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Kalki by Gore Vidal

Kalki (1978)

by Gore Vidal

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Gore Vidal


Penguin, Paperback [1998]

8vo. 255 pp. Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics. Cover art by Kinuko Craft, reproduced by permission from Playboy. A note by the author signed “G.V.” on p. [257].

First published, 1978.
Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics, 1998.


I don’t really know why this novel is not better known. It seems that not even Vidal’s death in 2012 has helped its popularity, or that of his writings in general for that matter. I have read, to my regret, nothing of Vidal’s multi-volume “American Chronicles”, but I contend that Kalki is on par with, if very different than, his two masterpieces of historical fiction set in ancient times, Julian (1964) and Creation (1981). I am positive it is far superior, in every possible way, to lame satires like Myra Breckinridge (1968) and Live from Golgotha (1992).

Among many other merits, Kalki contains the most chilling conclusion in my admittedly limited reading experience. The last 50-60 pages are truly haunting. Literal prediction of our future or symbol of our inescapable humanity, or anything else you want to take them for, I don’t think you will easily forget them. But the less said about the plot, the better. I am not fond of plot retelling anyway; I take it for granted that in the unlikely case that anybody reads this review they will already know the plot. All I’m going to say about this one is that the whole of it is told in a flashback, so the opening is pretty good, too. It gives nothing away, it even provides some ingenious blind alleys (“Is this a success story?” indeed!), and it glues the hapless reader to the pages:

Where to begin?

A week has passed since I wrote that first sentence.
I am sitting at the big table in the Cabinet Room of the White House. I have been asked to give my version of what happened. I have also been requested to avoid the historian’s best and closest friend hindsight. This is not going to be easy.
For some minutes I have been staring out the window. It is late autumn. Brown leaves are falling. A year ago I was in Los Angeles, dead broke. Now I am at work in the White House. Is this a success story?
Try again.

This is Teddy Ottinger, our smart and spicy first-person narrator. If you wonder what Pascal, Voltaire and Jules Renard have in common with airplanes, entropy and Heisenberg’s Law, wonder no more. She is an aviatrix who worships Amelia Earhart, has studied engineering and earns her bread by testing planes. She is also a woman who has renounced husband and children, a former celebrity and best-selling author of Beyond Motherhood, ghost-written by the “hack” and “cliché master” H. V. Weiss. Oscar Wilde would have described her, as he did Jesus Christ, as a Supreme Individualist. This is inspiring. So is Teddy’s largely practical, hard-headed, sceptical turn of mind. She is bisexual, of course[1], but unlike Myra Breckinridge she is not transsexual. She is certainly a much more interesting character and a much better story-teller.

I am not sure how believable Teddy Ottinger is (I should like to hear a woman’s opinion on that), but I suspect she is a little too captivating to be true, much like Cyrus Spitama, the Persian ambassador-traveller-philosopher and first-person narrator in Creation. On the other hand, she is no conventionally romanticised heroine. She has no scruples to get what she wants, she is prone to fear, confusion and panic, she is not afraid of expressing unpopular opinions in favour of dictatorship and against overpopulation, and she is candid enough to admit that her ex-husband has been “a lot better father than I had ever been a mother”. Some would say she is promiscuous, but she would deny this, perhaps rightly, and explain that she is merely “susceptible” under certain conditions. Though she is entirely honest with herself, she is often – but not always – elaborately dishonest with others:

I let drop a bucket or two into the deep well of my insincerity, and pour the contents of that far from lonely well over the enemy. They lapped it up. Feigned or not, flattery is sure-fire. I praised them into silence.

Obviously, Gore Vidal is a master craftsman and a provocative wordsmith. He can write as well as anybody – when he wants to. Unfortunately, he doesn’t always want to. Minor downsides of his style in this novel include an excessive number of contemporary references, perhaps less of a problem to American readers than to me, playing up Teddy’s crude feminist ideas, and gratuitous breaking to the surface of the smouldering sensuality that lurks beneath every page. But make no mistake! There is nothing here like the inane ramblings and cheap pornography of Myra Breckinridge. Teddy Ottinger can be terse and brusque, speaking in short sentences and making some abrupt and rather far-fetched allusions, but she is much more sophisticated, entertaining and readable than her transsexual colleague.

This is a satirical novel, as harsh and bleak as it is hilarious. Religion, politics, media, CIA, IRS, DEA: you name it, Vidal shoots it. As a general rule, he is accurate and merciless. Of course he means the American incarnations of his targets in the late 1970s, but the vast majority of his deadly arrows are quite valid on global scale today. Teddy Ottinger has a sharp eye, and an even sharper pen, for the ridiculous, the hammy and the pretentious all around her. Nothing escapes her cynical onslaughts, certainly not the “power-brokers of that day [who] never knew what was important”. Christianity? “Pascal, yes. Jesus, no.” is Teddy’s blunt summary. God? “The Great Anarch in the sky”. Walter Cronkite? Had he not lifted an eyebrow at the end of the news, “there would have been national panic”. The whole zeitgeist is brutally exposed as one of rampant corruption, exploitation, superstition, apathy. In short, times of constantly increasing entropy (verging on chaos, in simple words). Nothing of this has become dated in the last 38 years.

It is crass to extract Teddy’s delicious barbs from the context of her trenchant narrative, but for what it’s worth here are some extra examples:

What he said made, of course, no sense. But as of last March that was the way not only the front-running Republican candidate for president was sounding but just about every other politician as well. As entropy increases, energy hemorrhages. Language is affected. Words become mere incantation. When that happens, the end is near, and the cold.[2]

The rest of us looked at the television monitors. Everyone preferred to watch the doings in the auditorium on television rather than directly through the window. This was a commonplace in that era: events were only real if experienced at second hand, preferably through the medium of the camera.

