Monthly Archives: August 2015

Myra Breckinridge

Myra Breckinridge

Myra Breckinridge

After watching an advertisement of an upcoming documentary, featuring the ABC Vidal-Buckley Jr. debates, I took out a collection of Gore Vidal’s writings from the library. Comprised of an assortment of his essays, as well selections of his novels and plays, the book also had a full copy of his story Myra Breckinridge. Truth be told, I was most interested in the novel Julian (the excerpt of which left me rather non-plussed). I’ve enjoyed Breckinridge, though, and thought it worthwhile to review.

The novel has developed quite an ignominious reputation in the decades since its release – immediately marked as pornographic or in bad taste, Vidal was nearly arraigned in England, the book itself was banned in Australia, and, though published, proved to be deeply divisive in America. Looking back on it, near fifty years on, it doesn’t elicit nearly the same reaction – the book, while it does contain frank and frequent discussions of sexuality and the desires of its characters, is not nearly pornography. It’s not de Sade, it is not lewd for lewdness’ sake. Every description of a desire or a sexual act serves the narrative. That being said, perhaps you should take my opinion with a grain of salt – I’ll pin my colours to the mast at the outset and declare myself, as I have elsewhere, for the cause of sexual liberation. That may leave me with a rather…blue-tinted view on the matter.

The novel itself plays of off two main viewpoints – we have the eponymous protagonist, either relating recent history or the immediate past (by way of an automatic writing) via journal entries written for the benefit of her psychiatrist. Alternately, every two or three short chapters of this material, we are treated to a brief interjection of stream of consciousness – the audio recordings of the protagonist’s Uncle-in-Law, the story’s main antagonist, as well as a variety of other multi-media forms – for example, legal documents, wire-tapped conversations, the like.

I don’t think I’m giving too much away on the plot by saying that the story is driven by the efforts of Breckinridge to con her Uncle-in-Law out of property (which she may or may not have legal claim to) and his efforts of weaseling out of it. Keeping up appearances, the protagonist is invited to teach at his school outside of Los Angeles for the arts, which allows for the interaction with and commentary on the assorted hangers-on of Hollywood of the late 1960’s. The novel purports to be an examination of American culture at that point of the century, and it is this plot development that most allows for it.

The character of Breckinridge is probably the most forceful comment in the book. In her, Vidal is able to draw out deeply American mid-century themes – neuroticism, fascination with the Golden Age of Hollywood, Adlerian psychology, sexuality, and the struggle between men and women. The protagonist is consumed with the idea that Western society is on the cusp of reverting to a Matriarchy, of supplanting the mythic Patriarch and of women regaining their rightful, superior position. She hungers for the domination of men, seeing in herself an irresistible force for emasculation. Many is the time where, shifting abruptly from a steady line of narrative, she waxes Randian on the virtues of her power, her indomitable attraction, the potency of her sexuality. Indeed, if Ayn had had a better opinion of women, I suspect her protagonists would have looked much like Myra Breckinridge. Megalomoniac and deranged (though decidedly ironic, come the end!).

A second facet of Breckinridge’s personality, and one that fleshes out the particulars of the Hollywood setting, is the fascination with 1940’s film. References to actors, to movies are encyclopaedic. Myra’s husband, dead before the start of the narrative, was writing a book-length work on the idea that the golden age of cinema held within it and completed all human myth – most of which is, of course, mere commentary on another theoretician. It is Myra’s goal to finish this work after acquiring enough money to live in stability.
The monomania allows for the exposure of Breckinridge’s hypocrisy, as well. Constantly making reference to her “spiritual” belonging to the 40’s, the character often maligns the current state of the Youth (though she, at 27, is not far out of it herself). References to the indolence, the laxity of the young people around her are counterpoised with the vitality and strength of the generation of the 40’s – ‘Only they could have fought Hitler, Mussolini, and Tojo’ becomes a near-mantra at one point. Though these passages are only ever opened to us in Myra’s voice – we get comments on her overly-intellectual presentation by Uncle Buck, but nothing in depth – it is clear we are meant to see the irony: here she is, singing the praises of a by-gone group to the detriment of contemporary society, and yet she is the one furthest removed from life-in-the-present. While men in the 60’s may not express the masculine ideal they once did – something Breckinridge should find positive, theoretically, but maligns actively – they at least are living. Breckinridge, for all her talk of the Over Woman, is detached. Not that we needed, by this point, any more evidence that something wasn’t quite right with our protagonist, but the lack of even an internal coherency is a nice way of fleshing out just how cracked Myra is.

