Affairs of State
by Gore Vidal.
Little, Brown. 377 pp. $6.95.
Any panoramic novel, like any technicolor epic, is likely to seem trashy these days. The necessary elisions of scene and character have been given a bad name by fifty years or more of junk: historical novels, news magazines, digests, the lot. If the panoramic novel deals with U.S. politics it carries a double burden. For, as every small child knows, our public life has long since been processed, inflated, and simplified to the point of incredibility: so that a book about such gross unrealities as the outbreak of war or the rise of Senator McCarthy is already halfway to a Bible movie.
And then, there is that impossible setting. Washington, D.C. must be the dullest capital city in the world to write about outside of Canberra, Australia. Its social life comes through as a brackish blend of Northern hospitality and Southern vitality, which, combined with the bleached man-of-distinction sets and the notoriously poor quality of the acting, is more than enough to explain the absence of good political novels in this country. Gore Vidal has been accused of creating cardboard characters in this book, but if they were not cardboard, they would be truly unbelievable.
Thus, Vidal has set himself a brutal task: to play Trollope in the land of Alan Drury. He takes us into the stage politician’s boudoir—and finds him performing just like a stage politician; he digs below the surface of a typical senator and comes upon nothing but more senator. Unless the whole thing is a terrible mistake, it would seem that the author is in the same bind as the Hollywood novelist: the more he tells the truth, the more artificial and journalistic he sounds.
For the first couple of hundred pages, the going is just as sticky as you would imagine. Prior to his last book, Julian, Vidal had been away from the novel for quite a while, and his style shows it. He seems to have forgotten what you do with the spaces in between the dialogue, and has crammed them with he-looked-at-him-sourly’s and she-grinned-at-him-crookedly’s plus a catty, worldly-wise COMMENTARY which is clearly coming from some place outside the story and punctures any illusion that any of this is really happening.
To make matters slightly worse, he jumps in and out of his characters’ heads pretty much ad lib: and what he finds there turns out to be remarkably similar. This may be the truth about official Washington, but it only serves to make a flat situation flatter. The good guys and the bad all draw from the same fund of stoic wisdom, Vidal’s private stock. It heightens the pulp fiction effect to hear the same point of view expressed four different ways, or rather one way under four different sponsors. It is like three roommates staying in bed while the fourth one wears the suit.
These are serious defects: and yet, if you have the patience to stay with Vidal (several reviewers, I suspect, didn’t) you will observe that he turns them in the end to something like advantage. For it seems that pop fiction with all its superficiality and melodrama is not a bad medium for discussing our government. It is part of Vidal’s message about Washington that personality does indeed not matter, that situation is everything; government people are ultimately not people at all, but points in space, clustering and separating like atomic particles. Their existence might be defined as pure relationship.
Thus our puzzle at finding so many people motivated by the same brand of cynicism is at least partly cleared up—cynicism is not a motive at all, but a reaction. It is what a rational man feels at the end of the day. The motive is much simpler: you play the game simply because you are on the field. You find the ball in your hands and you run like hell. If you are reflective, you sometimes wonder afterward why you did: but it doesn’t matter what you decide about that. The philosophizing is done on your own time.
Whether or not this proposition stands up historically, Vidal has written a very plausible story about it. The heart of it, leaving out side orders of adultery, buggery, and incest, goes like this. An elderly senator named Burden Day is prettily conned out of his Presidential ambitions by President Roosevelt, and then methodically chopped down by a young man in his own office, one Clay Overbury: a heartless streamlined new-thing politician zooming down the middle of the road past the old buggies on the right. Abetting Overbury is an evilminded presslord named Blaise Sanford who helps to concoct a wonderful war record for him and to stomp on any loose enemies. (Vidal’s feelings about the Kennedy family are all too well known by now, and one looks for parallels here, but the author has been deft: Overbury is not nor has he ever been, altogether, a Kennedy.)
This version squares almost too well with an outsider’s paranoid nightmares about our leaders. Wars, depressions, Communist scares are almost as unreal to these men as they are to us. Their only reality is as opportunities for self-advancement. World War II was image-making time. The McCarthy foolishness was a time to settle scores—with a hand over one’s own groin of course. And so on. Even dear old Senator Day, the courtly old patsy from another era, has only one serious conviction, and this is more on the lines of a hobby: he believes that the Japanese-Americans got a raw deal during the war. Characteristically, this nearly destroys him politically.
No doubt the history of our times can be explained in these terms, as in so many other terms. Vidal gives us a neat parallel to this when he observes that the professional politicians could not tolerate the idea that Eleanor Roosevelt acted out of altruism and only accepted her after they had convinced themselves that she was acting cynically. There may be a touch of this in Mr. Vidal. (After all, it was possible to explain Eleanor in those terms.)
But as might be expected, this philosophy of politics by Drew Pearson out of Ayn Rand is harder to establish psychologically. For instance, Clay Overbury is presented as a completely empty man, moved only by a simple power mechanism. But his emptiness is demonstrated simply by leaving things out. In the end, we don’t know enough about him to know whether he is really empty or not. It is inconceivable that any man of ability has ever gone around thinking, “I want power”; what he thinks is, “I want this and I want that,” and from this we deduce that what he wants is power. Vidal has omitted the concrete symbols of emptiness. To put it another way, a man may be empty in effect, without being so to himself.
Overbury wants nothing at all. He hasn’t even a phony dream of the Presidency to keep him going, only a dull upward reflex. All right, one grants the possibility—you about this politician, I about that one—but we must allow something in his head besides these Max Lerner abstractions. Overbury is not even permitted to like girls—he only likes his power over girls. If Vidal were writing about a real character, I would call this a vindictive refusal of imagination. Even Kennedys are not that cool. At that, Clay Overbury might be barely acceptable if he were the only frostbitten robot in the book. But his patron Blaise Sanford turns out to be another one. It seems he is backing Clay because of a fascination with power. Even the official nice guy, Blaise’s son Peter, is frozen solid, although attractively so: he starts a left-wing magazine with neither faith nor enthusiasm. So it goes, down to the sexual arrangements of the minorest characters.
The trouble is built into the author’s method. You can’t tell where his melancholy aphorisms are coming from half the time, and it really makes no difference. Everyone has arrived at the same plateau of intelligence and inner detachment as the author. Even the men of action speak with a literary man’s sense of futility. Not only is their game meaningless, but they are condemned to know it, like so many saints and philosophers. This somehow does not sound right for Washington.
The book would improve enormously if the characters’ interiors were removed altogether. Their actions are convincing and so is their dialogue. If the author wants to play Marcus Aurelius to them, he should play it by himself. The characters should be allowed to think that they are accomplishing something, even if Vidal knows better. The game is not interesting if nobody believes in it. And the game as played in this book requires a more specific dedication than his characters seem capable of.
It could be that Vidal’s various talents have worked against each other here. He is a playwright, and Washington, D.C. would probably make a truthful play. He is also an essayist, and Washington, D.C. might even, who knows, make a truthful essay. But a play and an essay put together do not make a novel: the urbane overview of the essayist rings false when foisted onto people-inaction, and the playwright’s flower arrangements are bunched too closely for a longish novel. Yet the story is good, the wit is medium-to-good, and there is a nice air of gossipy bustle. And this does sound right for Washington.