Linda Rosenkrantz’s Talk — somewhat unsurprisingly — is about what we don’t say when we say things.
Recently re-issued by NYRB Classics, Rosenkrantz’s Talk was a small sensation when it was first published in 1968. The book condensed a series of summer-long conversations between three late-20-somethings — one modeled after Linda herself — during one sweltering and sandy summer spent at the beach in East Hampton, N.Y.
Thanks to a ’60s script of psychedelics and psychoanalysis, Talk is characterized by introspective and scrupulous self-analysis. The three friends — Emily, Vincent, and Marsha — spend their 1965 summer discussing what most young people discuss: sex, relationships, and more sex. Much of the pleasure of Talk is the fact that though we readers feel we are reading a “script” — inherently a type of contrived and falsified dialogue — in fact we are reading the actual, although slightly altered, conversations of three friends over a Hamptons summer.
In 1965, Rosenkrantz lugged her enormous tape recorder — what she calls “the bulky monster” — to the beach and recorded conversations. The end product was some 1,500 pages and a stable of some 25 characters. She condensed the tome of transcribed papers to a slim 250-page paperback and reduced the character count to three. Marsha — modeled on the author — is an aspiring writer; Emily is a young actress who recounts her struggles and triumphs; and Vincent is a gay painter who shares in Emily and Marsha’s candid conversations about S&M and masturbation.
What made Talk such a sensation in the 1960s was that not only the salacious content, but the fact that it was a series of recorded conversations presented as a novel. In an era of New Journalism, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, and Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls, Rosenkrantz’s book was a hybrid of sorts. Talk took its premise from theatre, but its politics from the likes of The Feminine Mystique and the recent legalization of the pill. It was a character study; a story of three under-represented and oppressed classes — women, gay men, artists — which were given an unobstructed avenue to see their conversations and experiences and stories shared. The voices of women and gay men were so often marginalized; Talk made them the focal point.
But Rosenkrantz had a hard time convincing a publisher of the book’s literary and cultural merits. She shopped it around for over a year, sending out countless manuscripts to prospective publishers and collecting “a long trail of less colorful rejection letters,” as she recently wrote in The Paris Review. Many editors were shocked by the risqué and confessional content contained in the conversations. Rosenkrantz writes that one well-known editor rejected the proposal, calling the book “repellently raunchy.”
In early 1968, Talk finally saw daylight. Publishing house Putnam — as a means to avoid any type of legal consequences after publication — presented the work as completely fiction. Rosenkrantz says that she was thrilled when the book was finally published but admits that she had been “completely complicit in the betrayal of the book’s mandate — which was to present raw reality.” Talk, published as a work of fiction, would not carry the same cultural and literary currency had it been released under its original “mandate.”
Then, as now, the intersection of truth and fiction is a complicated place. The quality of Rosenkrantz’s extracted conversations is both visceral and intimate. But equally there is a falseness that belies their sense of authenticity.
Case in point: in one exchange, friends Marsha and Emily are discussing Emily’s recent “breakthrough” in her acting class. Emily was able to cry on cue in a monologue she performed from La Notte. (Emily is talking about performing a scene from a play; we are reading a “scene” from Talk.) In this particular monologue she describes, Emily was asked to weep after reading a letter her character receives. As a way to “embody” her character, Emily pretends the letter is from one of her own former lovers, Philippe. Emily imitates her own actions when she received a letter from him, as she performs the scene from La Notte for her class. The fact that Emily and Marsha are discussing a moment of acting — ironically about a scene from La Notte where no words are spoken — really serves to only point out their dialogue, their exchange, the fact that Emily and Marsha are talking, but also are not.
It would appear that their conversation is based on a real exchange of ideas, in which Emily is talking about her efforts to show an “authentic” character in her acting class. Emily then goes on, telling Marsha that later at a party the following evening, a crush of hers named Michael Christy, appeared and her “hysterical feelings” for him were filtered from “damaged, love feelings about Phillippe.” The overwhelming irony underscoring this is that Emily’s rawness and realness on stage is truer than the performance she gave at the party. The exchange calls into question the whole idea of character and performances we all give in our daily lives, at work, at home. Rosenkrantz’s indulges in a clever paradox here: Emily is fake when she’s being real and is real when she’s being fake.
Talk offers these wonderful — if slightly meta — interventions into the daily lives and (recorded) conversations of young creative people, as well as those from social and gender groups otherwise marginalized by the larger 1960s cultural milieu. This is what made Rosenkrantz’s book (not “novel”) so revolutionary and transgressive. It is recorded away from mainstream America and at the beach, a place so often for self-reflection and deeper, more intimate prying. It is also set in a hub of queer and non-heteronormative people and experiences and ideas, all of which are examined and told through the dialogue of Emily, Marsha, and Vincent.
