Skipping Through Time with Gore Vidal
IN PALIMPSEST, Gore Vidal's recent memoir, a Washington dowager tells him how much she liked one of his books. The old lady gets the title wrong, but Vidal stays cheerful. "She may have read the book," he reflects. "no commonplace thing in what Henry James called 'the city of conversation.'" The book is Julian, perhaps his best; nothing but serious perusal will do it justice. Yet there are books it may be better to talk about than to read, and one of them, alas, is The Smithsonian Institution.
It begins as a high-spirited teenage wish-fulfillment fantasy, proceeds to some back-and-forth time travel and ends with an attempt to save the world from World War II and general self-destruction. This time, though, either from fatigue or preoccupation, Vidal has mostly left at home his customary skill at giving such goings-on the fictive breath of life. Imagine, if you will, the bare bones of Mozart's "Magic Flute" without the music.
The time: early 1939. The place: the city of conversation. Vidal's precocious dreams-of-glory protagonist, designated only as T, has been mysteriously summoned, at age 14, from his classes at St. Albans to a Smithsonian largely of Vidal's devising. It has a huge Parcheesi board in the basement and houses a bizarre brain trust that needs young T's uncanny ability to visualize complex mathematical formulas. Launched into various Smithsonian dioramas, the boy at first zips from scene to scene, time-traveling through America's past-and future. Neither he nor the reader has a any idea what he (or the book) is up to, but he visits what will become Los Alamos, meets wounded veterans from the Mexican War as well as a cheerful young woman called Squaw who is adept at shucking her fancy 19thcentury costumes for quickie sex.
Slowly, oh so slowly, T and the reader are introduced to the unnecessarily detailed conventions of Vidal's labyrinthine fantasy, initially built around the familiar notion that wax figures in museum exhibits, including presidents and first ladies, come alive at closing time. (Thorne Smith set a better example with a similar problem. In The Nightlife of the Gods he simply, posits a power to turn statues of Greek gods and goddesses into flesh and blood, does the trick, then plunges them directly into naughty doings in the New York of the 1930s.)
Squaw turns out to be a first lady, clearly the one to have if you're having only one: She is beautiful Frances "Frankie" Cleveland, who married her president in 1886 when she was only 22, and apparently charmed all Washington. Husband Grover, a Vidal-approved Democrat, dead-set against big business, high tariffs and the spoils system, proves friendly, too, and soon T is meeting all the presidents, forward and backward, time-travelers every one. They pore over each new account of their presidencies and regularly gather to carp about each other's policies; T sits in on a debate over whose face should have wound up on Mount Rushmore.
This should be promising terrain for Vidal's scorpion wit and passion for political lore. He does not exploit it half enough; though the book gets a brief jolt of storytelling life during a moment of benign political trickery played in 1910 by Frankie and T on a certain high-minded and hypocritical president of Princeton University. T has been busy figuring how to prevent World War II by rejiggering some crucial moment from the past, a cliche familiar to viewers of early TV. Strangling HitIer in his crib won't do, he feels - some other bad guy would come along. Shrewdly enough, T and Vidal decide that the way to block World War II is to go back and keep, us out of World War I - with its disastrous peace that bankrupted Germany. It wouldn't be fair to tell how the thing is done, but this is where the 1910 caper involving Frankie comes in, a bit of blackmail that keeps Woodrow Wilson from going into politics. Try imagining William Jennings Bryan as president of the United States in 1916.
Ultimately this is a melancholy book. T has forgotten Japan entirely. Pearl Harbor is bombed, and, with slightly different participants, World War II breaks out. Throughout the book too much time is spent in T's office in the Smithsonian's Castle - Vidal endows it with moat and drawbridge - periodically consulting and disputing manto-man with the brain trust about atomic fission, the neutron bomb and how to stop a nuclear chain reaction. T's colleagues include Albert Einstein, Robert Oppenheimer, Charles Lindbergh and James Smithson, who originally provided the cash that created the institution. "That is a religion, sir," an inflated T snaps at Einstein, deriding the old man's faith in a unified field theory of physics. There is also considerable huffing and puffing about such things as quantum mechanics and the theory of parallel universes, offered as hopeful alterntives to those who are giving up on the universe we have.
Along the way T's discourse soon ceases to resemble a 14-yearold boy's and becomes pure 72year-old Vidal. Nearing the end T asks, "What is next?" Smithson replies, "The human race will kill itself. The virus - us - will kill our host the earth, or at least make it uninhabitable to us." But cheer up, dear reader. There is hope. Those parallel universes, perhaps. Besides. evolution is still in there pitching. It appears that T's already super brain is developing a third lobe.