Wednesday, August 1, 2012

In Memoriam: Gore Vidal

Eminent writer and TV personality Gore Vidal is dead at the age of 86. Although not commonly considered a genre writer, Mr. Vidal, in addition to being a mystery novelist under the pseudonym Edgar Box, was indeed a SF and fantasy writer. Also, a good proportion of his works included historical fiction, including some of his most famous, such as Julian, Burr, 1876, Creation and Lincoln.

His SF works included the remarkable fifties novel Messiah, about the rise of a new religion replacing Christianity, and the SF play (originally television, then stage, then motion picture) Visit to a Small Planet, about the visit of an alien to Earth. Mr. Vidal revisited the genre with the end of the world novel Kalki, where religious fanatics genetically engineer a genocidal strain of E. coli. He also appeared as a genre actor in Gattaca.

His fantasies included Myron, Duluth, The Smithsonian Institution, The Golden Age and Live from Golgotha. They were of the absurdist or metafictional extravaganza type of fantasy. In Myron, for instance, the protagonists is trapped in a B movie. Siren of Babylon, starring Rhonda Fleming, if I remember correctly?

Despite the large number of genre works in his oeuvre, Mr. Vidal successfully avoided being typed as a genre author, due largely to his political and social engagements. His many television appearances as commentator included a notorious public quarrel with William F. Buckley during the 1968 Chicago Democratic convention. His feuds with Truman Capote and Normal Mailer were also highly publicized. His plays, the award winning The Best Man and An Evening with Richard Nixon, as well as he then contemporary political novel Washington D.C., as well as the historical novels garnered much attention. Mr. Vidal excelled as an essayist, often on political topics.

Politically Mr.Vidal came from a patrician (if personally impoverished, he always had to earn a living,) background. Coming from a more time when politics were not so narrowly constrained, Vidal harked back to old traditions that seemed in more retrograde times almost leftist. A traditional isolationism for instance carried on in an anti-imperialist politics. His militant atheism as well carried on a very old and honorable tradition in democracy dating back to the seventeenth century. The modern notion of atheism as highly antithetical to democracy is a redbaiting innovation. Very late in his life he was engaged in a notorious correspondence with Timothy McVeigh. People were somehow surprised that Mr.Vidal's old conservative politics led him to find affinities in McVeigh.

However, in his writings on sex, Mr. Vidal's homosexuality did lead him away from the old conservatism, if not entirely. His later boast of more than a thousand sexual contacts seemed to reflect more of a patrician disdain for middle class propriety, a would-be aristocratic libertinism. Still, this membership in a minority was probably what kept him from being nothing more than a Menckenesque curmudgeon from the beginning.

His novel The City and the Pillar was a milestone in gay writing. His Myra Breckinridge displayed some conservative panic at the blurring of gender identities, but Vidal's essays on sex were in the context of any time before rather progressive. It would be ungenerous to cavil at the imperfections of a pioneer, even though, as so often the advent of change left him behind. He lived with Howard Austen for some decades, mostly in Ravello, Italy, til Austen's death. He boasted once that he and Howard did not have sex. It is hard to know what would be sadder, lying about such a thing, or such a thing being true.

At the age of ten, Mr. Vidal was in the newsreels for flying a lightweight plane. His father was an aviation official in the Roosevelt administration. His grandfather was a Senator. He shared a stepfather, Hugh Auchincloss with Jacqueline Kennedy, which connection probably did more to bring him social celebrity. He ran for Congress in New York in 1960 and for the Democratic Senate nomination in California many years later as well.

As a screenwriter, Mr. Vidal argued the case for the priority of the screenplay in the movies' creative process. His line "The director is the brother-in-law" of course must be amended to "The director is the producers' man," since the decline of the studio system.

Finally, as a writer, Mr. Vidal had an unfashionable taste for dependent clauses. Even worse, Mr. Vidal had a distinct fondness for the ever contemptible adverb. Presumably these wickednesses, plus his dubious politics and damnably open sexual heterodoxy combined with the labors wasted on genre works and television placed in very low in the acceptable pantheon of literary writers. As a public novelists, he was no doubt the preeminent US writer. As such, his loss to age and the grave is a grave loss for the age.

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