Myra Breckinridge was Gore Vidal's tenth novel and, by nearly all accounts, his wildest. It may also be one of the most difficult American bestsellers to classify. At the time of its publication, and continuing through the end of the twentieth century, critics were sharply divided in their opinions of the book; they either loved it or hated it. Certainly it has never been a book to inspire ambivalence. The back cover of the Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics edition describes the novel thus: "No one remains untouched by the luscious Myra Breckinridge's quest for Hollywood fame. Her job teaching Empathy and Posture at the Academy of Drama and Modeling gives her the perfect opportunity to vamp, scheme, and seduce her way into the undiscovered lives and passions of others-while trying to keep a few secrets of her own." Yet this blurb hardly begins to give the browser a real sense of the novel. Many critics have considered Myra Breckinridge the quintessential example of Gore Vidal's famously biting wit; it is also a clear reflection of the author's own, often radical, political views. The setting is a fictional version of Hollywood, and the story's centerpiece is Myra's recent male-to-female sex change operation. Myra herself is a purveyor of constant criticism, of the government, of the younger generation of the sixties, of the arbitrariness of traditional gender roles, and of the state of the world in general. She is a woman with a mission, which she states as follows: "the destruction of the last vestigial traces of traditional manhood in the race in order to realign the sexes, thus reducing population while increasing human happiness and preparing humanity for its next stage" (36). Myra's strategy for accomplishing her mission involves befriending the most handsome male student in her class, Rusty, and raping him with a prosthetic penis in hopes of turning him away from his traditional heterosexuality forever, then seducing his girlfriend, Mary-Ann. Clearly Myra Breckinridge is a novel with a highly radical politics behind it, not to mention some very unconventional and graphic sex scenes. While it may seem difficult to pinpoint how the book ever got to the top of the Publisher's Weekly bestseller list in the first place, it is possible to place it firmly within a few categories and therefore relate it to twentieth-century bestsellers in general. These categories include, but are certainly not limited to, the Zeitgeist novel, voyeuristic novels about sexual oddities, and the broader group of books dealing with sex in general.
In early 1968, the time Myra Breckinridge was published, the United States was firmly ensconced in the sexual revolution. The sixties had introduced the concept of free love into the average American's vocabulary, and the seventies' boom in feminism was not far on the horizon. Myra Breckinridge is one of the great feminists of the time, having made herself, quite literally, into exactly the woman she wants to be, refusing to be restrained by any man from achieving her goals. She is also a great proponent of free love, although she spends much of her narration fiercely denouncing the drug use and other stupidity of the countercultural youth of the sixties. In this sense Vidal wrote a timely novel; it seems safe to say that the same book would not have made it onto the bookstore racks had it been submitted for publication even fifteen years earlier. Leafing through old issues of Publisher's Weekly for the years of at least 1967 on, the proliferation of ads for books whose main focus is sex becomes increasingly and startlingly noticeable. Not just novels but non-fiction enquiries into sexuality become very popular both in publishing-world advertising and on the bestseller lists as the sixties yield to the seventies. This can be attributed at least in part to the growth of liberal attitudes towards sexuality and women's increased freedoms characteristic of American society in the late 1960s.
Myra Breckinridge can be placed in this Zeitgeist category with certain other bestsellers which have proved to be particularly timely. In fact, many books in this category would surely never have been published in another time. A prime example of this type of book is the 1994 book titled Politically Correct Bedtime Stories. The early nineties marked the introduction of the concept of political correctness into middle-class American speech, and in fact was a time of near-hyperactive enforcement of this new set of protocol rules. 1994 was a year when the idea of political correctness had been circulating in the common language for long enough to be joked about, yet was still enough of a hot topic to concern many people as a serious issue. Myra Breckinridge is a comparable example for the sixties, the decade of the sexual revolution, during which "the idea of the 'new morality' flew in the face of convention, especially the traditional moral standard of confining sexual relations to monogamous married couples" (Olson 410).
