Saturday, January 30, 2016

Review: Myra Breckinridge, by Gore Vidal

I must admit, I am a real sucker for a “voice” novel. From Huck Finn to Money, from The Colour Purple to Everything Is Illuminated, from Come, Thou Tortoise to A Clockwork Orange, I am deeply susceptible to books that strive toward their own zany idiolects. (Full disclosure: I’m putting the final touches on my own zany voice novel now.) Gore Vidal’s shocking, subversive 1968 novel Myra Breckinridge definitely fits into the genre’s grand tradition; and through his wily, transsexual,  psychotic protagonist, Vidal achieves an idiolect as compelling as any you will find in literature.

The story goes: our titular antihero, obsessed with the golden age of film, arrives in Hollywood to take a teaching job at the “Academy for Aspiring Young Actors and Actresses,” a two-bit college run by Buck Loner, the uncle of Myra’s so-called deceased husband, Myron. She claims through Myron’s death partial ownership of the school, and while Buck attempts to substantiate her assertion, Myra takes on the chore of teaching classes called “Posture” and “Empathy.” The school teems with mediocre, untalented students (indeed, in the academy’s entire seven-year history, not a single graduate has managed to land a career in show business), and Myra latches on to two current ones: Mary-Ann Pringle and her strapping young boyfriend, Rusty Godowsky.

Myra is determined to force her dominating womanhood onto these two students, to drive a wedge between them so she can exact a kind of revenge on what she considers to be traditional masculinity. What ensues is a drawn-out, incredibly vivid, and utterly believable sexual assault on poor Rusty. Claiming he suffers from a twisted spine that is limiting his acting career, Myra lures him to the school’s infirmary to perform a late-night physical examination on him. By exploiting his implicit trust in her, and by gradually blurring the lines between a clinical interaction and a sexual one, Myra is able to get Rusty strapped face down on a table with his pants off. She then sodomizes him with a strap-on dildo, thus achieving her goal of shattering his manhood and destroying his relationship with Mary-Ann.
Yet the plot grows more complex on other fronts. Vidal introduces us to a cunning talent agent named Letitia Van Allen who shows an inordinate interest in Rusty that thwarts Myra’s plans (and also turns the boy into a star). Meanwhile, Buck Loner eventually uncovers the truth about this pushy, mysterious woman teaching at his school: Myra isn’t the widow of Myron at all; she is in fact Myron himself, following gender-reassignment surgery, a procedure that Myra underwent after encouragement from her therapist, Randolph Montag. She also, over the course of the novel, attends an orgy hosted by a group of men called the Four Skins along with some of the more sexually adventurous young coeds from the school.

The novel ends as subversively as it begins. Myra is involved in a car accident that results in her losing her silicone breasts and unable to take the hormones needed to maintain her femininity. She soon reverts back to being a man – at least, a castrated one – and ends up living with Mary-Ann. Vidal, through all this, is trying to undermine various notions around sex, gender, dominance and rape, and what he has created is a zesty, provocative exploration of all these things and more.

Vidal wrote this novel, or so the story goes, in just a couple of months, and it took just a few more after publication to sell 2 million copies. It’s a book everyone seemed to be talking about in the late 1960s, but not one that gets a lot of attention now. This may partly be due to Vidal’s overall standing in our literary culture, which has suffered greatly since his death in 2012. But this is a book that people should still be reading, because its themes and obsessions are very much relevant today. And as far as voice novels go, it is definitely one of the best.

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