Tuesday, April 18, 2006

If Big Brother had a blog, he would be its webmaster


Tuesday April 18, 2006

If Big Brother had a blog, he would be its webmaster

By Steven Barrie-Anthony, Times Staff Writer

Lightning struck near the tiny valley town of Livingston, Mont., the other day, frying a radio tower and, for a few long hours, plunging some of its 7,000 residents into an Internet-less world. "I wasn't above having thoughts of God's wrath," says Walter Kirn, one of those residents, a novelist and critic who lives by himself on 500 acres of hay and roving herds of antelope. The laptop sitting on his kitchen table rendered useless, Kirn tried typing into his cellphone, then drove through town, trolling for anybody with an unbroken connection. A segment of his newest novel was set to be published in a matter of hours, and it wasn't even written.

Kirn, given his pastoral surroundings, might seem an unlikely candidate to be writing an "online novel." But the author of "Thumbsucker" and "Mission to America" is hardly a transcendentalist loner, either -- he's well-connected in New York publishing circles and isn't averse to attention, having written, for instance, an article for GQ about his experimentation with Ritalin. When the editor of the online magazine Slate approached Kirn last December and asked if he'd be willing to write a novel, posting chapters to Slate as he went, Kirn says he warily agreed.

"I was both enthusiastic and doubtful," he says. "The old school part of me was brainwashed into thinking that writing on the Internet was a form of slumming or self-cheapening, kind of like publishing your own book at Kinko's." On the other hand, the editor assigned to the project was Meghan O'Rourke, formerly a fiction editor at the New Yorker and hardly an illiterate Web nerd.

The result is "The Unbinding," a serialized Web novel and a rumination on technology today, its first segment posted at Slate.com in March with postings continuing twice weekly through June. Kirn depicts technology as a looming Orwellian force, spying on the citizenry, turning our insides outward; yet Big Brother is not an ominous other but we, the people: We've internalized the totalitarian apparatus, and thus technology becomes at once our attempt at salvation, connection, love, meaning, and the vehicle of our own oppression. The loss of privacy makes for comedy, at first, and then for a sense of foreboding as trampled boundaries refuse to reappear.

In short: Everybody's spying on everybody (including themselves). At the center of it all is Kent, who works for the omnipresent corporation AidSat, which monitors millions of sensor-transmitters worn by its subscribers. Lost? Having chest pains? Can't remember your brother-in-law's boss' birthday? Press a button on your AidSat enabled bracelet or earring and you'll reach an operator like Kent who tracks you with satellites, monitors your vital signs and provides whatever help or information you so desire. Sometimes, operators track you unbidden.

Meet Sabrina, Kent's comely, single neighbor -- and an AidSat subscriber. Kent's interested, Kent has access and Kent can't resist doing a little background research. But Sabrina notices being noticed and calls upon her own connections with their own computers. We watch Sabrina watch Kent watch Sabrina; we, the readers, are implicated in the watching. The story unfolds through "found documents," such as Kent's blog-like online diary. "I decided this month to write it all down," Kent explains. "Everything, my morning and my nights, and to file it for perpetual safekeeping in the great electronic library of lives. I'm an interesting person, I've come to see. We all are. We don't deserve to disappear."

Kirn watches, also, through the Internet, sitting up nights at the kitchen table at his farm, wearing boxers, an owl hooting in the blackness beyond. He watches the world, watches us. He follows the political furor surrounding the National Security Agency wiretapping controversy, the parental furor arising from teens baring their souls (and other things) on social networking sites and video repositories such as Youtube.com. News of our world filters into the world of "The Unbinding," which filters back into our world -- say, this article -- which filters back into "The Unbinding." The first mainstream media review of this novel-in-progress, in the Boston Globe, appeared as a link in a following chapter. An AidSat operator tracked it down; apparently, their computer systems index multiple worlds.

Want to appear in a Walter Kirn novel? Now's your chance. Quick, do something crazy, and do it publicly. The clock's ticking; "The Unbinding" won't be evolving forever, it's set to be published as a book -- to be bound -- after its run at Slate. Kirn is considering selling the print rights on EBay.

