Mr. Parini fills page after page with plot summaries of Vidal’s work — even the pulp he penned under the names of Edgar Box and Katherine Everard, even the novels available only on Amazon Marketplace. Any literary biography runs this risk...but here, this tic is especially pronounced, to the point that the biography feels like an exercise in slaloming through SparkNotes.
In Empire of Self, the first posthumous biography of Vidal, Jay Parini takes a long view of Vidal’s eccentricities, shedding new light on the legacy-building efforts of one of the twentieth century’s great public intellectuals.
When a writer indulges in sloppy thinking, for whatever reason, the writing goes to pot, too. A good copy editor will warn authors when they step too close to the cliché line, but I imagine Parini’s editor throwing up her hands around page eight or so. Like a breathless press agent, Parini likes to describe things that excite him in terms of their sparkle...
One senses that Vidal’s overstuffed life might have been more fun to live than read about—the book can be as name-droppy as its subject notoriously was—but Parini finds the man beneath the accomplishments.
Jay Parini, in his authorized biography, Empire of Self: A Life of Gore Vidal (Doubleday), wants to give us the real Gore, but he keeps on falling for the pose...When it comes to telling the story of the life, Parini proves content to deliver the strapping, self-assured, untouchable Vidal, the builder and overseer of a well-protected, many-colonied 'empire of self'—a phrase repeated throughout the book, in a dizzying range of connections.
Parini is good at managing the myriad strains of Vidal’s life, being critical when it’s called for but also helping to flesh out the vulnerabilities and qualities of a man whom it’s easy to misrepresent. There are some problems along the way, however.
If this is the biography Vidal has 'needed,' then the necessity has grown from an excessive focus on the glamorous extravagance of Vidal’s narcissism, a focus which has lately threatened to become exclusive. Parini’s deflation does not diminish Vidal’s life and writing, but it deftly narrates the former while creating a more hospitable space for discussing the latter. Surprisingly but successfully, Empire of Self is an exercise in modesty.
More than anything, Parini reveals, Vidal feared 'becoming a rumor in his own time' - and forgotten when he was dead. 'One feels the Great Eraser always at work,' he said again and again in conversations and letters. Empire of Self may stay the hand of the Great Eraser. But probably not for long.
Vidal is the perfect subject for a biography, as Parini proves in this highly readable and informative book. And Parini, who has also written biographies of John Steinbeck, Robert Frost and William Faulkner as well as essays and poetry, is the perfect person to write it.