They used to go to Paris when they died. Now good Americans simply shift from one plane of fiction to another, leaving the Dallas of Lee Harvey Oswald, say, for that of J.R. Or so it is suggested in Gore Vidal’s joky novel Duluth, where characters die in one imagined work only to pop up in another. They are just words, you see, easily reassembled. ‘We do not live. We are interchangeable. We go on, and we go on. From narrative to narrative.’ A social climber arriving in Duluth, no, Duluth, ends her life in a snowdrift and reappears in a Regency romance as a French spy and Napoleon’s mistress. A Duluth estate agent resurfaces after death in ‘Duluth’, a television series much admired in the Duluth of Duluth. Are you sitting comfortably? ‘We call this après post-structuralism.’ Sometimes we call it plagiarism as well, ‘but that is a harsh word when one considers how very little there is in the way of character and plot to go around.’ The irony is a bit hefty, but the effects can be eerie and funny. The lady realtor – Heinemann’s text, one degree more post-structuralist than Vidal’s, calls her a ‘relator’ – remembers her former fictional life even when she is translated into the television series, and is able to talk to old friends across her scripted dialogue. Her son in the soap opera says he is going to commit suicide, but she is busy chatting through the tube to her ex-brother. ‘God, she’s great,’ people later say of her acting. ‘Look at the way she smiles instead of cries.’ Vidal’s Duluth, like ours, or theirs, is in Minnesota, but it is also just across a causeway from New Orleans, and only ten miles from the Mexican border. It has a large Latin population, a black ghetto, a corrupt mayor (whose first name was Mayor until he dropped it by deed poll), and an underworld dominated by the shadowy figure of the Dude, who works exclusively through Silent Partners and his answering service. It also has a visiting spaceship. In this Duluth’s America, several Presidents are elected at a time, but no one listens to them, or remembers who they are.
The story of Duluth, such as it is, concerns characters like the socialite Chloris Craig, who publishes novels under the name ‘Chloris Craig’, and Lieutenant Darlene Ecks, a member of the Police Department who specialises in strip-searching delinquent Mexican males, but finds true love in the arms of Big John, a massively-endowed black drug-pusher. There are riots and burning in the barrios, a fixed election, a major kidnapping, and a good old American assassination by a ‘lone crazed killer’ who keeps a picture of Jodie Foster in his drawer. ‘You can always tell if the CIA is involved in a political murder if the police are able to find a diary that shows just how lone and crazed the patsy of choice is.’ The style of the book, as must already be clear, is that of the relentless spoof, full of pastiches of novels running from Scruples to Gravity’s Rainbow (you’II have spotted the gag from Catch-22), and littered with every sort of cliché from film and television – the garbled realm of fiction in America. ‘Have a Lark cigarette from this Tiffany box. Here. I’ll light it for you with my Dunhill.’ ‘May I have this dance, Lady Darlene? I am the Earl of Grant ford.’ ‘Indeed you may, Earl, honey. I am Lady Darlene.’ There are even touches of Gracie (or is it Woody?) Allen:
‘Was your father weak, passive, absent from home a lot?’
‘You mean before he died?’
There is also a glum, constant sense of history being erased by show business, or just business. Chloris Craig, in her elevated social position, must be ‘above suspicion, like Caesar’s Palace’. ‘The Emperor Napoleon, a muscular godlike man, six feet tall, whispers into her ear ... ’
The fictiveness of the real is a favourite theme with Americans, from Wallace Stevens to Harold Robbins. They are afraid they live in a world they have made up, and made up badly, so that a soap opera, for example, may be seen not as an escape but as a secret verdict, a last metaphor for a bungled invention. Vidal knows this very well, and speaks, in Pink Triangle and Yellow Star, of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald wanting not to go into movies but ‘to live as if they were inside a movie. Cut to Antibes. Dissolve to the Ritz in Paris.’ But Vidal himself has a perfectly clear sense of the real as real. ‘A movie is a response to reality,’ he says, without hanging up any of those inverted commas that Nabokov thought were indispensable for that last word, and he sees the lure of the fictive as a form of American daftness, an estrangement from life. ‘Meanwhile, in the real world – take the elevator to the mezzanine, and turn left; you can’t miss it.’ He doesn’t mean the world is all that easy to find or know: he means it’s there if you really want it. The characters in Duluth preserve their identities in spite of being made of words and shifted from story to story. It is as if Emma Bovary were to show up in Anna Karenina’s Petersburg with all her memories of Yonville and Rouen intact. Behind the apparent claim that she was a disseminated textual creature would be a strong implicit argument that she was real enough to resist Tolstoy.
It is a pity that the characters of Duluth are only theoretically real in this sense. They are cartoon figures. Still, I suppose Vidal can’t simultaneously lampoon his culture and redeem it. The lampooning could be funnier, though. After a while it feels merely mechanical, and there is so much play with the exposure of assorted genitals that I did at times wonder who was parodying whom.
There is nothing in Duluth that is half as good as Vidal’s 1973 essay on E. Howard Hunt, novelist of many pseudonyms and architect of the Watergate break-in. ‘The Shakespeare of the CIA,’ Vidal says, ‘had found, as it were, his Globe Theatre.’ The fictive and the real do entwine here, since Hunt’s daydreams became Nixon’s nightmare, and somebody, Vidal thinks, forged Arthur Bremer’s diary before the shooting of George Wallace. Vidal’s analysis of the diary is masterly, and his tone is mocking, lucid, light.
