BOOK: Gore Vidal, "Myron"
Gore Vidal: Myra Breckinridge / Myron. Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics, 1997 0141180285. viii + 417 pp.
[Continued from last week.]
In Myron, Myron finds himself, while watching a movie on the TV one day, sucked into the film (p. 222): he ends up in one of MGM's studios in the summer of 1948, the time and place where that particular movie had been shot. (The movie, Siren of Babylon, seems to be fictitious, but the lead actress, Maria Montez, is not; she also appears on the cover of this Penguin edition of the book.) When trying to move more than a few miles away from the studio, he hits an invisible wall, even though the local inhabitants of the area (the ones from the real 1948 timeframe) have no problems keeping on moving (pp. 237, 263, 378). But at the same time Myron is also in the interior of his TV set, and giant letters spelling out ‘Westinghouse’ can be dimly seen in a certain part of the sky (p. 255). When the TV airing of the film into which he has been sucked is interrupted for commercials, the 1948 actors and crew in the studio freeze, though Myron can still move about (pp. 360, 383); if he allows himself to be caught by the camera, this can be seen as a smudge on the resulting film. The shooting lasts from June 1 through July 31, 1948, and after that everything jumps back to June 1, a la Groundhog Day (pp. 351, 356). Cuts, fades, and other similar elements on the movie are also felt by everyone present in the studio, as brief unpleasant moments of dizziness and confusion (pp. 226–8).
And Myron is not alone in this; dozens of other people have been sucked into the film in the same way, from various years from the fifties to the seventies. They even form a whole little subculture of their own, with regular gatherings where each new arrival must tell them what has been going on in the world since the time from which the last person preceding him has been sucked into the movie (p. 267). They are led by a mysterious Mr. Williams who somehow arranges that a weekly allowance is paid to each of them, and most of them are staying in a hotel near the studio (pp. 239, 242). The ‘locals’, i.e. the inhabitants of the 1948 timeframe, find them a bit wierd but are otherwise friendly enough.
Against this surreal and nearly science-fiction background, a battle of personalities is going on inside Myron, as Myra is trying to reassert herself once again. Every other chapter is narrated by Myron, the ones in between by Myra, and similarly each of them manages to wrest control over Myron's body for a few hours.
Their purposes are completely at odds with each other: Myron is a conservative, a Nixon supporter (pp. 218, 262, 302, 309–10, 346, 349, 367–8, 378, 413), and wants only to find a way out of the film and return back into 1973, to his wife and their American-dream suburban lifestyle.
Myra, on the other hand, is obsessed by the fact that the golden age of the American film had been over by the late 1940s (pp. 220–1) and that the studio system would soon come to an end (pp. 249, 322). Her plan is to use her immense skills, talents and abilities (her megalomania has not subsided at all since the previous book, p. 221) to save the studios (pp. 337, 361, 371–3, 397), restore the golden age of Hollywood and thereby actually transform the subsequent history of the U.S. (pp. 249–50, 311, 332, 338).
It was in fact she who pushed Myron into the film: “After twenty years as a film critic, there is nothing I don't know about how to break into the movies.” (P. 221. But do critics really know this? Or is this more satire yet again?)
One of the subjects of the Myron/Myra struggle is their appearance: anatomically Myron is more or less a man (pp. 231–2), and Myra cannot get a plastic surgeon in the 1948 timeframe where he/she/they are now located, so she has to resort to makeup and drag costume; Myron on the other hand takes to eating oysters as a substitute for hormonal therapy which is also unavailable in 1948 (pp. 251, 268), and walks “like some kind of bear with arthritis to show how deeply and sincerely butch I am” (pp. 326–7). Other people around them are of course a bit confused by this curious Jekyll/Hyde-type transformations.
At some point Myron nearly discovers a way out of the 1948 timeframe, as he happens two notice two people escorting Richard Nixon towards the exit to throw him back into the 1973 world; but Myra takes over his consciousness before he could follow them and ascertain the exact location and nature of the exit (pp. 308–10).
