His novel serves as a backdrop for a cast from the past.
"THE SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION" By Gore Vidal, Random House. $23.
Reviewed by Harry Kloman
From the Pittsburgh Post-Gazettte, Sunday, March 15, 1998
As a young teen-ager at St. Albans School in the late 1930s, and later as an older teen at Phillips Exeter Academy, Gore Vidal had more than just a child's vivid imagination.
At the age of 10, he would pass hours in the attic of his Rock Creek Park home in Washington, D.C., reading classical literature, the Arabian Nights and the Congressional Record to his blind grandfather, Sen. Thomas Gore of Oklahoma. As a pubescent world traveler in Europe, and later back in America, the precocious boy penned many short stories and a few aborted novels. His subject matter was often fanciful: He wrote tales of werewolves, ghosts, secret agents, society fops, and a man who magically encounters himself as a boy.
The protagonist of Vidal's new novel, The Smithsonian Institution, is a bright lad named T. who, in April 1939, is 13 years old and goes to St. Albans, just like Vidal. But T. doesn't write whimsical stories: He's living one, in the exhibition rooms and cavernous basement corridors of the venerable old museum, where a secret government agency conducts experiments in time travel and nuclear energy, where a 19th Century First Lady aches with sexual passion for him, and where wax replicas of historical figures come to life at night, sometimes gunning for Yankee blood like his.
Throughout his career as a novelist, which began in 1946, Vidal has largely written two kinds of novels. Schooled in history and raised in politics, he has produced, on the one hand, historical novels of the American Empire (Burr and Lincoln among them) or of the ancient world (Julian or Creation). He also creates novels that he calls his "inventions," commenting on popular culture and public taste through tales of, say, rampant transsexuality (Myra Breckinridge), California death cults (Messiah), the end of the world (Kalki), or an NBC news crew that goes back in time to broadcast the Crucifixion (Live from Golgotha).
Now, in The Smithsonian Institution, he mingles the two strains of his novelist self into one book. Set in the historico-political era that Vidal knows from his youth, by means of a story invented by his fantastic other self, The Smithsonian Institution affords Vidal the luxury of commenting on history, politics and 20th Century culture all in one package.
It's a strange admixture, even for Vidal, who has long claimed that modern fiction is dull, and that post-modern experimentation is the art form's only hope. (He admires Burgess and Calvino, loathes teacher/writers like Barth and Gass.) But if you distill The Smithsonian Institution to its elements, you're left with two stalwart Vidalian passions: His belief that imperial America wages war as a socio-economic necessity, and his perpetual assertion that he is the most informed analyst of America's past and the most reliable prognosticator of its future.
Thus, in The Smithsonian Institution, Vidal invents a thermostat that's really a time-travel device. This allows T. to adjust the dials and see Pennsylvania Avenue as it looked during Lincoln's funeral, or as it will look at some date in the post-apocalyptic future, where nothing seems to remain of the nation's capital, and perhaps of the entire nation. T. has been summoned to this imaginary Smithsonian so scientists there can harness his intellect and build a device that will surpass Oppenheimer's A-bomb. More than just a math and physics whiz, T. can picture the outcome of complex equations in his head, and then project an image of the outcome onto a screen so scientists can see the explosive results. And T. has just the equation in mind (literally) to please his mentors: A bomb that harnesses the neutron, killing people but leaving all the buildings erect for their victorious new tenants.
Then T. makes a troubling discovery: He will die in World War II, on March 1, 1945, during the battle of Iwo Jima. So he decides to use his genius to alter the past. If he can stop Woodrow Wilson from becoming president and entering World War I, he can stop the slide into World War II, and thus save the world from eventual (inevitable) nuclear destruction - and also save himself from becoming a casualty. Unfortunately, he doesn't count on the political system's genius for starting a war, one way or another.
To the casual reader of Vidal, The Smithsonian Institution will seem like a brisk, entertaining science-fiction sort of novel, sprinkled with Vidalian ruminations on America history. In Vidal's estimation, America needn't have entered either of the world wars, although our presidents embarked on policies that made sure we did, much to the delight of American corporations.