The volta that comes at the climax, without giving any key plot points away, is an artfully executed device. It doesn’t blindside, but neither is the reader led to it by the nose. Best of all, as is the case when these are well done, little elements, slight anomalies, are all made clear in a moment. Following this, the dénouement must be a quick one – the tension has largely been dissipated by the shift, and to continue the narrative would be to drag out the story beyond reason.

On the whole, a piece that deals with heavy subjects with an effective irony, never losing its airy touch. An engaging cast of characters with which one nevertheless fails to ever feel onside of. What starts out as a self-conscious, misandric romp turns dark in the third act, but underscores the throughline of the novel – that of an ill society, inevitably producing ill people. What looks like redemption in the finale, while rather pat, is difficult to view with anything but a sardonic cast of the eye, calling into question the easy answers provided. If I have a criticism, it is that the medium Vidal has chosen for himself – primarily, that of the automatic diary entry – has hard limits, and you can feel him pushing up against these in his efforts to deliver the narrative he wants. That being said, it is never done in such a way that beggars belief. A superior late-summer read!

 

Advertisements

Three Elections; or, A Look ‘Round

Three Elections; or, A Look ‘Round

It’s been a while since I posted anything topical (middle of April? Really?). There are three elections looming large on my personal horizon, so, it seems like a good enough time to take a look around and see what’s up.

The first, in time as well as personal proximity, is the Labour leadership election. It’s a relatively exciting time to be a socialist in England, with Jeremy Corbyn riding high in weekly polls, dashing around the country speaking to massive audiences every few days. More importantly, he’s also a politician that has a long record of fighting for workers’ rights, entirely anti-austerity, and anti-imperialist – the only leadership candidate to unilaterally oppose Trident, to have voted against the illegal Iraq war at the time and to have pushed for an inquiry since, to have fought against the metastasising surveillance state, to have voted against the tuition hike…you get the idea.

It’s important to keep in mind the practical limits of an increasingly probable Corbyn victory. Reformism is always, inherently, limited, and this is a pointed case of that. Corbyn is but one man, and, though we’ve seen the ranks of the Labour party swell these last few months (yours truly a new-minted member), the architecture of both it and the government of the nation at large are going to put a hard cap on whatever he might wish to achieve.

That is not to say that it hasn’t been particularly delicious to watch the in-fighting of the careerist Labour rump as they collectively crap their pants. With the grandees of the party shooting off ever more dire warnings about the “annihilation of Labour” (Blair), the new party members as “infiltrators” (Campbell), the party being “unelectable” under Corbyn (Cooper), Corbyn moves from strength to strength. I called it about a week ago, saying that it would be little time before we saw the careerists banding together, with two of the three other candidates (Liz Kendel, Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham) sacrificing themselves to combine the anti-Corbyn vote under one banner. In fact, I was giving them too much credit – coverage in the Guardian today about the row between Burnham and Cooper, each of whom thinks they ought to be the chosen one, neither backing down. How petty these Tartuffes are – unable to release their porcine grasp on an ever-shrinking slice of the party electorate, even for the supposed “good” of Labour. It is clear indication as to their real desire.

Not that they’re alone in their contemptibility – from the start of the swing towards Corbyn, we’ve been hearing calls to arrest the race; MP’s who, initially backing Corbyn out of interest in “broadening the conversation,” now look on in horror, never anticipating the Left winning; and all the blather about the failure of the one member – one vote policy. The Anti-Democratic spirit of some in the Party has been in well-showcased. Most recently, it has been revealed that Lord Mandelson has conspired with other apparatchiks and the three “main-stream” candidates to force a mass-resignation, which would shut down the leadership race. This comes on top of the active witch-hunt against the “entryist scourge,” all those who joined the Party while also being possessed of broad Leftist-affiliations. While I suspect that my low-reader-traffic (hoorah for that!) will protect me, it’s entirely plausible this piece should get me kicked. Pro democracy, right up until the vox populi starts saying the wrong thing.

