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Reviews of Books.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Myra Breckinridge & Myron

Myra Breckinridge & Myron by Gore Vidal

Today author Gore Vidal is mostly known for his Narratives of Empire series of seven novels on American history published between 1967 and 2000. These books (Burr, Lincoln, 1876, Empire, Hollywood, Washington, D.C., and The Golden Age) tell the history of the American Empire through the lives of two fictional families and their interactions with real figures in American history. Few recall the critical uproar caused by his 1948 novel The City and the Pillar that dealt frankly with male homosexuality. And while many recall Myra Breckinridge, it is usually the 1970 film (often listed as one of the worst films ever made), not Vidal's 1968 best-selling novel, that people remember. The 1974 sequel Myron is largely forgotten.

Myra Breckinridge and its sequel Myron are two novels that were very much a product of their times, the Sexual Revolution of the late 1960s. In his 1993 Introduction to this volume combining the two, Vidal quotes poet Thom Gunn as saying "These two books [are] the twentieth-century equivalents of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass." They form part of a series of completely fictional novels that Vidal calls his satirical inventions, that also include Messiah, Kalki, and Duluth. In the 2014 biographical documentary Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia Vidal says of the novel: "When I start an entirely invented book like Myra, I seldom start with anything more than a sentence that has taken possession of me. In this case, 'I am Myra Breckenridge whom no man will ever possess.' Who was she? I could only find out if I kept on writing. It was not until I was half way through the story that I realized that she had been a male who changed his sex."

Told as a series of entries in a therapy journal kept by Myra for her analyst and doctor, the novel tells the story of her arriving in Hollywood to meet retired film star "Buck" Loner who now runs the Academy of Drama and Modeling on the fifty acres of land that once held his father's orange groves. Myra claims to be his nephew Myron's widow. She tells Buck that his sister, her mother-in-law Gertrude, always told her and Myron that her father's property was left jointly to her and Buck, and that she passed on the rights to her half to Myron and Myra. Myron was a film critic who studied the films of the 1930s and 40s. Myra tells Buck that Myron fell off the Staten Island Ferry and drowned. When Buck offers Myra a job teaching at the Academy as their lawyers work out the details of the inheritance, the plot is set for the novel.

I was surprised at how much of this novel is about film theory and criticism. Myra's stated goal in the novel is to finish writing Myron's book Parker Tyler and the Films of the Forties; or, the Transcendental Pantheon. I had to look up Parker Tyler who it turns out was a New York film critic who wrote on gay and underground films from the mid-40s to the mid-70s when he died. Throughout the book Myra exhibits an encyclopedic knowledge of the films of the first half of the 20th century. So while this book is one of the earliest novels about a transgender character, it is not really written to provide insight into the concerns and problems of a transgender person, which often disappoints its audience. Both these books are social satires on sexuality that explore Vidal's belief that people are basically bisexual and that gender roles and sexual orientation are social constructs established by societal norms.

If Myra Breckinridge is a satire on social norms with Myra as a modern Alice visiting a Hollywood wonderland, the second book Myron is a Through the Looking Glass time travel sci-fi satire where Myron, now happily married and living in the suburbs, falls through the screen of his television one night while watching the 1948 MGM movie Siren of Babylon starring Maria Montez. He lands on the set of the film in production just at the scene he was watching, and is trapped in the Hollywood past with a group of other viewers who seem to stumble through the screen each time the film is aired on TV. The actors on the set cannot see these visitors from the future, but once Myron leaves the set, the local people outside the studio and across the street at the neighborhood hotel can see the people they call out of towners who have taken up residence there. Here Myron starts to struggle with his alter personality Myra for control of their body with comic effect. The locals and the other out of towners are left wondering at this strange person with dual gendered personalities. While Myron seeks to get back to his wife and life in the suburbs, Myra wants to save MGM at this crucial point in their history and recreate a golden age of film. She also has a plan to save the world from overpopulation that is unique. I find the time travel paradoxes handled quite well by the author. The two books together like this in a single volume make for great reading. They have inspired me to take a look at other of Vidal's satirical invention novels.

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