Saturday, November 04, 2006

BOOK: Gore Vidal, "Myra Breckinridge"

Gore Vidal: Myra Breckinridge / Myron. Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics, 1997 0141180285. viii + 417 pp.


Shame on you, Mr. Cliff Challenger of Bradford, UK!

When one of the judges of the U.S. supreme court died last year, Mr Challenger sent a letter to the editor of The Guardian. It was published in their September 6 edition, and says: “we must remember his part in Gore Vidal's novel Myron. As a response to a ruling on obscenity, Vidal substituted the names of the then supreme court members for ‘obscene’ words in the novel. It is funny, but I wish I could forget the phrase ‘my enormous Rehnquist’.”

I wish I could forget that phrase, too. But I couldn't, and a novel that includes a phrase like that is a novel that I simply have to read. I looked around a bit on the web and found that Myron is some sort of sequel to Myra Breckinridge, and thus decided I'd have to read both. It seems that no edition of Myron is currently in print; I eventually got a secondhand copy of this Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics edition on eBay. It includes both Myra Breckinridge and Myron. (It was published in 1997, and is out of print already. What kind of classic is that?!)

Alas, I've now read both novels, and nary an enormous Rehnquist seems to be found in either of them. Nor do they mention any other supreme court judges. Maybe Cliff Challenger confused Myron with some other book, or maybe he was just pulling our legs (how can you trust somebody with a name like that, anyway?). Anyway, if it wasn't for his letter in the Guardian, I wouldn't have read these two novels, and I wouldn't be any worse off for that. So, Mr. Challenger, please report to your local public school and ask the headmaster to give you six of the best for tricking innocent Guardian readers.

It is, however, true that Myron contains several instances of words that may have been considered offensive in an earlier age, and that would be suitable candidats for being replaced by names of judges. Here are the ones I found during a cursory pass through the book (there are probably other instances that I overlooked; in particular I found nothing of the form ‘my enormous [something]’): “cock” (pp. 231, 248, 300, 354), “cocksman” (p. 301), “cocksuckers” (p. 229), “cunt” (pp. 249, 300), “fuck” (pp. 273, 362, 400, 405, 407), “fucking” (p. 300), “nigger” (pp. 290, 350, 353), “shit” (pp. 270, 292, 335, 375, 381), and “whores” (pp. 335). There's also “expletive deleted” on p. 309.

As for the two novels themselves — well, they aren't bad, but they're nothing to write home about either. If it wasn't for this recommendation in the Guardian, it would never have occurred to me to read them. I was vaguely aware that Gore Vidal existed and was a very well-known author, but there are several factors that count against him. Firstly, I avoid twentieth-century literature in general, as the risk that I won't understand anything is too great. Secondly, he's from the U.S., and frankly speaking we hear so much about the U.S. all the time already that I'm really not all that keen to read their literature as well; I might just as well try to read something more exotic instead. Thirdly, the man wrote a veritable deluge of books; this always puts me off somehow: where to begin, which ones to read, and what if (FSM forbid) I should take it into my head to want to read them all?

But there's no risk of this last thing happening in this case; judging by the titles of his other novels, the only one of them that I wish to read at this point is Julian, a historical novel about Julian the Apostate. I remember Julian from Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (chs. 22 and 23). In the sad years of the mid-4th century AD, by which time the Roman Empire was well on its way to a well-deserved extinction, Julian became the emperor of Rome for a few short years. Unlike several of his immediate predecessors, he was a pagan (the last pagan to hold this office, in fact) and not only had no intention of converting to Christianity but actually made efforts to roll back some of the gains that the church had made under his predecessors, and to restore the veneration of the old pagan gods and the study of the classical philosophers. But of course, it was too late by then, and his reign too brief; his efforts were doomed to fail, and Christian fanaticism triumphed, plunging the ancient world into the dark ages. The story of Julian's life as told by Gibbon is quite touching and made a great impression on me. Of course, Gibbon had the eighteenth-century philosophe's robust contempt of all sorts of religious zealotry, and especially that of the early church, so it's possible that his account of Julian's reign is somewhat biased in this regard; but this doesn't really bother me since in this case his biases correspond so very well with mine. Anyway, I would be quite interested to read a novel about Julian, and seeing that Vidal has written one, I'll try to keep it in mind and hopefully eventually buy it and read it.