With four weeks to go, the main-stream may yet find a wrench with which to foul Corbyn’s machine. Ultimately, I suspect we’ll see some splintering – either the rump feeling out of place in a Labour awash with (Old) Labour-sentiments, or a frustrated Labour Left leaving to form a proper Social Democrat party. Either way, exciting times.

Which is more than can be said of back home. Though the actual date of the Federal election doesn’t fall until October 19, our Dear Leader kicked things off at the start of August – one can only assume that extended campaigning is necessary to patch over nearly a decade of draconian, illegal and ineffectual policies. A record as long and varied as Harper’s would try the hand of any politician – if only their competition actually held them to task.

With the Conservatives losing Fortress Alberta to the NDP in an upset general election back in May, this may, finally, be the year they’re ousted from their program of generalised havoc. That being said, it’s not as if the alternatives are that much better.

Trudeau, as has been articulated better elsewhere, is little more than a walking haircut. His vision has been vacuous from the start, chock full of the weasel words that allow for retroactive defence of neo-liberal policies that have guided the Liberal Party since, well, since ever I’ve been around. It’s true that the Grits, contrary to their name, are better on the soft issues than the Conservatives – but then, this is the party that wants to “grow the economy ‘from the heart outwards.’

We’ve seen the souring of the NDP since Mulcair bludgeoned his way to the helm. This is no longer the party of the Conscience of Canada, the party of Tommy Douglas and Universal Healthcare – hell, this isn’t even the NDP of Jack Layton. The Austerity-Lite policies of recent years display the Rightward march of this fresh Neo-Liberal Orange. The constant kowtowing to the petro companies, at both the Federal and now the Albertan Provincial levels, put lie to any environmental policies the Party might softball.

Most troubling of all, however, is the growing opacity of the NDP. Harper’s abuses of the democratic practice, his strident whipping of the party faithful, the thumbing of noses at the electorate and the press, have been some of the most odious and rightly derided elements of his regime. And yet, we see the NDP on the same path – whether it be the questionable way Olivia Chow was parachuted into candidacy, or, more saddening yet, the ejection of (as of this writing) three candidates for refusing to toe the line on Israel/Palestine relations. One of the most egregious, galling insults of the Conservative Government has been the subservience to and unconditional support of the Apartheid State of Israel. To see the NDP doing the same – it’s more than disheartening.

Back during the days immediately following the Charlie Hebdo shooting, I wrote a piece on the concerns of a re-emergence, or perhaps a solidification, of tribalist rhetoric and politics. Nothing I’ve seen since has dissuaded me that this is the path we are on. If anything, we’re further down the road than we were at the start of the year.

Which brings me to the third election. I’d be surprised if you weren’t aware that the Americans have once again entered a Federal election cycle, wherever you might live. The Republican primary this spin has been particularly salacious, due in large part to one man. I recently read a piece hosted on the Crooked Timber blog, written by Corey Robin, on the “family values” of Donald Trump’s fascism – in these latter days of call-out culture and shoot-from-the-hip Social Justice, the term fascist is bandied about more often than I’d like. Here, as Robin shows, it is manifestly appropriate.

Vichy France soft-pedalled its deportation of Jews by keeping the families together. “A human solution to the Jewish Problem,” it was called. This is the same rhetoric used to oppose the emancipation of Black slaves in America eighty years before that. And it is the same rhetoric we are hearing today from Donald Trump in reference to Mexicans.

As the Young Turks were just reporting, the rest of the Republican hopefuls, seeing how popular this has been with the base, have parroted this line, driving the political conversation ever more reactionary. These, the best and brightest of the Party of the Constitution, seek to abrogate it fundamentally. There is nothing further from the true, founding ideals of America than what they are proposing here.

In the novel For Whom the Bell Tolls, Hemingway’s American protagonist converses with a Spanish guerrilla. Wondering about America, the Spaniard asks Jordan if they have Fascists there, too. “There are many who do not know they are fascists but will find it out when the time comes,” Jordan responds.

Keep on guard, comrades, lest the hour of that rough beast has come round at last.

 

Sarpadian Stand-Off

Another bit of M:TG fan-fic, also set in a decades’ old set. More atmos, less narrative in this one. Hope you enjoy!

