Gore Vidal; Duluth; Random House; New York.
Gore Vidal has spawned another repulsive novel. Having experimented with historical travesty (Burr, Julian, 1876) and fag chic (Myra Breckinridge), Vidal has turned his fictional abilities to the world of soap operas and drugstore gothic novels. He has not risen above his material. Even the publishers do not seem to know what to do with this one. The puffery on the jacket is limited to two statements: ‘Duluth tears the lid off Dallas” and “Vidal has put Duluth on the map.” How brief is glory — as short as the memory of the publishers. Duluth is one of the few middle-sized cities of the Midwest that is actually on the literary map. Concord may be transcendentalist country, Mississippi may belong to Faulkner, and Chicago is the city of James T. Farrell, but Duluth, the ‘Zenith City” was put on the map by Sinclair Lewis, who made it the scene for several novels, including Babbitt. Vidal does not mention his predecessor, a lapse that would not be so strange if Duluth were not stuffed with literary allusions. The fact is, Vidal neither knows nor cares to know anything about Middle America, including its chroniclers.
The Zenith City Booster Club can breathe easy: Duluth has nothing to do with Duluth, even less than Burr did with Aaron Burr or Julian with the “apostate” emperor. Vidal’s Duluth is a stone’s throw from New Orleans and on a clear day you can see the Pacific — or maybe you can’t: the author leaves us in suspense. Despite its rich heritage of French culture, this Duluth is an urban nightmare dominated by black gangsters and teeming barrios.
The incident of this creation (words like plot and novel are inappropriate) are centered on an alien spaceship, the Duluth mayoral race, and a Chicago gang — the Aztec Terrorists Society — dedicated to revenge against the policewoman whose sadistic strip-searches have threatened their manhood. The figures (characters would be an exaggeration) include extraterrestrial centipedes who manipulate the world’s money markets, a man-hating nurse whose ultimate weapon is the enema, a writer of romances who cannot spell cat, and young Clive Hoover, a reputed “fagola” who turns out to be not only straight but also “about the biggest crime lord in the country not of Italian extraction.” Above it all broods the figure of Rosemary Klein Kantor, creator of the TV series Duluth and, as it turns out, of all the fictional histories through which the cutouts move.
A summary of Duluth would be boring and confusing, although not as much as the book itself is. Its tedium is more than anything experienced by Beckett’s characters. Characters move back and forth from the TV show to the fictional Duluth, and when they die in Duluth (or is it Duluth?) they are reborn in Rouge Duke, a Redbook serial by Rosemary Klein Kantor. At the end, the centipedes from outer space wipe out the city and begin typing their own version of it on a word processor.
The interplay between fiction and reality is hardly a new idea, and it is now a staple with modern and postmodern writers. They can work in the drama, where the scenic illusion is a significant part of the experience of going to a theater. For examples it is not necessary to turn to Brecht or Pirandello. Aristophanes in The Peace and Beaumont and Fletcher in The Knight of the Burning Pestle succeeded in breaking down the barrier between the world of the audience and the world of the play. Addresses to the audience were a conventional feature of Greek Old Comedy. It might even be argued that a good deal of comedy (Groucho’s aside, for example) depend on just that temporary suspension of the dramatic illusion.
But the novel is of a different nature. The “gentle readers” of Fielding and Thackery are not aimed at interrupting the illusion. They are more like Conrad’s elaborate constructions of stories within stories within stories — a way of drawing the reader out of his own world and into the fictional realm, not immediately, but by degrees. Only a few modern writers can astutely merge fiction with reality. The end of Nabokov’s Bend Sinister, for example, is a tour de force: the novelist takes pity on his suffering hero and grants him a fatal heart attack. But such successes are rare and depend on a peculiar metaphysical talent.
Vidal is clearly no Nabokov. He is not even a Thomas Pynchon. Vidal’s stick figures are not the result of some profound sense of high art or part of a philosophical scheme. They only show how bored Vidal has become with real people and the real world. His experimental technique is not metaphysical, only cute — to be generous. His grotesque sex scenes — mostly rape and autoeroticism — are not a sign of vitality but of a world-weariness. Gore is a washed-out aesthete, contemptuous of everything American, but too fashionable to entertain the dangerous thought of reactionary alternatives. All the former steam that goaded Mr. Buckley into an explosion is exhausted. He lost his élan Vidal.
