In 1948, still in his early 20s, having already published two quite creditable works of fiction, Gore Vidal made literary history with "The City and the Pillar," the first mainstream American novel to treat homosexual desire as a natural, if not exactly commonplace, phenomenon in the life of a normal, red-blooded American male. In the 50 years since then, in an amazingly inventive variety of literary and even extra-literary forms, Vidal has continued his role as gadfly. Novelist, essayist, playwright, celebrity and occasional candidate for political office, he is a durable fixture on the American scene, a kind of latter-day blend of the glamorous Athenian renegade Alcibiades and the cultivated Roman satirist and taste-maker T. Petronius Arbiter.
The critical consensus seems to rate Vidal's essays more highly than his novels. It's true that his crisp, often barbed prose, his combative stance and his engagement with ideas make him a formidable and provocative essayist. It's also true that some of his more recent novels, like "Hollywood" (1989) and "Live From Golgotha" (1992), stray far past the line between satire and self-parody. But the same might be said of some of his recent essays, which recycle themes he's been airing for years.
Nor has he always confined himself to the categories for which he is now best known. His pioneering portrait of homosexual love in "The City and the Pillar" is still compelling. His historical novel "A Search For the King" (1950) is neither American nor classical but a very lyrical portrait of a troubadour in the age of Richard the Lion-Heart. And his urbanely modern reworking of an ancient myth in "The Judgment of Paris" (1953) is a sophisticated, gracefully wrought mixture of realism and romanticism that may surprise readers who are familiar only with Vidal's later, more outrageous efforts.
A sprightly, incisive, sometimes cynical intelligence is the salient feature of Vidal's best work. Like his contemporary William Gaddis and near-contemporary Thomas Pynchon, Vidal is a mordant satirist of modern American culture, but unlike either of them, his overriding aim--and strength--is clarity. The deceptively simple texture of his prose makes him in many ways more akin to the satirists of classical antiquity: lucid, direct and wittily epigrammatic. And, indeed, Vidal likes to present himself as someone who would have been very much at home in the cosmopolitan, cheerful, tolerant pre-Christian world that the eponymous Roman emperor Julian vainly hoped to restore.
Although very much an antithetical spirit, at loggerheads with mainstream American culture, Vidal had little in common with the so-called counterculture and its forerunners, the Beats. In his 1995 memoir, "Palimpsest," he recounts a conversation with Allen Ginsberg: "Just as I was beginning to get a grip on what writing could be and how best to examine one's life, you come along, preaching a fuzzy sort of Star-of-the-East mysticism. I wanted people to think. You wanted them to be. Well, they are, anyway. But to encourage the worst educated and the most resolutely propagandized public in the First World not to think about why things are as they are is cruel."
Without sacrificing the more purely novelistic virtues of well-drawn characters, suspenseful storytelling, evocative atmosphere and imaginative inventiveness, Vidal's best novels are, in the best sense, intellectual. They display intelligence, they engage with ideas and they aim both to mock and to enlighten in the anti-religious tradition of the Enlightenment and Voltaire. Vidal's critique of Christianity in "Julian," of messianic religion in general in "Messiah" and "Kalki," his lampoon of heterosexual chauvinism and the macho mind-set in "Myra Breckinridge" and "Myron" are not only provocative but substantive.
In some respects, it could be said that Vidal's latest novel is the dernier cri of many of the themes, tendencies and obsessions found in his previous work. It reflects both his fascination with American history and his fondness for bizarre inventions. Its setting is the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. It opens in 1939, with the world poised on the edge of the war that will transform the United States into a world power with thermonuclear weapons. The hero is a handsome, blond 13-year-old boy called T., just your everyday American teenager who also happens to have a preternatural ability to visualize super-complicated stuff like the relation of mass to energy and the dynamics of time travel.
One of T.'s teachers at St. Alban's, the prestigious private school he attends, recommends that he pay a visit to the Smithsonian. But it soon becomes apparent that the boy wonder has been summoned there for more than just the usual guided tour. T. is expected to help Albert Einstein and other scientists at work on a secret weapon that will ensure victory in the coming war but might also destroy the planet. T. decides that what he really ought to do is figure out a way to go back in time and change history so as to avert World War II, and hence, the need to produce this dreadful weapon.