Among other things, Myra hopes to further her plans by sodomizing one of the actors (pp. 338–43) and vasectomizing another (pp. 383–4; “my successful vasectomy of a member in good standing of the Screen Extras Guild”, p. 384). Eventually she discovers that by jumping or running really quickly into an actor from the 1948 timeframe, it is possible for one to ‘morph’ into this actor and henceforth effectively be that actor (p. 382). Myra uses this fact to take control of Maria Montez, the lead actress of the film (p. 390). She thus effectively enters the genuine 1948 timeframe, and even sees Myron as he arrives from 1973 (p. 393). As Maria Montez, she is now able to seriously take up the business of changing film history (pp. 409–9) and in fact does suceed in increasing the profits of the film somewhat (pp. 363–4).
But in the next chapter she is Myron again, a Myron who remembers how he once saw Maria Montez in real life as a ten-year old boy in 1948, and was at the time described as speaking incomprehensible gibberish — which is just the way that the speech of the visitors from the future had always seemed to the ‘locals’ of the 1948 timeframe when they were discussing things which did not belong to the 1948 timeframe (pp. 410–11).
Moments after this flashback, Myron is back in the original 1973 world from which he had been sucked into the movie at the beginning of the novel. But some of the changes that Myra had wrought seem to have stuck after all, e.g. her vasectomy of one of the actors while the film scene was frozen (pp. 383–4), who is now, an acquaintance of Myron's in the 1973 timeframe, still vasectomized (“had one of the world's first spontaneous vasectomies”, p. 415). And Siren of Babylon turns out to not have been a flop, as in the original 1973 timeframe, but a major success after all (p. 416). The book ends with a cryptic “Myra lives!”, written right-to-left (p. 417).
Film vs. the word?
At some point Mr. Williams turns out to have nefarious plans of his own, ones totally opposite to Myra's: “ ‘[. . .] this atrocious studio—this dispenser of slick kitsch—must die. The cinema, the most depressing and demoralizing of all pseudo-art forms must be destroyed. [. . .] The Word must regain its primacy [. . .] As of 1973 worldwide box-office grosses have plummeted [. . .] and the crack in the golden bowl is once again visible to the young people of the seventies who laugh at Lana Turner as they read Holkien and Tesse and Vonchon and Pynegutt.’ ” (Pp. 385–6.)
I'm not quite sure what to make of this. On the one hand, I of course agree with him: kitsch should die, as should everything that employs artistic media but is not itself art. Thus Hollywood films should die, although on the other hand boring and depressed small-budget arthouse films, preferrably from obscure and out-of-the-way countries (Iceland comes to mind), should be encouraged (although I certainly wouldn't wish to watch any of them).
But anyway, Vidal must of course have known, as must have his readers, that if the audience really is turning away from the cinema, that is not because it is gaining a better appreciation of art, but because other media are able to provide even kitchier and more vapid entertainment. That is, if people aren't going to the movies any more, it's because they are watching TV three hours a day, not because they are consuming high art. And if they are reading at all, they are reading pulp fiction rather than belles letters. Sure, I love Tolkien's books as much as anyone, and they are a delight to read, but are they art? I doubt. Literary critics are universally turning up their noses at them. As for the other writers alluded to, I don't know them well enough to be able to judge. I have some doubts about Hesse and Vonnegut; as for Pynchon, from what I've heard about him it seems that he makes sufficiently little sense to me that he might very well be an artist. But anyway, if Mr. Williams thinks that people will turn away from movies and begin reading more books again, he's undoubtedly wrong.
Due to this curious premise on which Myron is based — that people can be instantaneously transported into the time and space where a certain film has been made — the novel has some of the characteristics of a really fascinating piece of science fiction.
One aspect that I found particularly interesting is the fact that, by being moved 25 years back in time, Myron has been able to compare, on the one hand, the world of 1973 that he had just left with the world of 1948 into which he had now returned; and on the other hand, he was also able to compare the world of 1948 which he had once experienced as a ten-year-old boy with the world of 1948 into which he had now suddenly returned as an adult. Both aspects would make for some really fascinating comparisons if such a thing were possible in real life.