"One of the essential lessons this book has already taught me," Kirn says, "is that the greatest threat to our privacy may not be the intrusions of Big Brother, but our own instinct for self-exploitation. People put out more stuff about themselves on Myspace.com than the government could ever hope to collect about them. The fear that we're being watched, these days, is evoking a kind of exhibitionism that may be as dangerous as being spied on."

Kirn's isn't the first online novel; the Internet boomed with hundreds of amateur "hypertext novels" almost as early as the birth of the medium, filled with links giving way to links, a postmodern pastiche of traces, although most of these read more like code than literature. Stephen King began publishing his online novel, "The Plant," in 2000, about a supernatural vine that infiltrated a paperback publishing house, offering up limitless wealth in exchange for human flesh.

"What made 'The Plant' such a hilarious Internet natural," King wrote in 2001, "was that publishers and media people seemed to see exactly this sort of monster whenever they contemplate the Net in general and e-lit in particular: a troublesome strangler fig that just might have a bit o' the old profit in it. If, that is, it's handled with gloves." King netted $600,000 from readers who paid on the honor system, then ceased publication after six chapters.

Dave Eggers serialized a political novel for the online magazine Salon in 2004. "I wrote that really as a chance to react quicker, in some oblique way, to what was actually going on in the political world," Eggers says. "There were references to things going on in the real Illinois senate campaign, the one Barak Obama won, and references to the Bush family. But most of the time, reality outpaced my ability to create fiction from it. I wish there was a bigger audience for this kind of thing, I think it could be very exciting."

The audience for "The Unbinding" hovers between 3,000 and 9,000, depending on the day, says O'Rourke, the editor. "Even if we had 700 readers," she says, "I was going to be very happy." O'Rourke is pursuing other writers -- well-known writers, although she declines to say names -- to publish their novels online in Slate. "If you're going to write a novel, the deal we're offering is very good," she says. "It's not an insignificant amount of money for just working on the novel. It's a model that writers have had for a long time, since going back to Dickens, being paid to serialize a novel." O'Rourke says that online readers are also likely to buy the physical book.

Of course what separates "The Unbinding" from previous serializations is its intertwining of form and content, its evolving investigation into the membrane between writer and reader, these umbilical cords, these flickering screens. Kirn has little idea where the story will take us, whether Kent and the others will embrace technology until all walls crumble and they find nirvana in the freedom of self-revelation -- or whether they'll turn away, if they're able, seek solace in ye olde flesh-to-flesh.

He receives guidance, constantly, from the nethers of the Net. "It's creating a little bit of a paranoid atmosphere," he says. "Just as my characters in the book are making friends with people who are actually spying on them, just as my characters are spying on people they're pretending to befriend, I get e-mails from readers, and you have no idea who's writing and why. I have lots of uncertain karma," Kirn says, and chuckles -- he's known for publishing harsh literary criticism. "At first, getting e-mail delights you: 'Oh, they're reading, someone's thinking about it!' But every once in a while I look at an e-mail and say, 'Well, here's someone determined to push me off track.' "

So, lightning struck, the Internet died and Kirn went searching for access. He found it, at a coffee shop downtown, plugged in, began to write; as he did, the watchers showed their human faces. "Literally, while I was writing, the town eccentrics were looking over my shoulder, asking about what I was writing, listening to my explanations, offering their two cents," Kirn says. "It had gotten around town pretty quickly that what Walter was doing inside his house could be viewed easily on a computer. I thought, 'This is more interactivity than I can stand!' But it was interesting too."



Eyeing and spying love

A sample from "The Unbinding," an online novel by Walter Kirn published in installments at Slate.com:

Big news from Sabrina: I have another stalker. His name is Kent Selkirk, he lives across the courtyard, he drives an older black Ford mini-pickup with bumper stickers proclaiming that he's a Democrat, a paintballer, and an organ donor, and on Wednesday I got a weird anonymous note quoting a diary the guy's been writing about some tricky scheme of his to go through my file at AidSat, where he works (you know: "AidSat -- Always at your Side"), and use the info inside it to seduce me.

