Still rocking the boat
Gore Vidal is one of America’s most pugnacious, intelligent and politically engaged living essayists, but until now, the only book of his selected essays one could readily buy was United States, a 1,300-page compendium the size of a New York City phone book. This handier volume, neatly organized by Vidal’s literary executor, Jay Parini, ought to make introductions to the writer’s best work far less likely to lead to herniated disks.
It also reminds us that when it comes to the battles of his day, Vidal would hit back at least as hard as Norman Mailer—often harder.
Reading through The Selected Essays can be a surprising experience, for here is Vidal dispatched on a series of unlikely errands. He set brush fires around French theorists like Roland Barthes and challenged what he liked to call the “hacks of academe.” In the 1970s, during the heyday of what is lazily called postmodern fiction, Vidal wrote a lengthy survey of the writers then most in vogue: Donald Barthelme, Thomas Pynchon, William Gass, Grace Paley and John Barth. It’s hard to decide what’s more eye-opening—Vidal’s decision to read their collective works or the unusually sloppy, meandering register in which he sets out to take them down.
Vidal has always been more effective, more virulently on point, when he is angry and determined that people besides himself have something at stake. American to the bone, he doesn’t mind self-invention, or bravado, but he does not like anyone treading on civil liberties, especially when they do it in the name of patriotism. In recent years, Vidal has mercilessly attacked what he calls the “perpetual war for perpetual peace,” and the tortured logic American presidents (not just George W. Bush) have wielded to keep it going. In “Black Tuesday,” he reminds that it was Bill Clinton who in 1996 signed into law the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, which “selectively suspends habeas corpus, the heart of Anglo-American liberty.”
Grandson of a senator, cousin to a first lady, a former congressional and senatorial candidate for the Democratic Party, Vidal doesn’t just understand the importance of these issues; he has lived them on the public stage, in a way. This experience rises up in his voice in the tone of impatient common sense.
For a patrician, Vidal’s politics are populist, far more so than either of the Roosevelts, and he reads both American politics and literature without the mythological lenses which have been created in recent years to occlude what he and many other world leaders perceive to be a vast commitment to empire at all costs.
As a critic of culture, Vidal refuses to set up artificial boundaries between America’s political and artistic climate. In one of the most heated pieces in the book, he forges a blistering argument that John Updike’s political views and the type of novel he writes reflect the aesthetic of a man willing to agree with the nation’s direction, no matter what. That, as these essays make abundantly clear, has never been Vidal’s way. His first essay collection, “Rocking the Boat,” was published in 1962: The title still fits.