A literary cause célèbre when first published more than fifty years ago, Gore Vidal’s now-classic The City and the Pillar stands as a landmark novel of the gay experience.
Jim, a handsome, all-American athlete, has always been shy around girls. But when he and his best friend, Bob, partake in “awful kid stuff,” the experience forms Jim’s ideal of spiritual completion. Defying his parents’ expectations, Jim strikes out on his own, hoping to find Bob and rekindle their amorous friendship. Along the way he struggles with what he feels is his unique bond with Bob and with his persistent attraction to other men. Upon finally encountering Bob years later, the force of his hopes for a life together leads to a devastating climax. The first novel of its kind to appear on the American literary landscape, The City and the Pillar remains a forthright and uncompromising portrayal of sexual relationships between men.
Review by Hayden Thorne
The process of Jim’s journey of self-discovery was what drew me to this novel, the time period offering a very promising backdrop to an interesting exploration of homosexual and heterosexual relationships. Because Jim, after graduating from high school, takes on odd jobs and wanders almost aimlessly, there was also the anticipation stirred by the image of a colorful parade of different characters who’d shape Jim’s immediate world for better or for worse.
Whether in peace time or during war, in the luxurious glamour of Hollywood or the seedier corners of New York, among the superficial, the bitter, the poseurs, or even among family – Jim’s meandering education is an adventure of the tragi-comic kind. We see much of the multi-layered nature of the homosexual underground, the divisions among gay men, and, tragically, the ambivalence toward their own nature as shaped by their world and the heterosexual status quo. In terms of concept, The City and the Pillar succeeds in carrying out its purpose, and we’re given a complex tapestry of human relationships, regardless of gender and sexual orientation.
Unfortunately for this reader, that’s all that I can say about the novel’s high points. Vidal’s narrative style is detached and dry. Too dry, in my opinion, so that from start to finish, I wasn’t able to feel any kind of sympathy for Jim or all the other characters, regardless. Whatever tragic or comic elements are there can only be picked up on a more superficial level. We know that Jim’s sad because we’re told that he is. He’s pleased because we’re told that he is. Vidal’s spare prose is too abrupt for it to evoke any kind of significant emotion, and every scene, regardless of its nature, reads like the one before it. It’s almost like listening to a monotonous drone in a lecture hall.
Maybe in the end it’s for the good that the narrative is overly detached and lacking; otherwise, we’d be drowning in an endless parade of lamenting and drama from some of the most miserable characters we’ve ever read. In addition to not feeling any sympathy for Vidal’s cast, I also found myself shaking my head in disbelief at the utter wretchedness of their existence, with each – Sullivan being the worst – not only incapable of feeling joy but also doing everything in his power to ensure a lifetime of disasters and heartbreak. What can we learn from all this? Except for Jim’s final resolution (and, really, the scene offers little comfort), I found nothing to cheer for, and whatever happens to each character at the conclusion of his or her appearance in the novel did little to rouse anything in me. This novel doesn’t only touch on homosexual relationships, but also on heterosexual ones, and across the board, no one’s happy. Those who appear to be, i.e., Carrie and Sally, seem to be that way only because they can’t see beyond the tiny little cubicle that they’ve been forced into, being young rural women.
The novel does attempt to convey the same idea put forth by Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, which is the fruitless desire for an ideal. Every character, male or female, gay or straight, plays out that desire and its depressing consequences. It’s just too bad that the emotional gap kept me from fully appreciating all of that.