Sunday, August 31, 2014

1968 Needs to Shut Up

 
 
I've never read a Gore Vidal book before.  He was one of those public intellectuals, like Norman Mailer (whom he got into fisticuffs [yup the right word] with I think), occupying a Dick-Cavett-Dayglo-1970s space in my head:  not interesting enough to read, but interesting enough to witness on a talk-show being resplendently intelligent, a big fish in a little groovy pond.  On TV he always seemed kind of smug and hyper-articulate, catty and a little too eager to prove something.  Plus he was gay, unapologetically so, which is heroic when you get right down to it, especially in an era of closet-case ghettoization. 
 
So I read Myra Breckinridge
 
Lord have mercy, what a stupid book. 
 
It's anchored in a late 60s free-for-all time-zone so archly what it is you feel like it's not a satire of American culture in that period, as much as a satire of a satire of American culture in that period, like Kurt Vonnegut trying to be Vladimir Nabokov trying to imitate Jimi Hendrix.  And it's pure nastiness the whole way through.  None of the characters seem worth reading about. And yes I know how that sounds, but halfway through I wanted out, but trudged on and kept discovering more hyped-up omni-sexual antics and bitter little asides about how buttoned-up and conservative and stupid American culture is, which I guess is always going to be true but so what?  There's an empty mouthy hysteria to the prose that's meant to be hilarious but is just kind of dated to the point it's like witnessing a fucked-up Bewitched episode through a pornographic/psychedelic lens. 
 
The title character is a transgender lady who seems hell-bent on being triumphant but you're never really sure what the triumph is supposed to signify, outside of liberation from not being able to be triumphant.  Is she pissed about at one time being a man named Myron trapped in a lady's body, or is she a figment of her times, a super-articulate public-intellectualized symbol of "freedom"?  Or is she a campy/silly thrill-ride of a character, created for our tongue-in-cheek enjoyment? 
 
Probably all of the above. 
 
And that's kind of what makes the book feel so dead inside, that sense of Myra being nothing and everything, and the plot, structured around a narrative centerpiece involving Myra raping one of her male students with a dildo, reflects the nothing/everything style.  The voice is conveyed in diary format (except for interstices involving Myra's pissed-off father-in-law, the dean of the acting school where she is teaching a posture class), all soap-opera disdain, high-dungeon narcissism, shrill, full of 1940s movie-star allusions and other uninteresting bits and pieces that don't add up outside of accumulating into a sad little scrapbook a middle-aged starry-eyed stereotypical gay guy in 1968 might keep under his canopy bed.  
 
Maybe Myra was the birth of some stereotypes?  Or maybe just reflected them?   That's all that populates the novel, though, from Myra on down, until at the end of the book, punctuated with a hit and run scene that creates a denoument in which Myra becomes a eunuch, you realize it's all been a sort of dream without being dreamed. 
 
Last year, on a whim when we were in New Orleans, we watched a local theater version of Hair, the late 60s hippie musical.  We didn't make it through the first half though.  The whole thing seemed forced and frantic and bourgeoisie-trashy, and while you could blame it on "local theater" I guess, I'm thinking it was the core text that did everybody in.  That musty, me-me-me chorus, all those actors jumping around being pissed at the cops and singing about "Aquarius."  It was depressing because of all the simplification, the upper-middle-class wish fulfillment.
 
There's a musty metaphysical smell coming from Myra Breckinridge too.  Like Hair, it hasn't aged well at all.  And not because of political correctness or anything -- more because it seems to be written from a scornful and eerily unnecessary place.  It's all make-believe queerness, shoving its mean creepy little sense of humor/disdain in your face until you feel disconnected from the whole situation. 
 
By the end of this book you just want Myra/Gore-Vidal/1968 to shut up.