“I believe in justice, I want redress for all wrongs done, I want the good life – if such a thing exists – accessible to all. Yet, emotionally, I would be only too happy to become world dictator, if only to fulfill my mission: the destruction of the last vestigial traces of traditional manhood in the race in order to realign the sexes, thus reducing population while increasing human happiness and preparing humanity for its next stage.” Gore Vidal, Myra Breckinridge (1968, Little, Brown and Company) p. 41 (italics in original.)
In wondering where to begin writing about this book I decided to let Myra say in her own words what she is about, after all she says it best and certainly wouldn’t have it any other way. I have long known about the book’s existence, that it was controversial, that one of the worst movies ever made was based on it, but never had any interest in reading it. Indeed I had never read anything of his before, although I remember thoroughly enjoying the encounters he had with Norman Mailer on The Dick Cavett Show, and the televised political debates he had with William F. Buckley. He was suave, irascible, brilliant, and possibly the most well-read writer of his generation; I knew of him mainly for having uttered one of the greatest self-observations I’ve ever heard, one I repeated any time I could work it into a conversation: “Every time a friend succeeds I die a little.” How honest and self-effacing, or was it tongue in cheek? Only Gore Vidal will ever know.
As is all the rage now, I have been interested in anything pertaining to the topic of transgenderism for quite a while and recently the book was mentioned in that context and I knew I had to read it. I was pleasantly surprised at how much I was enjoying it; while I had no preconceived notions about it I hadn’t expected it to have the feel of an early 60s book, especially when juxtaposed with the big historical/political novels he was known for, and with the subject matter. There is an interesting paradox involved in discussing the book in that you can’t give too much away without revealing the huge plot twists (they literally made me gasp out loud on my commute home) in it, and it is these sensational aspects of the book that would impel most potential readers to take the plunge, yet most of them wouldn’t even read it if they did know ahead of time as that is the major pleasure in reading it for the neophyte. In fact, to ensure the book’s secret was kept, Vidal insisted that his publisher not send advance review copies to the nation’s book critics, something completely unheard of then or since. In spite of this it quickly soared to Number 1 on many bestseller lists.
The best strategy, then, in discussing the book is to approximate what it is like not about through comparisons with other books published at the time, because it is so much a product of its times I would venture to say it couldn’t have been written in any other period. Yet it doesn’t feel in any way dated, as so much bric a brac from that era unfortunately is, even though it was the ultimate in high camp in its day. To begin with it was written in the space of a month and has an inspirational feel to it throughout although perhaps only a writer might sense this. It was written during a time when Vidal was exploring “The New Novel” movement in France, and many critics say it is his response to that, especially the notion that the novel was dead. In addition, it was a major contribution to the cultural assault on the assumed norms of gender and sexuality which swept the western world at the time. That being said, it has the overall feel of West’s Day of the Locust or Miss Lonelyhearts, Yates’s “Eleven Kinds of Loneliness,” even a faint whiff of Sunset Boulevard. Myra herself’s persona can seem like a character straight out of an Ayn Rand creation in its cold aloofness; Vidal later hinted that the voice of Myra may have been inspired by the “megalomania” of Anais Nin’s diaries. An endearing plot device, never overdone, is his use of all things pertaining to the Hollywood film industry (many obscure references) as backdrops to scenes, character description (both physical and mental) and plot explication. One of the more famous examples is Myra describing herself in this way: “my beauty blinding them, as it does all men, unmanning them in the way that King Kong was reduced to mere simian whimper by beauteous Fay Wray whom I resemble left three-quarter profile if the key light is no more than five feet high during the close shot.” cf. Myra Breckinridge, p. 3.
That’s all I will say for now; if you want to know more you’ll have to read it yourself, which I hope this piece inspires you to do. Ahead of its time in 1968, we’re still not sure what to make of Myra, and perhaps never will be.