This reminds me somewhat of the legend of the seven sleepers, told touchingly in Gibbon's Decline and Fall (ch. 33): “We imperceptibly advance from youth to age without observing the gradual, but incessant, change of human affairs; and even in our larger experience of history, the imagination is accustomed, by a perpetual series of causes and effects, to unite the most distant revolutions. But if the interval between two memorable eras could be instantly annihilated; if it were possible, after a momentary slumber of two hundred years, to display the new world to the eyes of a spectator who still retained a lively and recent impression of the old, his surprise and his reflections would furnish the pleasing subject of a philosophical romance.”
It would also be instructive from an entirely practical point of view. For example, I have a firm belief that twenty or even just fifteen years ago, life was generally better in most of the reasonably developed world than it is now, owing chiefly to the fact that globalization now threatens our livelihood and the growth of state powers under the pretext of a defence against terrorism threatens our freedom and privacy. But of course, whenever I try to explain this to anyone, it turns out that my interlocutor is one of the insane acolytes of progress who firmly believe that everything is getting better all the time. They tell me that we are happier now because we have mobile phones, or because we have more cars per capita, or larger computer monitors, or whatever. I, of course, know that this is bullshit and that none of these things is genuinely conducive to human happiness, but how to prove it? If I could step instantaneously some fifteen or twenty years back in time, I could test my hypothesis at first hand.
Myron observes on p. 271: “girls in 1948 are—if Iris is a good example—a bit more gamy than they are in 1973 what with Mary-Ann's geranium vaginal spray. I don't think deodorants have been invented.” (P. 271.)
Whenever time travel is introduced in a work of fiction, it of course leads to the possibility that the usual cause-and-effect relationship between different points in time may be violated in unusual and possibly absurd ways. How to resolve this is up to the author, but Vidal here seems to refuse to take any principled stand on this issue. In this book, it's mostly difficult for the future to affect the past, but not impossible.
For example, whenever the visitors from the future talk about their post-1948 experiences, the ‘locals’ from the 1948 timeframe hear their speech as incomprehensible ‘crazy talk’ (pp. 353–4, 377). Similarly, one of the visitors, Mr. Telemachus, has brought from his future timeframe a reference book stating how much profit various movies have made, including post-1948 ones; but when he shows this book to a local, the latter is unable to read anything in it (p. 265). Yet at some point Myra does manage to convey some of this information to one of the studio chiefs in the 1948 timeframe (p. 371); and on p. 374, although what she has written looks like gibberish to the local, she is able to convey information by pointing out to the digits on a calendar.
And Myra's meddling in the film clearly does have an effect, e.g. the movie's profits increase from $1.2 to $1.3 million, and the corresponding entry in Telemachos's book changes to reflect this. Similarly we see in the last few pages that some of Myra's acts did have an effect in the 1973 timeframe after Myron's return there after all.
Myra's obsession with overpopulation strikes me as somewhat silly. Sure, it's a problem, but not quite such an overbearing problem. In much of the world, population is already fairly stable, and in many other areas at least the rate of growth is slowing down. Things like the growing standards of living and the progress of women's rights make it less and less likely that people will generally decide to have a large number of children.
But admittedly these things may have seemed different in the 1970s, when this book was printed: institutions such as the Club of Rome were ringing the alarm, population growth was seen as an exponential monster straight out of Malthus (p. 316), and somebody looking back from that point in time would have seen nothing but fast population growth everywhere in the world.
Here's an example of this rather naive view of overpopulation from p. 293: “The balance between population and food supply is now undone. Starvation has begun in the Third World. According to FAO, if all the world's arable land were properly farmed and the food was then equally distributed, there would be sufficient calories for the three billion people now alive but there would be insufficient protein per capita. Result? Malnutrition for all.”
Surely this grossly underestimates the possibilities of increasing the per-hectare yields through improvements in agriculture such as new strains of plants, pesticides, fertilizers, etc. Clearly there is starvation in the third world, but then there has always been starvation in the third world, and up to a couple of centuries ago there was plenty of starvation even in the areas that are now the first and second world. But the present state of the world clearly shows that it is possible to feed not only three, but six billion people. I admit that I'm not sure how sustainable this is, however. Many of the farming practices used nowadays to achieve the required high yields are unsustainable, rely too much on fossil fuels, etc., and abandoning them may lead to worldwide starvation. But I still think that the above-quoted paragraph is too gloomy.
