Kalki by Vidal, Gore, 1978
One of my favorite literary quests involves reading of SF novels by mainstream authors. Even if the product is bad, nine times out of ten it is at least original. In the last few years there have been quite a few mainstream authors who have tried their hands at fantastic fiction, and some of those, like Cormac McCarthy for example, have been heavy hitters. One popular author's name caught my eye a few years ago as I was perusing my copy of Barron's Anatomy of Wonder was Gore Vidal's. Better known as a historical novelist, satirist and a critic and man of letters, many of Vidal's other books are about pivotal moments and important people in American history. I was surprised to see that he had two entries in that book, and no less than five in Clute and Nichols' The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction! Since that time I have managed to collect and read a significant portion of Vidal's SF output, and I must say, its pretty good stuff. With five SF related books it's certainly not appropriate to call him a tourist, though it's also obvious that SF was not where his chief interest lay. Some of the thematic applications, especially in this book, just reek of novice-hood, though that sentiment does not necessarily apply to all of his SF. But after all this is Gore Vidal we are talking about, so everything else is pretty great.
Kalki is an assault on organized religion, though its focus is primarily on the stupidity of the average believer. Set in 1978, in it James Kelley, a blond, caucasian, Vietnam veteran from the medical core, claimed to have been selected as the vessel within which Kalki, one of the major gods of the Indian trinity, had chosen to reside. Kalki had slowly been building an international following. His organization was incredibly wealthy thanks to the drug production and distribution networks that Kelley built up during his lifetime. Immediately prior to the start of the novel Kalki announced that his purpose was to bring about the end of the Age of Iron, which was the current incarnation of creation according to Hindu dogma. Once that happened all the unworthy people in the world (that is to say, those who did not not believe in Kalki - or as it turns out, who Kalki did not want) would die, while those few who were worthy would survive to the next age, the Age of Gold, and continue living as evolved individuals who were destined to be happy and fulfilled by serving Vishnu, the chief god of the trinity, who, as it turned out, also resided inside of Kelley.
As part of his plan, Kalki has hired Teddy Ottinger, a world renown female aviator and co-author of a best-seller called Beyond Motherhood. That book, published in 1974, made Teddy infamous. In it she acknowledged her own bisexuality, revealed that she had her tubes tied so that she would never have to worry about any kids other than the ones she had already given birth to, and sympathized with Indira Ghandi's suggestion that men randomly and on a mass scale receive vasectomies. Something about her attracted Kalki. One of the big mysteries of the book is exactly what it was that he found so attractive. Kalki went to Teddy's publisher and offered to give her access for an interview, landing a scoop of CBS's 60 Minutes right into Teddy's lap. Teddy didn't jump at the chance to work, because she jumped at very little, but she did wind up going because she was behind on her alimony payments to her ex-husband and needed some source of income. Teddy flew to Kathmandu to interview Kalki. As soon as she got there the seduction began. Soon enough Teddy, who remained skeptical about Kalki's divinity and his plan, accepted a job as his private pilot. She was also told that she was one of five "perfect masters," which meant that she was guaranteed a place on Earth during the Age of Gold along with the other four perfect masters, Kalki, and Laskshmi, Kalki's beautiful blond wife. From that point on the reader is given an insider's view of what happened in Kalki's inner circle. That inner circle was made up of some brilliant sycophants, including Geraldine, a physicist who eventually became Teddy's lover. Teddy was certain that Kalki was a nut who was planning on detonating several neutron bombs, thereby rendering the planet uninhabitable. For those of you who are interested in retelling of ancient Hindu epics, much of this found its inspiration in the Ramayana. In fact, Vidal's personification of traditional imagery of many of the characters in the Ramayana was one of the story's most interesting and compelling aspects. That is to say: He took those multi-limbed images of the gods as a starting point and imbued his characters with attributes and motivations that reflected those images.
That bit about the neutron bombs was not really what happened, though I have to say that Kalki's manner of transition from one Age to the next was entirely predictable: As soon as Teddy was made Kalki's pilot I had it all figured out, pretty much down to the very last detail. That being said, I don't mean to imply that entire book was not worth the time. In fact, it was. Vidal is regarded as one of the greatest living writers for good reason. Every single word that the man ever sold is still in print, and he is so much better than just about everyone else in SF that books like this are probably untouchable. Stylistically Kalki was mind boggling. The story was permeated with imagery of death and endings. Practically every other sentence subtlety invoked of stillness or finality, and usually with a sarcastic barb as adornment.
Earl Jr. just stared at me, full of hate. Of course, I couldn't blame him. One day I was Mrs. Earl Ottinger, Jr., wife, mother and homemaker (and only part-time test pilot and trophy winner). Then willy-nilly, the operation, the book, the divorce. Overnight I was the new Amelia Earhart. I had left behind me husband, children, tubes. In that anno mirabilis I was the ninth most admired woman in the world, according to the Gallup Poll.
Occasionally, I borrow a picture (from the National Art Gallery). Yesterday I took home a Mantegna. I find that I can stare for hours at a picture. As I do, I can see the dead hand at work and I can imagine what the dead eye saw and, sometimes, I think that I know exactly what it was that the dead eye thought that it had seen so long ago.
I found it really easy to get into Vidal's varied style, too. Probably depending on his mood when writing (because I found no other viable reason), he switched style and meter frequently. Some of his sentences flowed like cold maple syrup; slow, pleasing and wonderfully delicious. Others were just one - one-liner after another. There were also an unusually large number of literary anchors in the story too. By that I mean elements that Vidal came up with on his own and spent considerable time developing early on which he then sprinkled around the story to serve as reminders - to supplement the context and to add meaning and understanding to whatever else it was he was talking about. They worked just like the image of the couple embracing in Moore's Watchmen. Those references included Amelia Earhart, Mary Baker Eddy and the First Church of Christ, Scientist, her book, Beyond Motherhood, her brusque co-author, H.V.V. Weiss, her earlier lover and best friend, Arlene, neutron bombs, sterility, overpopulation and pollution. Every single one of these anchors reference death, but Vidal made them seem to be more than that, and used them to keep readers on track, almost as if he were doing us a favor.
Vidal moved through the story quickly, jumping from topic to topic, never sacrificing the story elements for time, never skipping anything that was needed, or even remotely interesting, and always revisiting important story elements, giving more unexpectedly later on. A central image in the story is the unfolding lotus blossom, which I found reminiscent of my comprehension of Vidal's more important meta-messages. As heavy as the ideas were Vidal kept the tale readable, and while it was never light, it was also never oppressive. Those qualities made this book read like a series of overheard conversations that you are just dying to join. The work as a whole was constructed like a web, with inter-relations occurring on many different levels. Vidal kept the mystery alive too, and its not until the very last pages that one is able to tell whether you are dealing with the machinations of all powerful gods or the foolishness of a solipsistic lunatic. As Vidal pieces go, Kalki is somewhat tame in terms of its philosophical approach. Plenty is left to the imagination, but Vidal leaves nothing left unexamined. This is a rational story with some mystery type elements about organized religion. Not a post modern story with several viable moral outcomes and mysterious plot contrivances: This one is for the masses.
Copyright © 2009, Gregory Tidwell