Sunday, 5 March 2006

Review: Myra Breckinridge, Gore Vidal (1968)

Myra’s diary is in the first person, naturally. Only Saddam Hussein could use the third person for such an undertaking. Myra’s narrative allows for all sorts of fun and games as she describes tinsel town from her unique perspective. It is a view from the heights of her superb ego, a view through the trees of her self-regard and with the hills of her desires visible in the distance.

In the Posture class I was particularly struck by one of the students, a boy with a Polish name. He is tall with a great deal of sand-colored curly hair and sideburns; he has pale blue eyes with long black lashes and a curving mouth on the order of the late Richard Cromwell, so satisfyingly tortured in Lives of a Bengal Lancer. From a certain unevenly rounded thickness at the crotch of his blue jeans, it is safe to assume that he is marvellously hung. Unfortunately he is hot for an extremely pretty girl with long straight blonde hair (dyed), beautiful legs and breasts, reminiscent of Lupe Velez. She is mentally retarded. When I asked her to rise she did not recognize the word ‘rise’ and so I had to ask her ‘to get up’ which she did understand. He is probably just as stupid but fortunately has the good sense not to talk too much. When he does, however, he puts on a hillbilly accent that is so authentic that I almost melt in my drawers.

Is Myra Myron after a sex-change operation? She thinks like a woman, but that’s no guarantee of authenticity. Is she different from other people? Certainly her obsessions are confronting. But this is the Sixties, the age of unreason, when people thought they could outsmart destiny. She seems to fit right into the culture of boredom at the Academy of Drama and Modeling, even to the point of attending student parties:

I did find the party interesting, at least in its early stages. Of those present, I was one of the oldest, which did nothing for my sense of security so laboriously achieved in those long sessions with Dr Montag. But I was a good sport, laughing and chatting and, all in all, behaving not as a teacher but as just plain Myra Breckinridge, a beautiful woman not yet thirty. As a result, several of the young men showed a sexual interest in me but though I teased them and played the flirt, I did not allow any intimacies to occur or even indicate that they might be welcomed at some future time. I preferred to be Greer Garson, a gracious lady whose compassionate breasts were more suited to be last pillow for a dying youth than as baubles for the coarse hands of some horny boy.

Is Myra Myron? Her desire to dominate Rusty is quite masculine:

  ‘You’ve missed two Posture classes in a row. That’s very serious, Rusty. Very, very serious. You know how Uncle Buck dislikes that, and how it is bound to count against your final grade.’
  ‘But I been real busy, Miss Myra. Working, see…’
  ‘The garage?’
  ‘No, with these friends, helping to start this business. Anyway, next week I’ll be back in class and that for sure, Miss Myra.’ he looked at me with such frightened sincerity that it was all I could do to keep my hands of him right then and there. Gone was the easy masculine arrogance that had characterized him in our early relations. Now he was jittery and profoundly hostile, and all because of me! Though the corridor was airconditioned to a polar temperature (like so many fat men Buck suffers from heat), a bead of sweat appearing at the tip of one sideburn reminded me to say, ‘I still have the T-shirt you left in my office.’

Myra believes that the age of men has ended, as has the great age of movies (1935-1945). Because there is no longer any way for men to express their masculinity in an overt sense, they are only able to express a facsimile of it — through costumes: cowboys etc. Now, says Myra, it is the age of women. Just as, artistically, it is the age of the TV commercial.

In a sense, Rusty is a throwback to the stars of the Forties, who themselves were simply shadows cast in the bright morning of the nation. Yet in the age of the television commercial he is sadly superfluous, an anachronism, acting out a masculine charade that has lost all meaning. That is why, to save him (and the world from his sort), I must change entirely his sense of himself.

Myra’s exploration of sexuality takes her to the limits of the known world, filtered by Vidal’s historical imagination. They plumb the entrails of time and map out passages through the maze of sex.

Ecstatically, I fingered the lovely shape whose secret I must know or die, whose maze I must thread as best I can or go mad for if I am to prevail I must soon come face to face with the Minotaur of dreams and confound him in his charneled lair, and in our hectic coupling know the last mystery: total power achieved not over man, not over woman but over the heraldic beast, the devouring monster, the maw of creation itself that spews us forth and sucks us back into the black oblivion where stars are made and energy waits to be born in order to begin once more the cycle of destruction and creation at whose apex now I stand, once man, now woman, and soon to be privy to what lies beyond the uterine door, the mystery of creation that I mean to shatter with the fierce thrust of a will that alone separates me from the nothing of eternity; and as I have conquered the male, absorbed and been absorbed by the female, I am at last outside the human scale, and so may render impotent even familiar banal ubiquitous death whose mouth I see smiling at me with moist coral lips between the legs of my beloved girl who is the unwitting instrument of victory, and the beautiful fact of my life’s vision made all too perfect flesh.

The ending of this novel is a surprise, another twist in the journey from base material to shining light that may be seen to typify the American experience: where everyone can improve their lot, change themselves by an act of will, force change upon the universe through effort and hard work. Myra Breckinridge is a novel of its time.

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