Perhaps most significantly, Myra Breckinridge is a voyeur's novel. Myra is a sexually uninhibited woman, at least in her mind and in her writing. Throughout her narration, she is continually making observations about her own past sexual experiences as a man named Myron as well as about the sexuality of those around her. When introducing two of her colleagues at the Academy, Myra describes both in terms of their sexuality and appearance: "One of them is a Negro queen named Irving Amadeus?Fortunately Miss Cluff, the other teacher, has no interest in love, at least of the caritas sort. She is lean and profoundly Lesbian, forever proposing that we go to drive-in movies together in her secondhand Oldsmobile" (69-70). Most telling, though, is Chapter 29, the longest chapter in the novel at twenty-three pages, in which Myra records in her journal the experience of anally raping her student, Rusty, having thus finally "achieved in life every dream" (128). She describes the act in vivid detail, recreating every word, every facial expression, every drop of sweat issued during Rusty's visit to Myra's 'office' late one night at the Academy. While the goings-on in this particular chapter are not of the traditional sort of titillations, they are graphically sexual and in fact not unlikely to provoke a mixed reaction. Myra herself, in fact, is somewhat ambivalent in her desires for Rusty, as evidenced in the following passage: "For one thing I had half feared to find him not clean-unlike so many anal erotics I am not at all attracted by fecal matter, quite the reverse in fact. Yet had he not been tidy, his humiliation would have been total. So I was torn between conflicting desires" (135-6). This is not the sort of sexual encounter most readers would have felt able to relate closely to; in fact many reviewers admitted to being disgusted by Myra's attitude toward and treatment of Rusty. The chapter continues in this often awkward vein as Myra accomplishes her goal of penetrating Rusty with an enormous dildo: "He cried out again, begged me to stop, but now I was like a woman possessed, riding, riding, riding my sweating stallion into forbidden country, shouting with joy as I experienced my own sort of orgasm, oblivious to his staccato shrieks as I delved that innocent flesh?I was the eternal feminine made flesh, the source of life and its destroyer, dealing with man as incidental toy, whose blood as well as semen is needed to make me whole!" (150).
Myra Breckinridge is not the typical titillating fare; rather, many readers witness such scenes as the rape of Rusty with a half-horrified fascination, torn between reading on and tossing the book to the floor in disgust. In this aspect, Myra Breckinridge is comparable to Philip Roth's 1969 bestseller, Portnoy's Complaint. Roth's novel represents another entry in a category that could be labeled something like Sexual Oddities for Voyeurs. It is significant that the two novels came out within a year of one another at the end of the 1960s. Another novel whose main focus is the sexuality of its narrator and protagonist, Portnoy's Complaint was also disdained by many readers as pornography when it came out. Yet it too made it to the bestseller lists. There are several identifiable reasons for the popularity of Roth's novel, one major one of which is its portrayal of Jewish childhood and adolescence in America. However, the combination of titillation and over-the-top, sometimes nauseating sexual perversity seems in both Myra Breckinridge and Portnoy's Complaint to have been a recipe for literary success. This is largely attributable to the fact that in the sixties, as Olson observes, "sex became an obsessive preoccupation of the decade" (411).
Myra Breckinridge can also be located within the broader category of sex-oriented books, both fiction and non-fiction, published in steadily growing numbers throughout the 1960s and 70s. Books like Helen Gurley Brown's 1962 women's liberation manifesto Sex and the Single Girl, Jacqueline Susann's 1966 melodrama Valley of the Dolls, and John Updike's 1968 novel Couples, all contributed to the national cultural atmosphere of sexual inquiry and openness. This observation is merely an extension of the understanding that the sixties were an age of revolution in cultural and societal norms, and especially in ways of thinking about these things. Myra Breckinridge is a remarkable illustration of just how important it is for a book to come into the market at the right time, and how much of an impact proper timing can make on the success of a book in terms of the publishing industry.
Baker, Susan and Curtis S. Gibson, eds. Gore Vidal: A Critical Companion. London: Greenwood Press, 1997.
Olson, James S., ed. Historical Dictionary of the 1960s. London: Greenwood Press, 1999.
Vidal, Gore. Myra Breckinridge / Myron. New York: Penguin Books, 1997.