On The City and the Pillar

16Jan08

In which The Gay Recluse looks back at a classic of post-war American fiction written in a gay voice.

Admittedly, to read Gore Vidal’s 1946 novel The City and the Pillar is to be thrown with startling efficiency into what has to be one of the bleakest periods in history, the post-war era of the United States. What we see in this story is not the superficial optimism exhibited by a young country making its debut as a world power, however, but the stifling conformity that comes with it, so that we as readers (if we want to have any fun here) must pretend to be shocked — as the rest of the world apparently was 60 years ago — by Vidal’s stiff descriptions of a most ordinary affair between a couple of dim-witted high school jocks.

Which is not to say it isn’t an enlightening read; what we love about this book is Vidal’s unflinching attachment — already present at the age of 21, when he wrote it — to a truth that resonates as much today as it did then, namely the idea that homosexuality is more often than not located in the domain of the otherwise unremarkable lives led by those less flamboyant souls who shun the spotlight and seek only the most ordinary pleasures life has to offer. Vidal, it should be noted, did not set out to create anything otherwise; he wanted his prose to reflect the “normal” (which is to say, stereotypically masculine) appearance of his characters, and their reluctance to engage in anything resembling introspection.

If there is torment to be found — and there is, as “Jim” drifts through the book pining for his old friend “Bob” (yes, even the names are dull) — it is a torment closer in spirit to a seventh-grade crush than anything we might describe as existential, and so leads to quite a few scenes that — even when rendered with Vidal’s flat prose — tread dangerously close to camp when taken in by a more modern eye. (One example: Jim and one of his sailor buddies are on leave and go home with a couple of girls they picked up in a bar; Jim tries his best to play along, but abruptly leaves the scene after being too disgusted by the sight of a naked woman. “Let the queer go! I got enough for two,” growls the buddy, who is already busy with the other girl.)

So yes, there’s a temptation to smile throughout much of this book, particularly if we think of the spirit of say, John Waters or Paul Morrissey hovering about, recreating these same wooden, trashy scenes with a cast of incredible freaks. Of course it’s unfair, but it’s almost impossible to resist drawing on such an arsenal, when it’s so much more potent in exposing the ludicrous nature of suburban convention than the dreary (if more realistic) style of Vidal (at least in this novel; we must remember that he is only 21 and has many great books in front of him).

But any smiles quickly give way to a pervasive melancholy as we envision Vidal writing this book, particularly in his attempts to emulate his hero Thomas Mann, as he admits having done in an essay published in the mid-1980s (included in a new edition of the book published by Vintage in 2003). “I was struck by the use of dialogue in The Magic Mountain,” Vidal writes, “particularly the debates between Settembrini and Naphta, as each man subtly vies for the favors of the dim but sexually attractive Hans Castorp.” What’s telling here is that these scenes from The Magic Mountain were — at least for us — by far the least compelling in the book, for they consisted of Mann’s pedantic summaries of two competing strains of German philosophy, and so offered almost nothing to the underlying drama of the book. For Vidal, it seems that the beauty of Magic Mountain — namely Mann’s descriptions of the otherworldly sense of time and geography, of literally hovering above one’s former life in a cloud of malaise (not to mention the lush language in which Mann describes all of this) — was completely lost on him. The City and the Pillar comes across as the work of a young writer working in a world bereft of magic or potential, and it is this world he so faithfully reproduces on the page.

To put in another way, we finish the book not with a sense of being transported by great literature but of having just watched a very disturbing documentary. What’s even worse — and more tragic — is the creeping suspicion that, sixty years later, not much has really changed in this regard; of course we’re inured to the sexually explicit, but what is still lacking in so much of modern life (and the literature that reflects it) is a sense of — for lack of a better word — magic, the illogical means by which we escape what is both painful, and painfully obvious.

For more discussion of The Magic Mountain, click here for our interview on the topic with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

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