I was impressed by Neil’s happiness, and certitude, and stupidity. Of such are made kingdoms on earth if not in heaven. Kalki was a shrewd operator.

“I’ve been testing planes,” I said. It was always necessary around Hollywood to remind people that you were still in demand at whatever it was that you were celebrated for. No one was allowed to fail within a one-mile radius of the pool of the Beverly Hills Hotel. If anybody had, the resulting tidal wave would have drowned the guests.

One might accuse Vidal of taking a too misanthropic view in this novel. He shows too many drunks and junkies, hypocrites and hedonists, corrupted officials and men urinating in phone booths. This criticism is justified. Vidal does overdo it. Oddly enough, this is less of a drawback than I expected. I guess this devastating picture of humanity, like Teddy Ottinger’s quixotic character, contains too much truth to be false. Almost 40 years after the novel was first published, things haven’t changed at all – at least for good. Politicians still are vain douchebags who see everything from the self-promotion angle. Journalists still are keen on sensationalist rubbish rather than truthful reporting. Religious leaders still are semi-morons preaching nonsense to mindless crowds. The world is still – indeed more – polluted and overpopulated than it ever was in the past. And still as vulnerable to mass hysteria and mass destruction.

Some books restore your faith in humanity, others destroy it. Kalki belongs to the latter group. Disturbing and depressing in the extreme, yet wickedly funny at the same time, this is a novel that deserves a lot more than mere 474 copies (at the time of writing) and 9 reviews (this one included) on LT. This was my third reading (second in English) and I don’t think it’s going to be the last. Sadly, I remain convinced that if something like that ending just happened one day, it would be mightily good for our planet.

[1] My favourite thought of Gore Vidal is that there is no such thing as homosexual and heterosexual people; there are only homosexual and heterosexual acts. Translated, we are all bisexual, if only we knew it. Perhaps it’s time to recognise this fundamental truth about our sexuality: it ought to be fun. See Vidal’s wonderful introduction to Collected Stories by Tennessee Williams, New Directions, 1985.
[2] “Words become mere incantation” is strikingly similar to George Orwell’s great essay “Politics and the English Language”. ( )
2 vote Waldstein | May 1, 2016 |
A Vidal social satire that brews a fun mix of religious cults and pop phenomenon. As many have said it's truly a novel of the 70s and that era. ( )
  dbsovereign | Jan 26, 2016 |
my first taste of Vidal and it's certainly not what i expected. the wit and sophisticated ideas, i did expect. what came as a surprise was the dark humor and satire- but also the science fiction. yes, science fiction. i said it.

i expected it to be a satirical indictment of cultish religiosity and several other things including heterosexuality, paternalism, the entertainment industry, pop culture, et al. and so it was. but then, like some "magic eye" image or masterful optical illusion, it became a work of science fiction. i won't say why because i want you to find out as i did and be as shocked as i was. in less than 300 pages, Kalki sprawls out over all of these subjects and more all the while delivering a rich story with complex and interesting characters. granted, most of them suffer little to no development, acting mostly as stock obstacles that challenge the protagonist and her cohort, but they are, nevertheless, distinct individuals that breathe.

in addition to its biting criticism, it taps into the deeper waters of mythology and unconscious, human archetypes a la Jung and Campbell. the central religion is Hinduism and the main character makes no bones about being atheist- this creates a kind of distance from which Christianity can be viewed and critiqued.

and, it's funny. i mentioned that briefly near the top but i want to emphasize how much it delighted me to find some really, effing funny parts in the story and prose. the story itself is not full of irony or extremely ironic but really is a kind of avatar of irony; just as Kalki is the 10th and last avatar of Vishnu/Siva.

i'm going to see about reading some more of Vidal's books. i truly do not expect to find one that tickles me as much as this one did. but, then, i didn't expect this one to do that either. ( )
1 vote keebrook | Mar 10, 2015 |
Not just your plain everyday end of the world tale! This novel, written in the 1970s, is more of a sociopolitical statement than a novel. Using the Hindu concepts of Vishnu come again as avatar Kalki, to end the current era of human life on earth, the protagonist manages to manipulate the masses in order to achieve his own ends. Not only does he manipulate the common person on the street, but he is able to successfully manipulate Congress, the Chinese Mafia, and the CIA to his own ends. Charisma and intellect combined create a dangerous entity! Yet, without spoiling the book for anyone, I would have to say that if the reader is not enjoying the author's sociopolitical commentary in the first two thirds of the book, the final third is just a great ending to the entire novel, satisfying in many ways! ( )
2 vote hemlokgang | Apr 9, 2012 |
A surprisingly good novel. Somehow the subject matter, does not at first appeal, but within the context of when it was written, it makes sense. I've always enjoyed Vidal's wit and style. I'd recommend this if you do to. ( )
1 vote Borg-mx5 | Feb 13, 2010 |
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» Add other authors (4 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Gore Vidalprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Craft, KinukoCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0141180374, Paperback)

Bestselling author Gore Vidal joins the ranks of Penguin Classics. To satisfy a public that longs for a savior, Vidal's eponymous hero of KALKI, born and bred in America's Midwest, establishes himself in Nepal, puts out the word that he is the last incarnation of the god Vishnu, and predicts an imminent apocalypse meant to cleanse the planet.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:19:03 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

Is the ex GI posing as Kalki, an ancient Hindu diety, running an international drug ring or bringing about the destruction of the world?

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