But there's something more hauntingly personal at the novel's core. In his 1995 memoir, Palimpsest, Vidal wrote at length of Jimmie Trimble, the one and only love of his life, a boy he knew in high school, and whom he's mourned for half a century since Jimmie's death - on March 1, 1945, at Iwo Jima.
So "T." of the novel is a reanimation of Vidal's great love, and the story of The Smithsonian Institution becomes Vidal's elaborate fantasy about bringing his dead lover back to life. This gives the novel a melancholy subtext to go with its whimsical humor and its gentle rout of history (much gentler, in style and tone, than Vidal's bristling, aggressive essays).
Despite his lifelong claim of historical clairvoyance, Vidal doesn't always get his facts straight. On Good Friday, 1939, T. claims to have already seen Gone with the Wind in a Washington theater. But the movie wasn't released to theaters until Dec. 15, 1939, a full eight months later.
That may be a small quibble in the midst of a book where wax figures of 18th century people come to life. Still, you have to wonder if Vidal's abundant assertions about history aren't more of his trademark gadfly iconoclasm, rather than reliable attempts to set the record straight.
The Smithsonian Institution abounds with historical cameos, from the populist President Grover Cleveland, who won the election after he refused to lie about his illegitimate child (true story), to a bemused Abraham Lincoln, snatched from his seat at Ford's Theater before the bullet had time to penetrate his skull (probably not true). Even James Smithson, the Englishman who endowed the Smithsonian, although he'd never set foot in America (true story), appears to manipulate time, space and American history.
In the Smithsonian's Aviation Room, T. take a ride in The Spirit of St. Louis with a sanguine Lucky Lindy behind the wheel. In the Hall of Presidents, he hears a klatsch of American First Ladies diss the snooty Martha Washington.
T. even has a chance to reminisce about the young Eugene Luther (later Gore) Vidal, who in 1937, at age 11, piloted a small plane (true story) with his father, a pioneer aviator and FDR adviser. In the Aviation Room, T. encounters "a weird-looking two-seater plane that his best friend in the dormitory [at Albans] had flown two years earlier in front of the newsreel cameras; the boy's father had something to do with aviation. T. often thought about this when the two were belly rubbing and talking of girls."
That's more of Vidal's playful self-reference, for he claims to have lost his virginity at Albans, though he maintains that he was "too polite to ask" whether his partner was a boy or a girl.
As in Duluth, Vidal employs the archaic language of ethnic identities, like "squaw" and "Negro," as his way of parodying them; as in Kalki, he predicts the end of civilization. He sprinkles the novel with references to Hollywood movies and celebrities, a tendency that runs through his fiction, and which has even been the focus of several books. At the end of Smithsonian, a Hollywood tycoon with a "rodentian face" makes a cameo, seeking a life-like wax figure of Lincoln for his new eponymous amusement park, "Disneyland."
These are old jokes and familiar pop-cult themes for Vidal, much better said in his essays, but still amusingly rendered here. So is the lesson T. ultimately learns, that "all life changes into something else." Thirty years ago, Vidal ended one of his best novels, Washington, D.C., with the assertion that "change is the nature of life, and its hope."
And so this novel seems like a light-hearted summing up for Vidal, who is now 72, and who in interviews has begun to sound pretty much like he did 25 years ago. It's more readable than Golgotha and Duluth, his last two inventions, which drained you with their transparent one-joke rhythms. It's less weighty than Kalki and the wonderful Messiah, which dealt with Mankind's sheep-like tendency to succumb to mellifluous grim reapers.
If one thing distinguishes The Smithsonian Institution, it's the length to which Vidal goes to give Jimmie Trimble a new life - even a family and a career as an athlete. Vidal called Palimpsest a love story about Jimmie as much as a memoir of his own early life. Now, in a most unusual, persistent and imaginative way, he sings his love song again.
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University of Pittsburgh