Critical Malfunction: Misreading Gore Vidal

In a review of a new selection of Gore Vidal's essays, Lou Bayard unwittingly proves the truth of Vidal's recent observation about literary critics: "they don't know how to read."

Before finally getting around to discussing the essays, Bayard -- who writes thrillers based on someone else's literary characters (Tiny Tim grows up and hunts killers in London!) or other writers (young Edgar Allen Poe finds murder afoot at West Point!) -- goes to great lengths to downgrade Vidal's fiction. He says that Vidal has never written a great novel (which is a matter of opinion, of course) because "he could never...convince us that we were reading about someone other than Gore Vidal." Referring to Vidal's historical novels, Bayard tells us that their main characters were all just ventriloquist dummies for Vidal, including -- astonishingly -- the fictional portraits of Lincoln and Grant.

Anyone who claims that the Lincoln of Lincoln and the Grant of Lincoln and 1876 (neither of which gives more than passing, if revealing, glimpses of Grant, by the way) are somehow self-portraits of Vidal could fairly be said to "not know how to read." Lincoln in particular is an impressive display of "inhabiting other minds" -- Bayard's definition of great fiction -- from the sanctimonious greasy-pole climber Salmon Chase to the scruffy young assassination conspirator David Herold to the tormented Mary Lincoln, and many others as well. As for the president himself, Vidal has often pointed out to critics what should be obvious from reading the book: he never tries to "inhabit" Lincoln's mind at all, but instead shows him exclusively through the eyes -- and minds -- of others.

Again, it's a unprovable matter of opinion whether you consider Lincoln a "great" novel or not. (I think it is; one of the greatest American novels of the 20th century, in fact. Bayard thinks it isn't. Is he "right"? Am I right? Who knows? Who cares?) But a critic should read and judge the work that is actually in front of him. If Bayard has come away from Vidal's historical fiction thinking that Burr, Lincoln, Grant (as well as Wilson, Harding and Franklin Roosevelt) are identical hand-puppets expressing Vidal's own personality, then he has patently failed at this essential task of criticism.

As for the rest of the review, it is largely laudatory, although larded with the usual canards and distortions -- employed chiefly to distance Bayard from a too-close associaton with any position that might cause discomfort at, say, a convivial gathering of middle-brow literati. Such as Vidal's "defense" of Timothy McVeigh and his "cockamamie theorizing about 9/11."

Vidal's "defense" of McVeigh, over the course of several articles, was actually an unambiguous condemnation of the bombing itself, coupled with questions about McVeigh's actual role, and an examination of the wider societal and political factors that lay behind that monstrous action. Now I doubt very seriously if Bayard, a staff writer for liberal, aligns himself with those right-wing ranters who condemn all attempts to understand the roots of Islamic terrorism as a "defense" of its atrocities. He almost certainly believes that we should try to fathom these root causes -- the various injustices and inequities and suffering in foreign lands -- in order to allieviate them if possible. But the idea that there could be any serious, systemic injustices and inequities and suffering in the United States that might drive someone to violence and despair, systemic problems which need to be addressed and allieviated -- this apparently cannot even be considered. In fact, says Bayard, it is "insupportable."

Vidal's "cockamamie theorizing about 9/11" involves examining the historical record of America's overt -- and covert -- dealings in Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere in the "arc of crisis;" outlining the many warnings of an impending attack from a variety of credible sources; and noting the many vast, gaping holes in the "official" account  -- which itself underwent a number of shape-shifting convolutions until taking more-or-less final form at the hands of a toothless commission appointed by the Bush Administration and run by a crony of Condi Rice. Given all this, Vidal believes we should have a truly independent investigation into the 9/11 attacks. What a "cockamamie" notion, eh? Best not let a nut like that get too close to the canapes.

To further denigrate any of Vidal's political observations that he doesn't like, Bayard drags out the old chestnut that Vidal can't possibly understand the nitty-gritty of American culture because he lived in Yurp for so many years. This ignores the fact that Vidal normally spent large parts of each of those years, er, living in America. But any appreciable amount of residency in foreign parts is evidently an insurmountable handicap for understanding the sacred Homeland. I'm looking forward to seeing Bayard rip the lid off that old poseur Mark Twain, who spent 17 whole years of his adult life abroad -- without jetting back for months at a time each year.

Bayard does allow that when it comes to literature, Vidal himself is an astute and suprisingly generous critic, because he is "genuinely engaged with the matter at hand and willing to be changed by it." This is indeed an excellent quality in a literary critic. Bayard might want to give it a try sometime.