Myra Breckinridge

<spoiler warning>

In Myra Breckinridge, Myra visits Buck Loner, the rich uncle of her husband Myron, who had recently committed suicide. Buck runs an acting school (and carefully (and cynically) refrains from ever telling his students the truth, namely that they have no talent and no chances of succeeding in Hollywood, p. 97). Based on wills of various relatives, Myra claims that half of Buck's estate should have belonged to Myron, and now to her. Buck employs her to teach empathy and posture at his school while the paperwork is being sorted out: i.e. while his lawyers are trying to find some way of refuting Myra's claim.

Myra is a major megalomaniac (“I am Myra Breckinridge whom no man will ever possess”, p. 3; “if there is a god in the human scale, I am she”, p. 191), and among other things seems to be obsessed by the fact that the world is heading to a collapse due to overpopulation (pp. 121, 190). She also takes an interest in two of her students, a studly young man named Rusty and his shy girlfriend Mary-Ann. Eventually, under the pretext of a medical check-up, Myra gets Rusty tied down to an examination table and sodomizes him with a dildo (pp. 149–50). Her motivation for this doesn't seem entirely clear to me but it seems to be a combination of (1) a will to power and a desire to dominate (cf. p. 113), (2) a kind of revenge for Myron who, having been a homosexual, had often himself been sodomized, and (3) a hope that, by ruining Rusty's sense of manhood, she will have contributed somewhat towards delaying the overpopulation of the world (pp. 191, 278–9).

Anyway, Rusty is of course too ashamed to describe the whole experience to his girlfriend, and instead ends up in the arms of the powerful and rather sex-crazed movie agent Letitia Van Allen, to whom Myra had previously introduced him. To prevent Rusty and Mary-Ann from getting together again, Myra arranges to have Rusty and Letitia caught in the act by Mary-Ann. Mary-Ann subsequently moves into Myra's apartment and becomes quite fond of Myra, but is too prudish to take up a lesbian relationship with her.

Meanwhile Myra's certificate of marriage to Myron (needed if she is to claim her inheritance from Buck) is nowhere to be found, and she flies her psychiatrist in from New York to (falsely) swear that he witnessed them get married in Mexico; but Buck's lawyers confront her with the fact that there is no proof of Myron's being dead at all. She finally admits that she is, in fact, Myron, having had a sex change operation in Denmark some time ago (p. 182).

A pleasantly bizarre epilogue ensues. Rusty, who despite his studliness had been quite a tender lover of Mary-Ann (pp. 192–3), now turns into a violent animal, to Letitia's complete and utter delight (“ ‘Once you have known the kind of perfection that I obtained at the moment of collision with that banister, anything else is too second-rate to be endured. I am a fulfilled woman, perhaps the only one in the world’ ”, p. 208 — Letitia's affair with Rusty being thus brought to an end, he goes on to become a movie star and “a complete homosexual”, p. 212). Myra is seriously injured in a car accident and, to save her life, the doctors have to undo most of her sex-change operations. Seing that Myra is now Myron, a man, Mary-Ann agrees to marry him and they settle down to a “happy and normal life” (p. 213).

</spoiler warning>

The characters

Sure, this was an OK read. It was pleasantly bizarre and occasionally funny. But shouldn't a novel have something more than bizareness to recommend itself? There are absolutely no likeable characters in this story. Mary-Ann comes closest perhaps, but she has about as much personality as a cow so the reader cannot really identify with her. Buck is a dirty old cynic (and almost each of his diary recordings ends with his plans about his next encounter with a masseuse, preferably a different one every time). Myra is an unscrupulous power-obsessed megalomaniac and a first-order schemer and manipulator. Rusty is a borderline delinquent and at the same time sufficiently thick or sufficiently spineless to permit himself to be manipulated by Myra and unable to tell her that enough is enough. Randolph, Myra's psychiatrist, is everything you've come to know and love in your caricature psychiatrist: a puritan Jew from New York, fat and impotent, endlessly interested in the theory of sex but utterly distressed by the act itself (p. 193). Letitia — well, finally here's somebody who is not unreasonably bad, at least not more than can reasonably be expected in a film agent; it's true that she likes to sleep with the young actors she represents, but then that's not that bad after all. But still she is hardly the sort of character one could like.

