Friday, April 12, 2013

Empire: A Novel

1987, 1988 Ballantine edition
Gore Vidal
Empire: A Novel
Bought newish for $4.95
Very worn paperback

This, what would turn out to be the middle novel in the Narratives of Empire series, is about as good as Vidal's other 1980s contribution, Lincoln.  We're back with the Sanfords, half-siblings Blaise and Caroline, who are the grandchildren of Charlie Schuyler.  John Hay is the other main character, Lincoln's youthful secretary now a frail but imperialistic Secretary of State for Presidents McKinley and T. Roosevelt.  There are some inconsistencies of age-- not just in comparison to Washington, D.C.-- but within the novel itself, which spans 1898 to 1907.  James Burden Day, the father-in-law of Blaise's son Peter about forty years later, is here the lover of both Caroline and briefly (at Caroline's urging) Blaise, although there's no sense of this in WDC, but then Vidal may not have imagined that twist the 20 years before he wrote this entry.  More than in the other novels of the series so far (although definitely less than in Julian and some of Vidal's other works), homo- and bisexuality are at least considered. 

However, as with Lincoln, even the sexual subplots didn't draw me in, beyond what they mean for the overall genealogy of the series.  (Caroline has daughter Emma by Jim Day, who stupidly thinks it's her husband's.  And sophisticated if somewhat inexperienced Caroline seems a bit stupid to not do anything about her pregnancy until the fifth month.)  Most of the characters seem very dry, not just arch, but disembodied, despite physical descriptions.  When Caroline towards the end reads her grandfather's journals (in essence, Burr and 1876), it only reminded me of how much better those novels were.  Perhaps Vidal would've been better off sticking to one perspective, and a first person at that.  He seems too removed, and so do the characters-- many events are mentioned weeks or months after the fact-- so that even when they feel emotion, it came across as flat.  (At one point, Caroline weeps and doesn't realize it till her soon-to-be-ex-husband hands her a handkerchief.)  Still, there are moments I really liked, mostly to do with Teddy and/or his daughter Alice.

John Hay-- who came across a lot worse in Rogin's book on demonology-- died in 1905, so he of course won't be back in the later novels, but we'll return to Blaise, Caroline, Jim, and luckily Teddy in Hollywood (1990).

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