What adds to the more political dimensions of Talk is the sheer excess of dialogue Rosenkrantz presents. The fact that the entire book is a series of exchanges between two women — and often their gay friend Vincent — is deeply transgressive in the context of 1960s mainstream publishing. While the 1960s offered rare moments of feminist and queer representations, like Leslie Gore’s hit song “You Don’t Own Me” or CBS’s notorious “The Homosexuals” TV interviews, women and gay men were not often given space for individual and unmitigated self-expression. Talk is not just about giving women and gay men the space to be open and honest about their sexual and emotional lives, but acknowledging that this is a legitimate and real set of experiences.
As a point of comparison, look at popular film representations of women at the time. These include Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), where the star of the film is undressed and then slaughtered 40 minutes into the narrative; Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), about a lonely call girl whose entire existence is mediated by a nameless cat, rich men, and a cantankerous and aggressive upstairs neighbor; and Barbarella (1968), in which we see Jane Fonda shoot alien men with beehive hair and low-cut skin suits. While these films suggest they are giving “air time” to more women and women’s issues, they only masked a more insidious silencing of women by a larger patriarchal world.
Talk disengaged with and disturbed this. It said that women speak about sex, drugs, alcohol, S&M, masturbation, boys, adultery, abortion, the pill, vaginas, urination, underwear, penises, and periods. It vocalized an unfairly hidden world.
Rosenkrantz’s title emphasized this simplicity; it is a book with “just” talking in it. But what was so important about Rosenkrantz’s intervention (recording these conversations) and then regurgitation of these discussion was that talk, as a literary device or indeed as a type of text endemic to the cultural and political sphere of the time, was not taken seriously. Rosenkrantz elevated it to argue that the discussions women — and, to an extent, gay men — have about sex and relationships and everything else are worthy of print and publication and politics.
Although Rosenkrantz later made a name for herself — ironically enough — by producing popular baby name guides (Cool Names for Babies is one), Talk is an era-defining text. With its unvarnished “realism” and its celebration of marginalized groups, Talk argues that the everyday language of men and women is valuable, important, and worthy of a book.
Gore Vidal was the first living writer to get under my skin — for good and ill, but mostly for good. With his death last week, I am still puzzling out how I fell under his spell and what it might mean.
I came of age in Virginia in the 1960s and first knew Vidal as a TV personality. It was the age of talk show intellectuals and he appeared regularly on television along with Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, and others. He was memorably smooth, articulate and witty. He was also very handsome, but I was a repressed gay teenager and not ready to acknowledge that. A copy of Myra Breckinridge made the rounds at study hall (along with Valley of the Dolls and The Harrad Experiment), but I didn’t read him yet, only the reviews of his work in Time.
I witnessed his most famous TV appearance, his confrontation with William F. Buckley during the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago. I was 16 and home from the Boy Scout camp where I worked as a counselor. The two men provided commentary each night, Vidal from the left, Buckley from the right. They were very testy even before the rioting broke out.
When Buckley called the student protestors crypto Nazis, Vidal said the only crypto Nazi he saw was Buckley. Buckley exploded: “Now listen, you queer. Stop calling me a crypto Nazi or I’ll sock you in the goddamn face.” Vidal remained remarkably calm. He broke into a boyish smile, as if he thought Buckley were only joking. Then the smile wavered when he understood how angry the man was.
I sat there open-mouthed, uncertain I’d heard right. One did not hear grown men call each other fags on live TV in those days. People talked about it the next day, but the newspapers couldn’t print the word. “Queer” was considered an obscenity. Of course, the accusation made Vidal only that much more interesting to me.
Two years later I actually met Vidal — by proxy anyway. I met a distant cousin, an adult Scout leader who was my date for the Eagle Scout banquet. Each new Eagle was paired with a grown-up who worked in a field the boy wanted to enter. By this time everybody knew I wanted to be a writer, and so they looked for somebody with a literary connection. And all they could find was old Bill Vidal.
Looking back on it, I am amazed the Boy Scouts of America would think a Gore Vidal surrogate was suitable. This was after the publication of Myra Breckinridge and the fight with Buckley. But the fact of the matter is that my adult leaders knew Vidal only as a famous name and occasional guest on TV talk shows. They did not know his books. They certainly didn’t know The City and the Pillar. Bill Vidal confessed over dinner that he’d never met his famous cousin, only heard stories about him. However, he did tell me good stories about growing up in upstate New York, including the first time he ever saw an automobile.