I realize that this whole previous paragraph probably looks like it was probably written by some misanthrope who spends his days in a cave gnawing at his own bones (not an entirely inaccurate description of me, now that I come to think about it), but honestly that's the impression that this book's characters made on me. Probably my whole idea that a book should have some likeable characters is absurd, and has been abandoned by all serious writers at least a hundred years ago if not more. Anyway, the fact that much of the book is bizarre, that it occasionally gives you a smile, or that Myra narrates the story in an interestingly quirky style — all this is OK, but not really enough to make up for the lack of likeable characters and indeed of all positive and uplifting elements. It's a rather sordid world that these characters inhabit, and what's worse is that it is the same world that we inhabit too. It teems with energy, with lust for power and for sex, it thunders with the clashing of wills, but ultimately it's quote devoid of all purpose and direction. Fortunately for the characters in this novel, they never slow down long enough to start asking themselves uncomfortable questions about it.

But then, maybe I'm too gloomy. This book is, after all, a satire; and it's unreasonable to expect a satirist to caress you. You expect him to be drastic and armed with a whip, and I guess that we get a little bit of that in this book.

The golden age of Hollywood

One of the main themes of this book is film, and particularly its ‘golden age’ in the 1930s and 1940s. Myra is like a walking encyclopedia of film and constantly recalls titles, names of actors, notable scenes, and so on. I guess that this sort of things can mean a lot to some readers, but to me they were simply superfluous. Film, especially of the sort produced in Hollywood, is after all just a type of popular entertainment; as such, it generally has a short shelf-life, and most films and actors fall into well-deserved oblivion after a few years. A handful of actors and titles from the ‘golden age’ era are still known even to a person who, like me, was born a long time after that era was over and who never had a particularly strong enthusiasm for movies; but the majority of actors and films from that era are now simply forgotten, or, if remembered, they are remembered as mere names; the same thing will happen in a couple of decades to most of the actors and movies that are famous and popular in the present time.

All of this is perfectly reasonable and natural and there is no need to exhume dozens of now-obscure actors from the 1930s and 1940s and swoon over their performances. Thus, when Myra mentions, for the tenth time in the last ten pages, yet another film or actress that I had never yet heard of, all I can do is shrug, ignore her, and move on. I wonder why Vidal thought it necessary to insert all these references to the history of film into his novel. Perhaps he wanted to point out how obscure they are now and how fleeting their fame therefore is. Or, more likely, perhaps he was himself a movie-history buff (like Myra) and these things simply mean a lot to him. In this case other history buffs will no doubt appreciate all the obscure references to the stars of bygone days; but other readers, like me, will, at best, have to shrug a whole lot and good-humouredly indulge this silly fondness of the author for old and now forgotten names from the history of film.

Myra has very strong opinions on the golden age of film. “[F]ilms are the unconscious expressions of age-old human myths [. . .] in the decade between 1935 and 1945, no irrelevant film was made in the United States. During those years, the entire range of human (which is to say, American) legend was put on film, and any profound study of those extraordinary works is bound to make crystal-clear the human condition.” (P. 13. Yes, yes, I know. This is so over the top that it's probably intended to be hilariously funny. I get the point, although I'm not exactly falling off my chair with laughter.)

“[T]he films of 1935 to 1945 inclusive were the high point of Western culture, completing what began that day in the theatre of Dionysos when Aeschylus first spoke to the Athenians” (p. 30). “Hollywood—the source of the best of our race's dreams since those brutish paintings on the cavern walls at Lascaux” (p. 249).