The funny thing, and the thing that makes me think the letter-writer must know both of us, is that I've been eyeing this Kent since he moved in here. He seems like my type: a fouled-up jock with brains who goes around wearing flip flops and pocket T-shirts and a ridiculous pair of thick dark shades that wrap around his head like plastic bat wings and emphasize the squareness of his huge skull. He reminds me of one of my crushes at U Mass, that guy who supposedly date-raped all the swimmers but wriggled off because of his top tennis ranking, except that he's less obviously psychotic in terms of his walk and posture and general aura. If he passes a dog, he pets it just like I would, and I've seen him hold doors for old ladies in his unit and carry a pregnant Hispanic woman's grocery bags. He also happens to be about half-gorgeous, with one of those partly caved-in boxers' noses sprinkled across the bridge with sandy freckles.

Which all adds up to a favor, little sister. Is there somebody clever in your tech department, some nerd you can maybe bat your lovely lashes at, who can use this guy's name to find out what he's been up to before he spotted yours truly and fell in love? It's pure high school, I realize, and totally unfair. But it might be good for [grins]. Maybe that isn't how computers work, though. I wouldn't know. I'm just a facialist.

Wednesday, April 5, 2006

A judge of characters


Wednesday April 05, 2006

A judge of characters
* `Who Wants to Be a Superhero' lures those seeking to impress comic book legend Stan Lee and emerge as the next great crime fighter.

By Steven Barrie-Anthony, Times Staff Writer

It's a dark and stormy Tuesday morning in Hollywood, just the kind that draws villains -- purse snatchers, hobgoblins -- from their shadowy lairs to terrorize the gentle citizenry of this vast metropolis. Rain splatters the cavernous soundstages at Sunset Gower Studios and streams off the rooftops, turning sidewalks into rivers.

On the street, a green van sputters and turns but won't start. And slowly, quietly, masked and caped men and women arrive. And though they're armed -- the usual stuff: guns, knives, musical instruments, bananas -- it's easy to see from their smiling and handshaking that these are friendly heroes. Angelenos are safe -- for now.

Anonymous crime fighting is so passe. It's high time, these superheroes say, that they got theirs. Fame, that is. Money. Sex appeal. So when comic book god Stan Lee announced last June that he would hold tryouts for his new reality show, "Who Wants to Be a Superhero," set to air in July on the Sci-Fi Channel, word spread almost instantaneously through Internet message boards, comic book conventions and clubs. All told, about 300 superheroes would brave the rain and muck to demonstrate their powers to Lee.

Big Pappa arrives nearly two hours before auditions are set to begin and stands outside, unbothered by the rain. He looks a little like a pimp, with a giant gold "BP" on a chain around his neck, a garish "$$$" ring and a black cape. "My walking stick moves so fast that it can stop bullets," Pappa explains in a gentle voice. "It can also smash steel, and it emits a laser beam from the bottom. My pocket watch freezes everyone in time, but I can only use it once a day. Most important, I have the power to enchant the ladies." By day, Pappa is Bob Carey, 37, and he teaches test prep courses at Kaplan.

"Two years ago, my wife started calling me Big Pappa," he says. "And I started calling her Baby. I constructed all this to irritate her."

Only 11 contestants will be chosen next week to inhabit a secret lair and compete on various missions and shenanigans, with Lee as judge. But the final prize is enough to make any superhero quiver in her tights: an original comic book about the winner, by none other than Lee himself, and a movie version for the Sci-Fi Channel.

"I'll probably be the next Donald Trump," Lee says. "Instead of saying, 'You're fired,' I'll have to come up with another line. Maybe, 'Take off your costume!' I'll be the ultimate judge. It's a great responsibility, and I take it very seriously. It's a great weight on my shoulders and I just hope that I will be up to this test. Because the eyes of the world will be upon us."

Eventually, the team of producers with clipboards takes pity on the masked masses -- rain is not good for costume makeup -- and invite them into a bare soundstage where lights flicker appropriately. When a superhero whose power is craziness screams gibberish and claims that his straitjacket can fly, a shirtless man in a corner changing into spandex tenses and says, "I think somebody let in a villain!" But that's not the case, and all remains good and right.

Dominic Pace, a.k.a. the Server, draws his power from professional ire. In his secret identity, he's a 30-year-old waiter at the Geisha House, see, but by night, "I extort money from the cheap tippers and bad customers," he explains. He carries a bulletproof silver serving tray, which doubles as a shield and a projectile, and he uses a pepper mill -- which he wears at his hip in a holster -- to "spray pepper like shotgun pellets." He carries a calculator in an arm holster so that "when I catch the bad guys, I can tally up how much they owe."

