Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Decline and Fall of Gore Vidal

Christopher Hitchens had a good little article in the February issue of Vanity Fair, "Vidal Loco," about how the quality of Gore Vidal's writing and public statements has fallen off since 9/11. It's an interesting article, and I have to agree with Hitchens. I have been a fan of Vidal's writing since high school, so it pains me to admit this. I think Vidal's best essays are nothing short of brilliant, and his best novels are witty and sharp. He is, as Hitchens says, the 20th century's Oscar Wilde.

I would actually say that Vidal starting losing the plot slightly before 9/11, when he starting corresponding with Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber. McVeigh wrote to Vidal from jail, sensing that he had found someone who shared some of his anti-government views. Now, most people would have said, "I don't want to have anything to do with this nutjob." But not Vidal. For whatever reason, his ego was stroked, and he wrote back, starting a correspondence between the two men. Vidal has never condemned McVeigh's actions. There's a difference between being a patriot and being a terrorist, but Vidal chose not to see it.

In a crotchety interview with Johann Hari of the London Independent, Vidal rants and raves about many things, but one thing he pointedly does not do is place any judgement on McVeigh's murderous actions. Vidal says that McVeigh was "too sane for his place and time." He goes on to call McVeigh "a noble boy." Hari tries to prod Vidal, asking if McVeigh showed a callous disregard for human life. Vidal's response, "So did Patton! So did Eisenhower! Everybody's rather careless about it once you start getting involved in wars." But McVeigh's act was committed in peacetime, against his fellow American citizens. Even if it were committed in wartime, it would be a war crime. Hari then asks Vidal if there were more people like McVeigh, would that be a good thing? "It strikes me as a perfect nightmare. Of course I don't want more people like McVeigh." Hari then writes: "I don't understand. I try again and again to tug him back and get him to say whether this means he thinks McVeigh was wrong to plant the bomb. He won't. Finally, he jeers: 'You are trying my patience.'" How sad that this great thinker is unable to see a monstrous act for what it truly was.

Vidal has an inability to say anything nice about anyone else, which has grown worse in the last few years. His ego has consumed him. In talking about his fellow writers, he used to be quite funny. In the past, Vidal would have had a sharp comeback or a witty bon mot, but now he is simply bitter and angry. When asked about John Updike, whom Vidal never cared for, he says contemptuously, "Updike was nothing." Really, Gore? Or are you just jealous of his 2 Pulitzer Prizes? Vidal's worst instincts have unfortunately taken over, and he seems to be content to simply be a parody of himself as an angry old man. He couldn't even find much of anything nice to say about his friend and rival Norman Mailer. "Mailer was a flawed publicist, but at least there were signs every now and then of a working brain." That's about as close to a compliment as Vidal gets these days. As Hitchens writes, "One sadly notices...the utter want of any grace or generosity, as well as the absence of any wit or profundity." Well said.

In Vidal's interview with the Independent, Vidal says that China will surpass the US as the world's great power, and then China will "have us running the coolie cars, or whatever it is they have in the way of transport." This is a familiar sentiment coming from Gore. Whereas now it's the Chinese who are out to own us, back in the 80's and 90's, it was the Japanese who we would soon be serving, he said. I remember reading those essays in the late 90's, after Japan's economy had collapsed, and thinking, "Well, that didn't quite happen Gore."

Vidal seems to have simply run out of gas. He hasn't published a novel since 2000's "The Golden Age," and his essays just re-tread the same old subjects. His 2006 memoir, "Point to Point Navigation," reads as just a re-tread of his 1995 memoir, "Palimpsest," which was a truly great book. It's difficult to criticize someone who has had an immensely prolific and varied career for slumping after the age of 75, but it is a sad way for Gore to exit. Nothing seems to interest him any more, and he has run out of things to hate. I suppose after 24 novels, more than 200 essays, 6 plays, and 46 books overall, it's expected that Vidal's energy would eventually run out. But no matter what he does in his old age, the post-2001 Vidal will not be the one I remember. I'll remember the Vidal who rubbed shoulders with the Kennedys, who was a great friend of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward's, who made the Roman empire come alive in "Julian," who created a bizarre and funny world of his own in "Duluth," who wrote with skill about a disgraced Founding Father in "Burr," and who made me laugh and question the world in his essays.

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