I didn’t get to The City and the Pillar myself until college. I can’t say I liked it. I was a gay neophyte looking for sex scenes and the novel opens with a great one: two teenage boys have hot sex on a camping trip. But Jim, the protagonist, spends the rest of the novel longing for his buddy until he finally meets up with him years later and finds he’s straight. So he kills him. (This was the original 1948 version. When Vidal rewrote it in 1965, he relented and Jim merely rapes the poor guy.)
But shortly afterward, I discovered Vidal’s essays and that’s when I really began to read him — passionately. The first book was Homage to Daniel Shays. His range of subject matter was glorious: Roman history, American history, French literature, the Kennedy family, Anaïs Nin , and yes, sexuality. The prose of his essays is erudite, surprising, and very funny. He had a stand-up comedian’s gift for placing a startlingly rude phrase in the midst of an otherwise civilized sentence. For example, in his damning review of Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex, he launches into a riff about the myth of monogamy and another book’s advice for how to keep a husband excited. “Nevertheless, by unexpectedly redoing the bedroom in sexy shades, a new hairstyle, exotic perfumes, ravishing naughty underwear, and an unexpected blow job with a mouth full of cream of wheat, somehow a girl who puts her mind to it can keep him coming back year after year after year.”
People who don’t actually read Vidal know him as only a curmudgeon, a scold, a hater. But his essays could praise as well as mock, celebrate as well as condemn. He wrote warmly and appreciatively about Eleanor Roosevelt, Tennessee Williams, Christopher Isherwood, Dawn Powell, Italo Calvino, and his own father, aviation pioneer Eugene Vidal.
His fiction can’t help looking pale in comparison to the essays. His friend and editor Jason Epstein said he was too egotistical to be a good novelist, and there is some truth in that. But Vidal was able to navigate around that difficulty by giving his egotism to his strongest characters: Julian the Apostate, Myra Breckinridge, and Aaron Burr. They are the protagonists of his best novels.
In addition to his essays I regularly read his interviews. He gave brilliant interviews. More than one person has said that Gore Vidal’s public persona — a thing of imperious authority, omniscience and dry wit — was his best fictional creation.
I almost never dream about writers, but sometime while I was writing a first novel, I dreamed about Gore Vidal. We were at a family reunion (apparently we were related) and he and I sat side by side on a log. He had just finished reading my manuscript. He told me, quietly but firmly, that the book didn’t work and there was nothing for me to do but put it aside and start a new novel. I woke up in a cold sweat, thinking: No, no, I can fix it. I can make it work — before I remembered I was not related to Vidal, we hadn’t even met, and he hadn’t read my novel. Incidentally, his dream self was right: I never was able to publish that novel.
But finally, in 1987, I did publish a novel. More novels followed, about a broad range of topics — coming of age in the 1970s, New York in the 1940s, AIDS in the 1980s — with only a gay milieu in common. Not until my fourth novel, Almost History, about a gay man in the State Department, did I notice how often I wrote about politics and history. I was as obsessed with them as Vidal was. I wrote about them differently: they were more background than foreground. But I joked that I was the low-rent Gore Vidal — or even the gay Gore Vidal. A couple of reviewers compared us, though not in my favor.
It might have produced a debilitating anxiety of influence, except I stopped thinking about Vidal around this time. Maybe that was just my way of dealing with the anxiety. And I was very busy writing my books. But the fact is Vidal became less interesting as a writer in the late 1980s and the 1990s. And his public persona became more difficult, often impossible. He grew crankier, less witty, less winning. His jokes became stale, his political positions, such as his defense of Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City Bomber, unsettling.
But when I wrote Eminent Outlaws, my history of gay American writers after World War II, I found myself going back to the Vidal who first won my admiration. I was surprised by how important he was to the first half of the book, valuable not only for himself but as connecting link with many other writers. He knew everybody and he liked more of his peers than we give him credit for. He took a lot of brutal knocks as a gay writer at the start of his career, knocks that left his contemporaries, Truman Capote and James Baldwin, unhinged. Vidal remained calm, centered, and sane for much longer than they did. He really was an amazing man and an excellent writer. I was glad to rediscover that before he died.
You don’t have to read a writer to be influenced by him. Sometimes you fall in love first and don’t begin to read him until afterwards. It’s as irrational as love at first sight. Sometimes you learn that the love is deserved; sometimes it isn’t. But influence is trickier than most people think. It’s not simply a matter of one artist copying another. It can be as mysterious as the influence of the stars in astrology: they can affect our lives from a distance, as if by gravity.
I didn’t copy Gore Vidal and I never took anything from him directly. But I took great satisfaction in his prose and I learned from his example. It’s not so much the anxiety of influence or even what Jonathan Lethem calls the ecstasy of influence. No, it’s more like a feeling of kinship, a distant genealogical bond, a family relationship. Maybe, as in my dream, we are related after all.
Image Credit: Wikipedia