Anyway, Myra has a solution for the problem of overpopulation. She proposes to somehow make transsexuality trendy and popular, thereby turning most men “fun loving sterile Amazons” (p. 279) who will pose no risk of breeding (pp. 258, 278–80). “Properly presented by the media, I know that I can make the sterile fun-loving Amazon the ideal identity for every red-blooded American boy.” (P. 324.) With a view to this, she even suggests one of the MGM studio chiefs to film what would effectively be a documentary about a man-to-woman transsexual operation (p. 373).
Frankly, I'm not quite sure what's the purpose of all this big deal about transsexualism. Obviously, as a solution to the problem of overpopulation it's absurd (and the problem of overpopulation itself is blown a bit out of proportions here); and of course the author of the book knew this just as all of the readers did. So what was he really trying to say? If this is satire, what is being satirized and why? If this is supposed to be somehow funny or entertaining, why am I the only one who seems to have missed the joke? I read in the wikipedia that the first male-to-female sex change operations in the U.S. were done in the mid-1960s; maybe this was a topic of high interest at the time when Vidal was writing these books?
The blurb on the back cover of this Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics edition seems to join in on the fun: “Thirty years later Myra has become literature's most famous transsexual—after all, this is her/his/their age.” But surely this is plainly absurd — in what meaningful sense of the word can it be said that we are currently in an age of transsexuals? I have not noticed that they have a particularly prominent role in any segment of today's society. I would hope that, as with many other groups that were previously excluded from the mainstream and discriminated against, the position of transsexuals is improving and that they are becoming accepted as equals of other people; but to extrapolate from this that this is somehow their age is simply ridiculous. And surely whoever wrote that blurb on the back cover must have known this — they must have known how outrageously and obviously silly their statement was. And yet they wrote it. Why? Is this supposed to be somehow witty or clever, or even some kind of joke? If so, what's wrong with my sense of humor today?
“I fear Maude is something of a mythomaniac—which explains his popularity on the Strip. Lie and the world lies at your feet!” (P. 274.) For another nice pun on ‘lie’, here's a limerick that I now inexplicably cannot find on the web (yet that is precisely where I must have first heard of it): “When a top-ranking Nazi was dead/ The stone showed, in letters bright read/ Simple and clear/ His completed career:/ ‘Here lies Dr. Goebbels’ it said.”
“According to police statistics, cooks are responsible for more acts of violence than are the members of any other profession except that of the police themselves.” (P. 300.)
Myra to an FBI agent (p. 333): “ ‘[. . .] Anyway, let's hope J. Edgar's having a ball or two up there in the biggest closet of them all, making it with Dillinger, a plaster cast of whose whang I am told your leader used to keep under his pillow.’ ”
Incidentally, the whole situation of Myron and his fellow visitors from the future strikes me as slightly kafkaesque. An exit apparently exists — Myron nearly discovers it one day — and yet nobody takes the trouble to actually find it and use it to leave. Everybody is somehow hopelessly inactive and stuck in the same endlessly repeating two months. But, on the other hand, I admit this may turn out to be quite reasonable. They are receiving a weekly allowance from Mr. Williams, live in decent circumstances, and don't need to do any work — why should anybody wish to escape a life like that?
There is something interesting about the frequent barbs against Nixon mentioned throughout this book. Apparently Nixon was really thoroughly vilified and disliked during his reign; and yet nowadays we hardly ever hear about him. Looking back from the distance of 30–35 years, a naive observer such as me looks at all the hoopla surrounding him and almost wonders what it was all about. And yet if you read something from the seventies, it's clear that it really was a big deal at the time. I find this somewhat comforting, as it gives me hope that the abomination that currently inhabits the White House will, thirty years from now, be remembered much like Nixon is now: as very nearly an irrelevancy and a mere distant blip on the horizon of history.