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The City and The Pillar - Gore Vidal

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I don't usually write book reviews in my blog, but I've recently finished reading Vidal's The City and The Pillar for the second time. Clearly, if I'm willing to read this book twice, I must have some sort of high opinion of it.

The novel follows Jim Willard, a young man from Virginia, from his last days of high school in the 1930 to the end of WWII. Over the course of the book Jim lives in Hollywood, Mexico, and New York, and spends a brief period in the military. The central theme of the work centers on Jim's obsession with his childhood best friend, who he experience a brief fling with. Jim is focused on recapturing the past, but Vidal sums up the problem with this goal in the final chapter: "Nothing that ever was changes. Yet nothing that is can ever be the same as what went before." Without spoiling the ending, Jim manages to recapture that past experience with his friend, but in a twisted, terrible, and unsatisfying way. (This interpretation works best with Vidal's 1960s rewriting of the novel, because the original 1948 ending is stupid)

Now, most critics I've read agree that the book is not Vidal's greatest work on a technical level. However, when it comes to influence and social relevance, it comes out far ahead of his other work. It is generally considered the first major work of fiction that addresses homosexuality as something normal (Forster's Maurice was written in 1913 but only published posthumously). I'm not much of a literary critic, so I think what I'll discuss here is why the book continues to resonate with me, even in a second reading.

At the most superficial level I appreciate the novel as a time-capsule, a glimpse into a unique period of gay culture. The period that lies between the formation of a definitive modern conception of "gayness" as an identity and the beginning of sexual liberation in the late 60s and 70s. Most of the gay characters in this novel are neurotically obsessed with not being found out, which is understandable given the legal repercussions that would have entailed. In particular, I enjoy a brief scene at a party where a group of intellectuals discuss if the essence of the queer is effeminacy or hyper-masculinity.

The main reason why I appreciate this novel so much, besides its historical importance for gay fiction, is the position of Jim as an alienated individual in a marginalized group. Mostly I find Jim, as a character, to be pretty empty and unbelievable at times. However, he serves to illustrate something important. He is different from all the other gay characters, who are often nothing more than caricatures. Vidal makes an important statement with Jim, that the stereotypes are often true, that sexuality shapes an individual's character, but it does not define it in its entirety.

Updated 08-13-2010 at 07:58 AM by OrphanPip

LGBT - Queer literature


  1. Lulim's Avatar
    Your review sounds interesting and made me curious so I ordered a copy of "The City and The Pillar" yesterday.
  2. OrphanPip's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by Lulim
    Your review sounds interesting and made me curious so I ordered a copy of "The City and The Pillar" yesterday.
    Cool, be sure to tell me what you think when you get around to it. It's quite a short novel too.
  3. Lulim's Avatar
    I've started reading "The City and the Pillar" yesterday, and I like it a lot so far. It strikes me that there are so many biblical references, starting with the leading quote about Lot's wife, but especially during the relationship with Shaw.
  4. OrphanPip's Avatar
    Ya, there certainly is a lot of that in this book, of course starting with the Biblical allusion in the title and the opening quote from Genesis.

    Vidal seems to have a sort of love hate relationship with Christianity, loves the power of the myths, but outside of his writing he expresses a lot of disgust for Christianity.

    I suppose the intention is to make Jim a bit of a Biblical hero, in pursuit of his destiny, but it doesn't really work out.
  5. Lulim's Avatar
    So I finished the book yesterday. I must say, the ending did disappoint me somewhat because I've developed a great deal of sympathy for Jim and I was hoping for a better, a happier finale. I didn't like Jim's resorting to violence the way he did towards Bob. At the same time, I can comprehend it -- somewhat (at least I think so). I understand it as some kind of punishment for Bob's "deserting" him.

    In any case, it was a good read; thanks again for pointing it out
  6. OrphanPip's Avatar
    Ya, the ending is strange, almost like it comes out of no where, but understandable somewhat because of how obsessive his interest is. It's also hard to think of an ending that would be more appropriate. Would the novel be more defiant of society if Jim just walked away?

    Thomas Mann apparently didn't like the ending either. It seems to be a common response.
  7. Preston_Smith's Avatar
    just finished the book. was motivated to read when learned of author's death earlier this month.
    it has really affected me (the book); i live in NYC in 2012 and identify so well with Jim.
  8. Preston_Smith's Avatar
    what else would you recommend reading by Vidal?
  9. OrphanPip's Avatar
    Myra Beckinridge is a must. His historical novels are well liked by many, but I'm not a big historical genre reader so I'm not familiar with them.

    His essays are his most critically respected work.