224 pages • Little, Brown • 1968
Myra Breckinridge was first published in the US in February 1968. It was released six weeks before the official publication date and without the usual pre-release for reviewers. “I wanted to prove,” Gore Vidal said, “that a book could do well simply because it was interesting—without the support of bookchat writers.” Vidal’s two previous novels were the political Washington, D.C, and the historical Julian. “Nothing in the versatile Vidal’s past will prepare the reader for Myra Breckinridge,” wrote the Time reviewer, who went on to ask, “has literary decency fallen so low—or fashionable camp risen that high?” Newsweek accused Vidal of writing “erotic propaganda” for homosexuality, and Publisher’s Weekly concluded “most of it just seems sniggering, like a small boy writing dirty words on a wall.”
Myra Breckinridge is written in the form of a diary. It is a record of Myra’s attempt to “recreate the sexes and save the human race from certain extinction.” The setting is the Academy of Drama and Modelling in Hollywood, California, an institution owned and run by the former “Singin’ Shootin’ Cowboy” film star Buck Loner, uncle of her late husband Myron. Due to its location in Hollywood, “the source of all this century’s legends,” the Academy is a microcosm of the world Myra plans to restructure.
Myra identifies an archetype of traditional masculinity, the 6ft stud Rusty Godowsky, as the focus of her mission. “Rusty is a throwback to the Forties,” she concludes, and therefore “sadly superfluous, an anachronism, acting out a masculine charade that has lost all meaning.” She therefore sets out to redefine his relationship to his “triumphant sex”.
Myra Breckinridge – the first of Vidal’s iconoclastic “satirical arias,” which include the sequel, Myron (1974), the satire on the television era, Duluth (1983), and the Gospel in the Internet age, Live From Golgotha (1992) – is a virtuoso performance by Vidal. Like all great comedy, it is equally funny and serious. “I am Myra Breckinridge whom no man will ever possess,” the narrative begins, and this confident tone does not let up. It proved far too subversive, and its descriptions too pornographic, for the book reviewers who condemned it at the beginning of the revolutionary year 1968. When it was published in the UK censorship demanded that the most pornographic of the descriptions be removed.
Italo Calvino wrote that Myra Breckinridge “inaugurated a new phase in the way to present our era, which is comparable to pop art, but much more aggressive, with an explosion of expressionistic comedy.” It predates the writing of Angela Carter on the subject of sexuality, Hollywood and pornography by almost a decade. The issues that Vidal explores – how identity and sexuality are shaped by the cinema and television, and how machismo is played out in irrational wars on foreign nations – are as relevant now as they were in 1968. It is a classic of the Cold War era in American literature.
“We are now passing a diner in the shape of an enormous brown doughnut. I feel better already. Fantasy has that effect on me.”