Andy had originally suggested the 1978 novel Kalki, but sourcing it proved to be too difficult; we tossed around a few other ideas and finally settled on Myra Breckinridge. And even then Andy had to lend me his second-hand copy, which by the look of it might have been one of the original pressings. (Sidebar: Andy bought it for $5 from a secondhand bookshop in St Kilda that probably no longer exists; its original owner, according to the neat, red-ink penmanship on the title page, was one Alan Phessey. If you’re out there, Alan, let me assure you your copy is in safe hands here.)
Vidal’s family history was quite remarkable – his grandfather was a blind Democrat senator (Vidal himself was a lifelong Democrat supporter who twice ran for political office); his father a military man, pilot, airline founder (one of them with pioneering female pilot Amelia Earhart) and Olympian; his mother a society matron, bit actress and political dabbler. Vidal himself served in the navy, and his first novel Williwaw, published in 1946, was based on his experiences. A gay man, Vidal was one of the first writers to address homosexuality in mainstream literature. Personally, he had a long-term partner, Howard Austen, with whom he lived until the latter’s death in 2003; Vidal once claimed that the relationship’s longevity (40-plus years) was due to the couple not having sex … with each other (natch). He demurred on the subject of heterosexuality or homosexuality, supporting pansexuality and claiming that people were inherently bisexual.
Which leads us to Myra Breckinridge, Vidal’s 17th novel, first published in 1968, at the height of the swinging ‘60s and the summer of love, and encompassing many of those same themes. It is written in the form of a journal, with the title character jotting down her thoughts on events in her life, sometimes right as they are happening. The novel is interspersed with periodic reports from Buck Loner, the uncle of Myra’s deceased husband Myron; these are presented as recordings dictated by Buck – hilariously often while he is receiving, or about to receive, a “massage” (from the “East West Home Massage Service”), and often ending with a reminder-to-self on grocery items he needs to take home to his wife Bobby Dean that night.
As the book opens, the movie-obsessed Myra has swept into Los Angeles from her native New York, after the drowning death of her film critic husband, in search of his uncle Buck, a one-time radio and movie star (“the Singin’ Shootin’ Cowboy”) who now runs the Academy of Drama and Modelling. She brandishes three wills: one from Buck’s father leaving his Westwood orange grove property, on which the academy is now located, jointly to Buck and his sister Gertrude; Gertrude’s leaving her half of the property to her son Myron; and Myron’s leaving his entire estate to his wife. Thus begins the battle of wits between Buck and Myra; he hires her as a part-time teacher (Posture and Empathy classes) while he and his lawyers Flagler and Flagler stall for time as they examine the claims and dig for dirt; she counters his every move and continues to up the stakes, whilst relying on her East Coast therapist (and dentist) Randolph Montag.
Myra’s attentions alight on two young students, Rusty Godowsky and his girlfriend Mary-Ann Pringle, and she embarks on an elaborate plot to seduce first Rusty – in one of the most grossly horrific and downright bizarre passages I can recall reading, like, ever – then Mary-Ann. Meanwhile her scrimmage with Buck reaches its zenith, forcing her to pull out the ultimate trump card to resolve the situation for once and for all. No spoilers here – because if you haven’t already, you definitely should read Myra Breckinridge – but it’s sufficient to say you could certainly have knocked me to the ground with a feather. Anything after that was an ever-so-slight anti-climax – but that is mere quibbling. Myra is a brilliant, subversive, clever-without-being-clever-pants, funny-as-all-fuck satire. And it turns out I was definitely, absolutely Wrong. About. Vidal. Turns out he definitely is someone that I MUST READ RIGHT NOW THIS VERY SECOND.
Postscript: After finishing the book, I thought to myself, “I wonder why it’s never been made into a film”. Turns out that it has – in 1970, directed by Michael Same and featuring a stellar cast including Raquel Welch, Mae West, John Huston, Rex Reed and Farrah Fawcett (and introducing Tom Selleck in his film debut). So why hadn’t I ever heard of it? Well, it also turns out it was critically and commercially panned upon its release and is considered one of the worst films ever made. Vidal himself dismissed the film as “and awful joke”. One for the Quickflix queue then.