Luckily for T., Vidal's Smithsonian is not only a repository of items from American history and a secret laboratory for scientific experimentation but also a place where the exhibits come to life after hours. Wandering into a display of the lifestyles of early Native Americans, T. meets up with a great-looking squaw who rescues him from the stewpot and initiates him into the mysteries of exactly what every red-blooded 13-year-old lad wants to know. As if this were not enough, T. discovers that the museum's exhibits are real in another sense: You can enter, for example, the diorama of Eskimo life in Alaska and instantly be transported to the real Alaska. All of this, along with T.'s own manipulations of a secret time machine, enable T., often accompanied by Squaw (who, for reasons too convoluted to explain, sometimes doubles as Mrs. Grover Cleveland), to travel to the past and the future in his quest to alter the course of history.
Written in the gee-whiz style of old-fashioned pulp adventure stories aimed at the teen and preteen boys' market, this is a novel that adults may find rather tough going. I'm not even sure teenagers would take to it. The plot is preposterous, hard to follow and, as it turns out, not worth the trouble of having tried to follow. Sample dialogue:
Q: "Are you from here--the here whose now we're both in--or are you from back then and I'm visiting you in my now?"
A: "You might say that I'm allowed to straddle the two though I'm very much what you'd call 'then.' Eventually, when advanced computers become available to me, I may be able to figure out the process, but since you're still in 1939 I can't go beyond that year except in theory."
Many of Vidal's favorite topics and pet peeves find their way into this novel: from a description of first ladies' ball gowns to a stale rehash of his oft-expressed theory that the quest for empire has cost Americans their republic. The Roosevelts, especially the imperialistic Theodore, are in for Vidal's usual drubbing (except for Eleanor, who seems still to be in Vidal's good graces). The real target, however, is Woodrow Wilson. T.'s aim is to find a way to prevent Wilson from becoming president and taking the country into World War I, which caused World War II, which in turn (as T. foresees on his time machine), will maim or kill some of his schoolmates, including perhaps himself. One of T.'s allies is the isolationist aviator Charles Lindbergh, portrayed here in the rosiest of lights.
Once T. has prevented Wilson from becoming president, President William Jennings Bryan really does keep America out of war, and Germany does not suffer the crushing postwar treatment that left it susceptible to the likes of Hitler. (This seems to presume, on little or no real evidence, that without America's involvement, the European powers would have come to a fairer resolution of their hostilities.) What T. has not foreseen, however, (history was never his strongest subject at school) is the threat posed by Japan. Pearl Harbor is still attacked, a dangerous war still looms and a secret weapon project is still going on (but, thanks to T., the bomb will destroy buildings rather than people). The climax, so to speak, is when T. heads for Iwo Jima to save the life of his double by taking his place. Readers who have read "Palimpsest" will find it hard not to recall the fate of Vidal's boyhood love, Jimmie Trimble, who was killed on Iwo Jima, and frankly, the effect is jarring.
In a bad way, this is a very personal book. Much of the time, it seems to be little more than an opportunity for its author to revisit his various old stamping grounds, places like St. Alban's in Washington and Los Alamos Ranch School in New Mexico, two schools he attended in his boyhood. The effect is a little like overhearing somebody chortling away at some private joke, a far cry from Vidal's usual sparkling wit. For those who have admired Vidal's trenchant discourse on politics, culture and American history, it is disappointing to see how he trivializes those issues in "Smithsonian." One gets the sense from reading this book that the reason he thinks World War II was a bad idea has a lot less to do with the atomic bomb and the possible end of the human race than with the death of a friend on Iwo Jima. But even this personal tragedy is treated in a way that trivializes it.
Toward the end, a parade of famous ex-presidents is conjured up to advise FDR on what to do about Pearl Harbor. Vidal has a puzzled, disapproving George Washington dryly question the point of a war "to save Asians from Asians." Is Vidal, speaking through our first president, really suggesting that Asians are not worth saving or that it's OK for Asians to oppress other Asians because they're all Asians anyway?
By some mysterious defeat of his usually fertile imagination, Vidal has managed to produce a book that is silly without being entertaining, faintly offensive without being provocative. Readers who remember his masterly portrait of "Lincoln" will rub their eyes at the addle-brained Lincoln doppelganger making a cameo appearance in this book. "The Smithsonian Institution" is rather an astonishing stunt for a writer who has given us some of the most politically acute, sophisticated and fascinating historical novels in English this century. It is almost as if Vidal were trying to undo his own best work. Fortunately, even T.'s time machine can't do that. Readers would be well advised to skip this guided tour of moldering hobby-horses and spend more profitable time rediscovering the many and varied pleasures of his earlier novels, as fresh and bracing today as when they first were written.