Inspiring Older Readers
Myra Breckinridge by Gore Vidal
I’ve always found Gore Vidal a slightly troublesome character. At his best he’s witty, engaging, intelligent and sharp but he also has an obverse that’s spiteful, patrician, catty and arch. I think I first saw him being interviewed by Clive James and that was a titanic coming together of egos trying to literally outwit each other – but fabulously entertaining.
It’s hardly surprising therefore that Vidal divides opinion when it comes to his writing. I have to confess that I’ve actually read very little and certainly none of his larger historical novels tracing US history and the country’s Presidents. I have read some of his magazine essays which always seemed to me a natural milieu for him because that format provides a platform for him to be polemic and discursive in a way that seemed to genuinely reflect his persona.
When I picked up a 1968 first edition of his novel Myra Breckinridge I thought it might be an opportunity to see how he dealt with an issue like transsexuality which is a topic with some currency today. I was conscious of the fact that back in 1968 this had been a publication that rattled the cages of the religious and moral establishment in America and was often spoken of a ‘cult’ or ‘underground’ classic. But beyond that I had no real idea what to expect.
The plot, for what it’s worth, is baloney. The beautiful Myra Breckinridge turns up at the Academy for Aspiring Young Actors and Actresses run by the uncle of her deceased husband, Myron. She claims her part inheritance of the business and takes on a teaching role – which covertly includes the hidden curriculum issue of female domination. Under this guise she takes sexual revenge on the ‘macho’ ideal of the leading man – an abuse that goes on until it is revealed, following a car accident, that Myra is in fact Myron who has gone through a partial sex change programme. Reverting back to Myron he resolves to settle down with the ex-girlfriend of the ‘stud’ he had abused when he was Myra. There is also a sort of secondary sub-plot that gives Vidal the chance to indulge in some sadomasochistic writing about the activities of a sexually voracious talent-scout. All really rather silly to be honest.
But to judge the book just by the crude outline of the plot would be to miss the point of it almost completely. This must be one of the first books from this period that tries to deal explicitly with the subject of gender fluidity in any really serious way. The adventures of Myra/Myron should really be seen as an adult fable or fairy story that tries in an iconoclastic way to explore the idea of how gender and sexuality are socially constructed. In that respect it is both daring and frank although not, I think, entirely successful. Vidal is also clearly interested in confronting the well-established social attitudes towards sex and notions of ‘perversion’ and the links these have with power and perceptions of masculinity.
All these are, I think, very worthy objectives from an entirely serious author with a genuine satirical purpose.
Where it all goes wrong in my view is that the overall impact is too much like being bludgeoned with a blunt instrument. Parts of the book are really very good indeed but he seems to be unable to sustain those moment because they rest on storyline that provides a very flimsy superstructure. As a result subtlety gives way to shock tactics and you have to wonder just how many buggerings with dildoes and other sado-masochistic fantasies you really want to read about.
I mentioned earlier that Vidal seemed very at home and entirely comfortable with shorter magazine pieces and I think this novel proves that point perfectly. There’s enough here for a pretty good short story but not for a novel of any length and in going for the latter it always feels that Vidal has over-stretched the limits.