Sarpadian Stand-Off

 

A fog thickens as the foliage-filtered sun drops below its noon-height, the soil sloughing off its moisture in the quickly cooling air. There is a stirring amongst the still-dense foliage, what seems a shambling mass off vegetation emerges, distinct from the surrounding fronds. The creature turns its head, what, in any proper animal, would be the head, to the waning sun. Semi-globes of corrugated material, half a foot in diameter, look to the sky. A shadow obscures the vision, and the creature is aware of a stone arch, peeking out from beneath entangling vines. The eyes are able to resolve the image, focusing in on the clarity of line, the delicacy of carving, well beyond the power of human or natural ability. Despite the encroaching greenery, despite the years of weathering, the span with its twin columns still proudly arcs above a path, once a grand artery, now reduced to a choked trail.

 

A stirring, not of memory, but of something more primal, twitches in the creature’s sub-sentient intelligence. The graven images, the hewn rock natural yet stamped with the work of art, they stimulate something deep within the creature’s psyche. In its own way, it recognises – recognises the same hand in the creation of the still-strong arc as in its own beginning. Recognises the maker in the object. A second thought follows from the first. Not hot on its heels, but turgidly, a rolling gait. The hand of the maker – and the hand of the unmade. Brief shots, images of violence, hours of fire and screams, flash before the inner perspective, memories of years and years ago. Nature gives, and Nature takes away. Unheeding of this, the one maxim, their doom was laid out in inevitability. Hubris only made it swifter.

 

The panoramic vision granted by the peculiar ocular setup alerts the creature to movement behind it. Stirring itself from its reverie, it turns to face the being approaching. If the creature itself pushes the boundaries of Nature’s design, the shambling entity it is faced with is entirely outside. Able to better define the image, the creature sees the stilted way the interloper hopped along the path, a tripod of three human-like arms, each ending in a proper, right hand. Atop this mis-matched trio was mounted a human head, greasy black hair cropped close to scalp, eyes sewn shut. The mouth, however, was left open, and would loll and gape at each jerk, tongue projecting one way, and then the other. The impossibility seemed as if it shambled along by way of some preternatural proprioception, sensing the world around itself in relation to its own whip-stitched form. A hand, whichever was oriented towards the current direction of travel, would crawl forward a space, feel about the area, and then, propelled by the two remaining appendages, the “body” would lurch forward. It was an awkward, uneven mode of locomotion, but, given the alien form of the creature, any animation at all was jarring.

 

As it was, the monstrosity carried on its haphazard way, weaving from one side of the path to the other in a stilted, jerking progression. The path itself lead upwards towards the graceful arch, rising from the surrounding murk. The areas beyond and behind the deformed creature, the place where it had come from, were of a distinct character. This arch marked the edge of the forest, the border between it and the Western Swamps that stretched in an unremitting morass for untold leagues. In years past, this area, at the point of flux between the two dominant geographies, had held host to a body of mangroves. The quickly dropping temperatures of the past decades, though, had left the area mostly empty. Save for a few, diseased-looking willows and accompanying bodies of rushes, most land was submerged. Pools of standing water, once choked with life, were now glassed over with delicate layers of ice. Open spaces, where the rime had yet to spread, were slick as if with the sheen of oil, the usual swamp scoria concentrated by the hiemal weather.

 

An half-dozen feet from the transition point, the freak of the bog notices his, its, counterpart, the ersatz forest-dweller. It stops short, tongue retracting and jaw snapping shut, and regards the creature. An outside observer, if there had been one, would have now been sure that this was a creation of some foul, necromantic magic – this unnatural assortment, this gangle of mismatched limbs, it could see the fungus-animal before it, despite the obvious wiry impediments. It saw, and its opposite saw it. A stillness, already the natural state of the area, deepened. Belying the creeping entropy, the slow, ice-bound death this world was suffering, something of moment was approaching.

 

Claws dug into damp earth as the beast set it’s six legs wide, preparing for any sudden movements from below. Twelve fingers turned the frigid rot, raking steaming furrows. As one, animate vegetable and sentient corpse shift – and turn back in the direction each had come, the plant-creature swaying as it passes back into the darkness of the forest, the construct jerking along with its characteristic shamble. Without exchanging words, the possibility beyond either, the two recognised the concord of their kind. The agreement, perhaps based on a shared natality, perhaps no more than an on-going armistice, that had held for decades now – the division of this land, the entire continent, between the flesh artefacts and the vegetal host. They saw, and knew one another, and knew that they met no enemy in the other. And so, both went their separate way, back into their own domain to await the approaching, inevitable, ice.