Vidal has been running away from the world for some time, as evidenced by his historical fantasies. The retreat from reality is symptomatic of something it is hard to put a name to, a sort of rottenness and bad faith that afflicts too many writers and intellectuals. Never mind their mediocre talents and inadequate education — those are remediable deficiencies. What cannot be remedied is their self-hate. American intellectuals have given up trying to make sense of themselves in this world, while at the same time rejecting any idea of transcendence. As a consequence, they are compelled to make up their own versions of reality. Kurt Vonnegut takes refuge in sci-fi speculations; Norman Mailer recreates ancient Egypt in his own (coprophiliac) image; and more and more novelists are turning to “historical” novels in which they are openly contemptuous of historical facts. The rarest of all writers today is the serious novelist (or dramatist) who actually deals with contemporary life in straightforward fashion.
The flight from reality is not confined to serious fiction. The popularity of costume romances, soap operas, and fantasy movies is testimony that something strange is going on in the American heartland. Obviously, there has always been a place for literature of fantasy and escape. Much of the West’s major works of literature, from the Odyssey to The Lord of the Rings, could be described in such terms. But there are important differences. Older fantasies (like Homer’s Vergil’s, and Dante’s) depended upon a common stock of legend and belief. The Trojan War and the founding of Rome possessed an imaginative reality. The same could be said of works as diverse as Shakespeare’s Histories and Tennyson’s Idylls. What is more, imaginative literature on the classical model always dealt even more seriously with human problems than more obviously realistic works were able to do. There is, after all, nothing very escapist in Aeneas’ desertion of Dido or the ambition of Henry Bolingbroke.
None of these considerations apply to our own escapist fantasies. They most clearly do not depend on a common tradition: each writer is free to reinvent the universe according to his whim. The ordinary limitations of history, geography, and even the laws of logic and physics are shattered. Still worse, by cutting loose the ties to the ordinary world they are no longer bound to take any pains with there characters. What we know of Luke Skywalker, J. R. Ewing, or Barth’s Giles Goatboy, could be put in a comic book caption.
It is a strange sort of aesthetic rebellion that lays the ax against the roots of all art. Whatever theories may be entertained about the nature and function of literature, we cannot escape the old ideas of representation. In our powerlessness, we seek to express ourselves and our lives with, above all, coherence. It may be that our sanest and most significant act, as human beings, is telling stories. The narrative art is older than literature: it is as old as man. But, one by one, the arts have turned their back on representation. Painters, sculptors, poets, and now novelists abandon the world of common experience in order to pursue their private visions. They are like the sleepers described by Heraclitus: cut off from the common world of ordinary perception and the living, they see, by their own private lights, dreams without substance or meaning.
The real Duluth, despite its magnificent location on the north shore of Lake Superior, is not a very interesting place, but it is definitely more interesting than anything Vidal could invent. Sinclair Lewis was a mean-spirited illiterate with none of Vidal’s charm, yet he wrought a minor American masterpiece from the uncompromising material of a Duluth Rotarian. Lewis’s Duluth may be a soulless, heartless place, but his Babbitt is a dreamer and a Romantic. No writer was crueler to American businessmen than Lewis but no one else has managed to catch the touch of the poet in the ambitious boasting of the small-town booster. The difference between the two literary Duluths is a measure of how far we have come since 1922.
The saddest part in all of this is that Vidal is aware, to some extent, of the American flight from reality. Most of Duluth is a parody of soap operas and romantic novels, even down to the intentionally wooden and portentous dialogue. Rosemary asks E. G. Marshall, “the well-known actor,” what he is up to, ‘aside from making those lucrative commercials — in the high six figures?”
‘I’m doing a one-man show . . . on Ezra Pound.’ ‘Oh, that is a fab notion,’ says Rosemary. She has heard the name Pound before, somewhere.
After the first few pages, nearly everyone will get the point, but what of it? It takes more than parody to justify such boring insipidity. Otherwise, Hemingway’s Torrents of Spring would still be read. Whatever games Vidal thinks he is playing with the reader, he (and his book) are the principal victims. That even so minor a talent as Vidal’s should be wasted on what he chooses to call novels is something to be lamented as one more sign of the strangely troubled times in which we find ourselves. cc