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!