I'm really not sure what to make of this incessant eulogization of a system that after all produced nothing but commercial tripe. Even if this is satire, it seems a bit much. Is it possible that there's a grain of sincerity in this after all? Could some people honestly believe that the films from the golden age of Hollywood are a great cultural achievement? Could it be that the golden age of Hollywood was one of those rare moments in history when it was possible for something to be commercially successful and a significant cultural achievement at the same time? This is rarely the case, but it isn't completely impossible, as the case of Elizabethan theatre shows. I wonder if the same can be said about 1935–45 Hollywood. I have my doubts, but maybe I'm just being blinded by my prejudice.

Myra even associates the golden age of Hollywood with the U.S. victory in the war: “1934–1945, when no irrelevant film was made in Hollywood, and our boys—properly nurtured on Andy Hardy [. . .]— were able to defeat the forces of Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo.” (P. 220–1. See also p. 315.)

She is also quite enthusiastic about the even newer medium of television: “television creates a new kind of person who will then create a new kind of art” (p. 95). Alas, what we got instead was soap operas and reality shows! Take your damned idiot-box, Mr. Logie Baird, and stick it where the sun don't shine.

Buck's diaries

Buck keeps a kind of diary in the form of sound recordings, of which some of the chapters in the book pretend to be transcripts. They are written in a curiously affected style — punctuation is either ommitted or spelled out (e.g. “comma” instead of “,”), there are no paragraph breaks, and words that occur near the end of the line are split without a hyphen. Given all this, I'm surprised that he didn't give up capital letters as well. And even the printers seem to have joined in on the fun — Buck's diaries are typeset in a different face than the rest of the book! (Compare e.g. the capital ‘R’s — the shape is quite clearly different.)

Anyway, I think this is all rather silly — I guess he was trying to emphasise the fact that these recordings are taken almost straight from Buck's stream of consciousness, etc., but does this really make it necessary to trouble the readers with pages and pages without punctuation and without paragraph breaks? If Buck had been writing his diary into a notebook rather than dictating it to a sound recorder, he would surely have taken the trouble to put in at least some punctuation, and probably paragraph breaks as well. Why then, when the text is moved from one medium to another, should it be forced to keep some of the characteristics that are accidental to the first medium but decidedly out of place in the other?

This book was published in 1968 after all — I'd have thought that by then, numerous authors had already amply proved that a writer may do whatever he damn well pleases, he may write stream-of-consciousness for hundreds of pages, etc., etc., and by 1968 they might have gotten these childish pranks out of their system: they have proved their point, now how about going back to writing things that a person can, well, you know, read? Fortunately these Buck's diary transcripts aren't very long, probably less than twenty pages altogether, but the silliness of their style gets on my nerves just the same.


If one always looks at the U.S. from a great distance, as I invariably do, it's easy to forget that it is really a fairly diverse country, the various parts of which differ in many ways from each other and in many cases also have their own regional identity. I'm guessing that in the past, e.g. 30 years ago, when this novel was written, the differences between the regions were perhaps even a bit larger than they are now. Anyway, in the light of all this, this novel offers a few quite interesting looks at California.

Buck's school stands on the land originally bought by his father for the purposes of setting up an orange plantation (p. 21) — a welcome reminder of the fact that California was not always just a golden land of surfing, movies, and information technology.

Myra, who is originally from the east coast, takes a big dislike to the Californian dialect, especially the ubiquitous like: “ ‘like help,’ as the Californian said when he was drowning” (p. 44); see also p. 52.

“[A] typical California type: a bronzed empty face with clear eyes and that vapid smile which the Pacific Ocean somehow manages to impress upon the lips of almost everyone doomed to live in any proximity to those tedious waters. It is fascinating how, in a single generation, stern New England Protestants, grim Iowans and keen New York Jews have all become entirely Tahitianized by that dead ocean with its sweet miasmic climate [. . .]” (P. 153. I simply *love* the phrase ‘miasmic climate’.)

“[A] boy with a police record is prone to constant false arrest in the Los Angeles area where only professional criminals are safe from harassment by the local police” (p. 96). “[T]he police are quick to stop and question anyone found on foot in a residential district since it is a part of California folklore that only the queer or criminal walk; the good drive cars that fill the air with the foul odor of burning fossils” (p. 195).