Nearby, Ice Bitch struts her stuff. She's in a skimpy outfit of see-through fishnet stockings, boots, a black bustier and platinum wig. "I've been Ice Bitch for at least 20 years," says the 42-year-old freelance art director. "It's all about the eyes, they freeze the bad guys. I am a defender of the environment. I go after litterers, poachers. I teach those who are teachable, and punish those who are not teachable."

Most of these heroes are giddy about the chance to meet Lee, who arrives at 11:30 a.m. to shake each and every hand. Conventional powers such as flight and invisibility are OK, says Lee, but "we're not going to ask anybody to fly or leap tall buildings with a single bound. We can't test that. But what we can test is this: Every superhero has certain qualities and characteristics on the inside, characteristics like courage, character, honesty, integrity, self-sacrifice, compassion, resourcefulness. We can test that stuff."

However, few superheroes seem interested in showing off their sensitivity and intelligence. One man dressed conventionally in a brown suit and spats uses a motorized pump to blow up a giant balloon and tries to climb into it without the air escaping -- to a resounding "pop!" "Sometimes that happens," Buster Balloon explains afterward. "But the world needs a vaudeville crime fighter."

POW! BAM! A woman in white and a man in black begin a vigorous hula-hoop duel in the middle of the room. An accordion player in whiteface wearing a fedora belts out a ballad at the top of his lungs: "Stan Lee, Stan Lee, he'll make a superhero out of me...." Monkey Woman polishes one of nearly a dozen bananas strapped to her garter belt and fur underwear.

And Man-Fey, probably the oddest of the admittedly odd bunch, turns and dances until the flesh of his behind, barely covered by spandex, shivers. Superheroes gather around to stare and offer queasy congratulations.

"I stand for the freedom to party down when you want to without the man telling you not to," says Damen Evans, a 24-year-old art student from Laguna Beach. "This costume started out as a bad joke," he says. "But now I've been doing this for five years."

Sunday, April 2, 2006

The last mystery of Vidal


Sunday April 02, 2006

Style & Culture
The last mystery of Vidal
* A writer steeped in history and remembrance makes his stand in a city of reinvention.

By Steven Barrie-Anthony, Times Staff Writer

YOU hear Gore Vidal long before you see him, the steady tap-swish-tap of foot and cane on an upstairs landing in his sunny Spanish Colonial house in the Hollywood Hills; then there's the slow whir of a mechanical chairlift carrying the novelist-essayist-playwright-screenwriter downward. Vidal is 80, with an artificial knee, and in 2003 he left his Mediterranean aerie in southern Italy overlooking the Amalfi Coast -- not far from where the sirens sang, and Odysseus sailed on -- and returned to his sometime home in Los Angeles to live out the rest of his life.

The 1-kilometer trek from the house in Ravello to the piazza became difficult, Vidal explains once he's settled into a floral print armchair in a drawing room that brims with books yet to be shelved, paintings wrapped in brown paper leaning against naked walls. "I could walk it," he says, "but it takes me half a day. Also, I have diabetes. Also, the Cedars-Sinai years are here."

Vidal pauses and gazes out across the high-ceilinged room to where a tall window reveals sunlit greenery atop an adobe wall. It's a comfortable silence; Vidal is in no hurry to recollect, but he's in no hurry to finish recollecting either. He has been drawing deeply upon his memory in the last few years as he puts the finishing touches on his second memoir, "Point to Point Navigation," due out in November from Doubleday, the sequel to 1995's "Palimpsest."

"I always knew that we were going to need a house for the Cedars-Sinai years," he says. "Which is indeed what happened. But we always rented it out, until the last few years, when Howard got sick. And here I am." Vidal rarely mentions Howard Auster, his companion for half a century, when in the company of the press. It was Auster's cancer, as well as Vidal's bad knee, that spurred the move from Ravello. And then Auster died less than a year after they arrived.

These explanations make sense; but there remains something odd about Vidal's choosing Los Angeles as his final home, his patrician demeanor and deep sense of history clashing with the never-ending reinvention that pop culture requires of this city. Why did he and Auster not return to Rome, say, where for two decades they lived in a grand penthouse atop a palace in the Historic Center, and where the hospitals are just as good as they are here? Vidal adored Rome, he has said and written, but he does not by any means love Los Angeles. A writer lives in his head, he says, and so place is mostly immaterial. But then a writer is also human and hardly oblivious to his context.