There is nothing quite as good as the Hunt essay in Pink Triangle and Yellow Star either, although one or two pieces come close, and the rest are workmanlike. Vidal the essayist moves about more freely than Vidal the novelist, is more creative when he doesn’t have to be ‘creative’, and scatters insults and epigrams with fine abandon. ‘Television is a great leveller. You always end up sounding like the people who ask the questions.’ ‘Our universities are positively humming with the sound of fools rushing in.’ ‘What other culture could have produced someone like Hemingway and not seen the joke?’
What is odd is that Vidal, as a querulous piece published last year in the Spectator suggests, should expect his insults to be received as something other than insults. If he is out to provoke, why moan when he succeeds? ‘Mme Verdurin has won the day,’ he says lugubriously. Yet he himself is like Swann trying to get the crowd at the Verdurins to like him.
But then the Vidal of the essays is at least three people. There is the rational, rather lonely figure, outside most conspiracies and informative about them. This character has done his homework, and makes excellent sense. You trust him. Then there is the name-dropper and man about literature, who is always cropping up in other folks’ memoirs and his own memories. The names do clatter, but not always with the same result, as we discover when Vidal is ‘being shown around King’s College by E.M. Forster’.
As we approached the celebrated chapel (magnificent, superb, a bit much), I said: ‘Pretty.’ Forster thought I meant the chapel when, actually, I was referring to a youthful couple in the damp middle distance.
This is the Nabokov effect: the dropped name gets up and bites its owner. Then again there is the battling Vidal, scourge of the current literary scene (all book chat, on the one hand, and scholar squirrels, on the other) and of several other scenes. This man can’t resist an easy jab or joke, and always kicks his enemy when he’s down.
The 19 essays of Pink Triangle and Yellow Star first appeared between 1976 and 1982, and move steadily from literature towards politics, from Scott Fitzgerald (overrated, in Vidal’s view, but a man who has his moments) to a proposal for a ‘second American Revolution’, which would stem from a new Constitutional Convention, and would make the President a figurehead and introduce a thoroughgoing parliamentary system. On the way, the essays discuss Edmund Wilson, the Oz books, V.S. Pritchett, Hollywood, Theodore Roosevelt and various other topics and people. Perhaps the best way to get a sense of what Vidal is up to is to look at the title essay. This is a piece in heroic bad taste, full of swash and buckle, and offering a serious argument beneath the swipes. It is ostensibly a review of a book by a French homosexual writer, Renaud Camus, but is mainly an attack on New York Jewish intellectuals who have, Vidal says, ‘managed to raise fag-baiting to a level undreamed of ... even in Moscow’. This is unwise, Vidal suggests, because the people who hate homosexuals also hate Jews.
In the German concentration camps, Jews wore yellow stars while homosexualists wore pink triangles. I was present when Christopher Isherwood tried to make this point to a young Jewish movie producer. ‘After all,’ said Isherwood, ‘Hitler killed six hundred thousand homosexuals.’ The young man was not impressed. ‘But Hitler killed six million Jews,’ he said sternly. ‘What are you?’ asked Isherwood. ‘In real estate?’
At the other end of the spectrum, Joseph Epstein, whom Vidal sees as a sort of Jewish dream-Hitler, says: ‘If I had the power to do it, I would wish homosexuality off the face of the earth.’ He means he does wish it, but hasn’t the power to do more than that. To be fair, he wishes homosexuality off the face of the earth, not homosexuals. They are to snap out of it and live hetero ever after. But this really confirms Vidal’s case. There are no homosexuals, he says: no heterosexuals either – just sexual acts of various kinds, performed at various times by various people. Chacun son goût, and everybody is entitled to more than one taste. It follows that almost all talk about homosexuality is mythology and prejudice, a lot of sound and fury based on comfortable ignorance. It follows, too, that while ‘gay’ is a ludicrous term (‘a ridiculous word,’ Vidal says, ‘to use as a common denominator for Frederick the Great, Franklin Pangborn and Eleanor Roosevelt’), gay liberation is a genuine cause, since all forms of freedom matter. On the other hand, the Jews in Vidal’s essay are plainly red herrings, or sitting Manhattan ducks. The analogy between Jews and (non-existent) homosexuals is flimsy and offensive, as Vidal knows. He doesn’t really want ‘a common front against a common enemy’. He wants to stir things up by putting high-minded Jews in the company they least like to keep.
Mutatis mutandis (and turning left on the mezzanine), the same goes for Vidal’s arguments about the movies (not much of an art, all the skill and pleasure in them to be credited to the writer) and university English departments (dedicated to the death of all literature that anyone might want to read). There is a real point, and there are lots of truculent distractions. If you’re miffed by the distractions, you may miss the point, and Vidal will wonder why you’re hopping with rage. I suppose I would feel happier if the rational Vidal were displaced less often by the jabber and joker, if this subtle mind were less thoroughly addicted to the use of blunt instruments. But I’m grateful for the reason and the subtlety. They are not qualities that abound, and the price of a self-regard as high as Vidal’s must be a temptation to see all your wisecracks as wisdom.