Joe Strong's Reviews > The City and the Pillar

The City and the Pillar by Gore Vidal
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's review
Dec 22, 2010

really liked it
Read on May 04, 2011

I don't really know whether to make this a critical analysis, or just a plain review, so I suppose I'll attempt to both.
I feel the novel needs some analysis, particularly in explaining why I wavered between four stars and five. It was lacking, for me, in the character, a superb analysis can be found in the preface of some additions by Vidal himself in which Jim is described as bland, save for his passion for Bob. I feel this is true, I feel that I was the one who really had to scratch to understand Jim, and there were moments where I felt that Vidal had been light with the brush of his pen, skimming over areas that I personally wanted desperately to know, perhaps, for example, the nature of Jim's relationship with Maria, something used as an anchor in much of the book but skirted over, save for the initial details. It was the moments of self reflection, of human and social commentaries that I found the most interesting, almost as though I were reading an essay by a celebrated philosopher. Vidal is to the point in many respects, curtailed only by the era in which he was writing, his language and his frank expressions of sexuality and the nature of sex within us all is admirable. For me as a reader it was fascinating, I suppose Vidal's self confessed affiliation with Jim owes greatly to the truly human nature of his character and to the logical and natural thoughts one rarely finds in a fictional character.
The expression of the 'gay' culture as one of fractions, the consideration that all humans were bisexual but merely chose a path and stick to it has resonance even today, over half a century on. It is a remarkably sober reminder when reading the novel of how far we have come in understanding and acceptance but how far we still have to go to shake off the pseudo-puritanical Victorian values that were so forced upon us and rooted even in law. There are perfectly subtle yet sore symbols throughout the novel, of religion, heaven and hell, and the cabin in which Bob and Jim first make love has forever become a rooted symbol in criticisms of gay literature.
It comes as a great shame, for me, that it is considered and must be labelled as a piece of gay literature. One should feel threatened by the novel, it questions deep rooted opinions of sexuality and attempts to break down social barriers, perhaps the most memorable moment being Jim's wish that he could love both a man and woman in conventional ways, almost larking over the lost society of the Ancient Grecian states. The novel is supposed to question ones fervent belief in one particular choice of sexual partner, and it does so with the unobtrusive pose of a well written and well crafted novel, remarkable considering Vidal was only about twenty one.
I don't feel I could ever lend this book to someone without an open mind frame, either from personal experience, familial experience or simply, as I'm sure most people profess to being, of an openly minded disposition. It is too challenging at points, not in language, style, or syntax, but in thoughts and philosophy. For those attune to the acceptance of sexuality, it flows as any novel would, slipping in and out of the inner monologue and third person narration which it does with such incredible ease. The rawness of Jim's complexities that are so deep the remain unfathomable even to the end make him a hatable but almost endearing character, if such an oxymoron could ever exist. He induces little pathos, certainly one pities him, but he is not a character made to be pitied in a sympathetic way. He has moments of unimaginable hate and venom, he can revel in the pain of others around him, and for such a young character, which Vidal masterly reminds us just as we forget, he can act more mature and in more of a hurtful way than almost any other character.
Yet he is also a great tragic hero. He is too young to understand himself, he is surrounded by melodramatic 'queens' and is unable to find his voice, but is consistently forced and cajoled into following behind either Sullivan or Paul. One wishes they could befriend Jim and make him understand that he is an acceptable character and point him in a direction that would result in his ultimate happiness.
But as his dream is obviously dashed, one cannot help feeling gutted, for want of a better word, at his loss and heartbreak. The novel makes us realise that behind the promiscuous, perhaps stereotyped front, these men are plagued but the inability of their society to accept them settling down, instead uprooting them so that they forever go on seeking.
The end for me was powerful, it pushed the novel in the five star realm firmly and securely. It ended exactly how it should have, I felt it could have been aptly sub-headed 'Vengeance shall be mine, and I shall repay', had Tolstoy not got there first. You feel that as Bob is left with his tears staining the pillow, he is stripped of his manhood in all its superfluous forms. It is almost as though Vidal has shown us that whilst these men have married and had children, their emotional state remains in a tender balance that is ruptured by a distressing event. It might be considered unnecessary, I can understand that. For me, it seemed the perfect Grecian way to end the novel, as the waxen wings doth melt so Bob falls into the sea of tears below. The revenge is sweet, and it leaves us with one final reminder of what the book stands for. Jim is more a man than Bob; sexuality is not limited by gender stereotypes. A man can be a man can love a man. And this, perhaps, is why those who feel being masculine excuses them of disclosing sexuality, could never finish this novel.


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