In a 1985 essay for Architectural Digest magazine, Vidal contrasted his home in the "unfashionable Hollywood Hills," near Runyon Canyon, with his idyllic Roman penthouse: "In Los Angeles we live in our cars," he wrote, "or en route to houses where a pool is a pool is a pool and there are only three caterers and you shall have no other. A car trip to Chalet Gourmet on the Sunset Strip is a chore not an adventure. But a trip down our street [in Rome] is a trip indeed."

So why not Rome? Or London, where he buys most of his books from Heywood Hill?

"Come to my funeral and ask," Vidal answers, and pauses for a long time. The only sound is the rattling of ice as Vidal sways his tumbler of whiskey. "One hospital could kill you just as easy as another."


Old wounds

VIDAL grips his brown wooden cane, lets it go. His maternal grandfather, the blind senator T.P. Gore, holds a similar cane in a black-and-white studio portrait, published in "Palimpsest." A 10-year-old Vidal stands alongside, his arm over the senator's shoulder, his eyes gentle, his posture reverent, protective. Vidal has called the Washington, D.C., estate that his grandfather built at Rock Creek Park, where he spent the happiest moments of his childhood, his "true home." When at Rock Creek, Vidal's gentle eyes stood in for his blind grandfather's useless ones. Reticent no more, Vidal enthuses -- but slowly, with aristocratic poise -- about reading the Congressional Record aloud to the grandfather he idolized. These are good memories, and warm.

Why not settle in Washington, then? The Malaysian ambassador has moved into the old Rock Creek house, sure, but there are other estates nearby.

"God, no," Vidal says. "Unless you hold office, there's no point in being there." That was the plan, in the beginning. To live in Washington and hold office. Vidal knew this as he wrapped his arm around his grandfather and his grandfather leaned proudly upon his cane and the flashbulbs popped. But now Vidal is a year older than his grandfather ever was, and he's a long way from the capital.

A clue to this mystery of place sits on the brown rattan table, here in the Hollywood Hills. A pile of books, titles like "Extreme Islam," "Did George W. Bush Steal America's 2004 Election?," "Worst Pills, Best Pills." Among them, Vidal's own novel, "The City and the Pillar," the first serious literary work by an American author to deal openly with homosexual themes. It was a death knell for a politician at the time (although Vidal ran for Senate in 1982, coming in second to Jerry Brown in the California primary) and it forced a change of course. Vidal knew the consequences, he says now; it was a calculated decision, the right decision. "It's probably the only worthwhile thing I ever did in public life," he says. "Assuming that publishing is public life. Which is a great leap."

Vidal was just 23 when he published "The City and the Pillar," but it was his third novel and he was already a literary star. He dedicated the book "For the memory of J.T.," initials that remained mysterious for years. Today, Vidal speaks openly of Jimmie Trimble, a fellow pupil at St. Albans School in D.C., and Vidal's first love. "He was an athlete," Vidal says. "Now we think of athletes as just dumb-dumb boys, they're all muscle and no brain. But our athletes, at least of the class we came from, the political class, from Kentucky -- he was from Kentucky -- they were not only body boys, they were brain boys."

Trimble and Vidal were inseparable for a while, sexually and otherwise, and then fate intervened in the guise of Vidal's shrill and beautiful mother, Nina, who, concerned about her son's mediocre grades, transferred Vidal from St. Albans into yet another boarding school, Exeter, near Boston. Vidal saw Trimble one last time, at a dance in 1942, and they fled the hall together briefly, doing what teenagers in love are apt to do, leaving behind Vidal's fiancee, a young woman named Rosalind. Of course, Vidal never married Rosalind. And Trimble joined the Marines at the height of World War II and was killed in the Battle of Iwo Jima.

Vidal has written that he never again felt unity with another sexual partner -- at least, he hasn't yet. "It's not something you look for," he says sharply. "Things happen or they don't." He's been sliding down into the comfort of his armchair during conversation, and now a bit of his midriff peeks between his white button-down and his slacks. He's dallied with plenty of men, and some women, over the years -- more than plenty -- but none, except that first, was of lasting import. His relationship with Auster was platonic; which is exactly why it endured, says Vidal.