“California grows its boys like navel oranges, only instead of lacking pits they lack wits.” (P. 299. It turns out that ‘navel oranges’ are the ones that always come with an underdeveloped twin orange. I've eaten them a few times but wasn't aware of the name. I must admit I always found the sight of that underdeveloped twin orange just a wee bit of a turnoff. Not exactly disgusting, but definitely not appetizing either.)

“ ‘What can I do you for . . . sir?’ That is a little joke that is popular with boys that age in California even now when the moral rot has just begun to set in” (p. 366).


“[I]t is the proliferation of private bathrooms, which has, more than anything else, created modern man's sense of alienation from others of his kind: our ancestors bathed and shat together and, all in all, relished the sharing of their common natural functions” (p. 178). And Myra is not the first to think of this; see the passage from p. 111 of Where Ghosts Walked.

Every now and then, Myra also makes some sane and reasonable observation. She correctly observes that in the modern world there is not much space for the traditional man: “there is nothing left for the old-fashioned male to do, no ritual testing of his manhood through initiation or personal contest, no physical struggle to survive or mate. Nothing is left him but to put on clothes reminiscent of a different time; only in travesty can he act out the classic hero who was a law unto himself, moving at ease through a landscape filled with admiring women” (p. 57). “[T]hey are perfectly aware that few men are anything but slaves to an economic and social system that does not allow them to knock people down as proof of virility or in any way act out the traditional male role. As a result, the young men compensate by playing at being men, wearing cowboy clothes, boots, black leather, attempting through clothes [. . .] to impersonate the kind of man our society claims to admire but swiftly puts down should he attempt to be anything more than an illusionist, playing a part.” (P. 90.)

“Until the Forties, only the upper or educated classes were circumcised in America. The real people were spared this humiliation.” (P. 99.) Myra considers circumcision to be an unacceptable act of mutilation. Although I have no personal experience with it, I suppose that this must be an exaggeration. If the practice were really harmful, it would not have become so widespread. Still I wonder what in the name of all that is decent was going on through the head of the first person who thought “now wouldn't it be a dandy idea to take a knife and slice a bit of skin off somebody's prick?”. I mean, yowl. How on earth can such a thing have crossed anybody's mind in the first place?!

[To be continued in a few days.]


Anonymous Anonymous said...

How flattering to find my letter has had some effect and I am sorry I took so long to find this blog (a friend googled my name and emailed me the link).
To clarify, in the original edition of Myron, Gore Vidal used Rehnquist and the names of other USA supreme court judges instead of various "obscene words". This was a protest following a Court decision which Vidal saw as increasing censorship in the USA. Not having enough judges for all the words that he wanted to use, Vidal also borrowed the names of other campaigners against pornography. Thus "tits" become "Father Hills" in a little homage to a Catholic Priest who was such a campaigner.
In subsequent editions, the names got dropped - possibly as it was less topical or simply Vidal regretted the joke. I prefer the original.
I am sorry this blogger casts doubt on me because of my name. It is really my name - Clifford Challenger, Cliff for short and I have had all the mountaineering jokes, thank you.
I am though worried about the comments on being spanked. What repressed urges are going on here?
However, I am happy that someone else has been enjoying Vidal's books at my prompting. I would also recommend Creation and his American historical novels Burr, 1876, Lincoln etc.
All the best
Cliff Challenger, really me, really in Bradford UK.

Friday, January 19, 2007 8:49:00 PM  
Blogger ill-advised said...

Thanks for your comment, Cliff! I'm sorry for having been a bit harsh on you -- I really should have realized that your letter probably refers to the original edition of Myron.

Also thanks for the recommendations of other Vidal novels. I'm not terribly keen on U.S. history but Creation certainly sounds interesting.

I am sorry I took so long to find this blog

Don't be sorry -- I didn't expect you to find it at all. After all, it is a very obscure blog :)

Monday, January 22, 2007 10:58:00 PM  

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