40th Discussion: Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar (18th Oct)

On Alexius’s recommendation, we read the book, a source of escape for Alexius. Javin and Glenn started the book club by saying that Vidal set out to debunk stereotypes–ie gay=effeminate–but he ended up reinforcing them, creating a hierarchy among gay people. Sean, on the other hand, argued that perhaps Vidal’s purpose is just to observe and tell the truth, nothing more.

To investigate the motive of writing the book, we read, “we have all stolen pears; the mystery is why so few of us rate halos” (1). Sean and Raj claimed that “stolen pears” is a metaphor for sinning, which is in turn linked to homosexuality.

From the motive, from the top, we move to the ending, to the bottom. Rape of Bob is more powerful than the original ending of killing of Bob but we deviated and never quite mentioned why rape is more powerful. Ernest saw the ending as a cautionary tale of Paradise Lost: characters in the novel use people, not love people; they objectify people. There is a utopia that they could work towards but they don’t. Javin said up to before the rape, Jim is an ok character but the rape makes Jim unsympathetic. Ernest saw the rape as a birthing process of Jim entering another phase of his life.

After the rape, the last image of the moving river is poignant. Alexius saw the structure of the book as a sex act, culminating the rape as climax, and the moving river as regrets of sex. Glenn mentioned that if Jim becomes friends with Bob, the river image would represent a new phase, a happy ending. But the rape destroys all hope. Sean linked the river image at the end to the beginning of the novel where Bon and Jim meet at the river, symbolizing a kind of journey.

Aaron asked if the hetero sex acts display heterophobia as the hetero-sex acts are described in revolting terms whereas the homo-sex acts are more clinical and noticeably less obscene. No one agreed with Aaron.

One ways to debunk stereotypes of homosexuality is to present different sides of homosexuality but to this end, Vidal doesn’t seem to be successful. For instance, Ronald Shaw’s and Jim’s homosexuality seem to stem from a Freudian theory of absent father-overly loving mother; Sullivan’s and the literati’s notion is that homosexuals are smart, sensitive, handsome and narcissistic (another stereotype).

Regarding the incident where Jim fails to seduce Ken but the effeminate sergeant Kervinski succeeds, Aaron called on the bullshit of Vidal but Sean came to Vidal’s defense: since Jim is shaped by his experiences in Hollywood, that looks come first, it is little wonder why Jim would fail to see that love can exist between Ken-Kervinski.

Raj asked about the significance of the title. Alexius assumed that the city means the city of men and the pillar is the cock that the men want to mount. Sean said that if we apply the parable of not looking backwards, always looking forward, then the novel acts as a cautionary tale for all of us: Jim should have never looked back to Bob; he would have been much happier trying to make his relationships work.

No one has any particular strong liking for any characters because the characters are all hateful and unloveable. Aaron said that the negativity exuding from the book shows what sort of person Vidal was. If made to choose, Raj liked Mrs Willard because she’s a long-suffering wife; Alexius liked Jim because he has the courage to rape while Sean sympathized with Jim but empathized with Sullivan.

At the end of the discussion, the group was split into two camps. Those in favor of the book said that it is a cautionary tale (Ernest); that Jim is relatable because he is handsome (Alexius); and the fact that the novel arouses strong emotions means it is successful (Sean). Those who dislike the book say that it has no value-added (Raj); strengthens gay stereotype especially the stereotype that you’re unlovable as you grow older (Glenn); the novel has not enough sex and is not 50 Shades of Gay (Javin) and there is no compassion and kindness in the book, showing Vidal as a vile person (Aaron.)

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3 Comments

Filed under Classics, Family, Gay, Gore Vidal, Love, USA, War

3 responses to “40th Discussion: Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar (18th Oct)

  1. Alexius

    i mean relatable not to jim’s character but the ability to immerse myself into his life story as ‘jim’ and fantasize to be the alpha guy – yet in e end count myself as ‘the reader’ lucky not to possess his characteristics ^o^

  2. Sean

    LOL i only just re-read this. It’s hilarious in parts! As for fantasizing about being the alpha guy but not having to deal with the responsibilities that come with the great power invested by the urban gay experience of being ‘hot’, (whether they be accepting jealousy from others who judge themselves by the very standards they think they shouldn’t be judged, or just understanding the motives of those who are attracted to you), that is where Vidal holds up a mirror to us as gay readers.

    The question Vidal may now be asking is, ‘Do we hold such spite for Jim because he is beautiful, like all the other men who loved him did, and in doing so, drive him to ugliness?’ Are we all actually Lot’s wife, looking back to antiquated ideals of masculinity and thus petrifying ourselves with insecurity? And is a lot of that insecurity legitimately Freudian?

  3. Pingback: Alexius’s Top 5 GLBTQ Books | Queer Book & Movie Club (Singapore)

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