"In any country on Earth but the United States, people would understand this," he says. "For grown people, [sex] is something apart from living with somebody; it's just a disturbance." But people in the States "want total fidelity from the other person, and as much sex as they can get on the side. Preferably in a massage parlor. We are not," he says, turning for emphasis, "regarded as brilliant by other people."

It wasn't a marriage with Auster, nor a partnership. Vidal doesn't like to name what they were, just as he hates being pigeonholed as homosexual. No, they were Gore Vidal and Howard Auster, two men who decided to spend their lives together. "He's a private person," Vidal demurs. "There's not much to tell."

He must feel Auster's absence? "It was only 55 years," he says. "I don't know. It's.... Everyone handles it in their own way." He stares into a distance beyond the room. "I'm at the age where I'm asked to dinner parties with numerous widows and widowers, and they're all kind of cheery in a macabre kind of way. One illustrious lady said to me, don't you hate it when people tell you that time will heal all wounds? Of course I hate it. Time just reminds you of what is lost and not coming back again."


The old Hollywood

VIDAL shares the house with his Filipino cook, Norberto Nierras, while his 23-year-old assistant, Daren, lives in an apartment above the garage. He goes out very occasionally -- he enjoys, for instance, the acoustics and architecture of Walt Disney Concert Hall -- but mostly he stays at home. Work remains the constant throughout his days, as it always has been. He reads and writes in an upstairs study, where three windows look out onto swaying palm fronds; beyond, fancy cars speed too quickly around the curves. He prefers a typewriter or pen and paper to the computer, which he calls "that machine," but he respects the Internet and has published several political essays on his friend Robert Scheer's website, Truthdig.org. He rarely writes letters, because "practically everyone I know is dead." What friends remain do come calling fairly often. He abhors the telephone.

Today, when his tumbler runs dry, Vidal glances down at leftover ice. "Where's my Filipino gentleman?" he asks, fiddling with an intercom on the table in front of him. Daren has left on an errand, so for the moment Norberto is doling out the whiskey. The intercom doesn't seem to be working; "Norberto!" Vidal bellows, and back comes an indiscernible guttural shout. "It's an ancient Philippine folk song," Vidal says, half-smiling, and then Norberto arrives, middle-aged and in street clothes, and hands over a fresh tumbler, filled to the brim. Vidal has been drinking like this for years, but there's no noticeable effect on his formidable oratory and wit.

Norberto seems relaxed with Vidal, comfortable. After Auster died, he took the liberty of installing a chair in front of the door leading from Auster's room into Vidal's study; atop the chair he placed a large wooden puppet. "It's something superstitious," says Vidal, smiling. "He's a Filipino, and they have all sorts of meanings. I intend to get rid of it. Maybe it's to ward off the evil eye."

So. About Los Angeles?

"Rosebud," he says, echoing Charles Foster Kane's dying whisper in "Citizen Kane," and the idea that a single object or place can unlock the mystery of a life. He's joking, of course, hinting at the ridiculousness of this vein of inquiry. Vidal is in this city but not of it, he accepts but does not embrace it. "Rosebud" adds another wrinkle, however -- it is born of the movies, which are born of Los Angeles. And Vidal's language, if you listen closely, is run through with references to the product and process of film.

About the way memory works, he says: "When you were 10 years old, which in my case would be 60 or 70 years ago, you broke your leg. Trauma. Duly recorded, somewhere, on the tapes in your head. But if you recall it, the moment when your leg broke at the age of 10, you're not summoning up that movie, it's not as though you can just get the experience going in your head again. What you do, which is much more interesting and strange: You remember the last time you remembered it."

And it begins to make sense, now, to ask Vidal to remember remembering his first days as an adult in Los Angeles, the days when, he says, "the magic of the movies got through to me." Perhaps here lies the anatomy of his choice of home: It was 1945, and Vidal, the 19-year-old first mate of an Army freight-supply ship, was trying to jump from the ship to the dock at Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands. He could not; his knees simply wouldn't spring. He had been drenched with icy water from the Bering Sea more than once, and osteoarthrosis was the result. Many years later it would require an operation, an artificial knee, but at the time it delivered him to a hospital in Anchorage and left him pondering "home."

The Army sent soldiers to convalesce close to their hometowns; for most of them, that was an easily locatable destination. Not so for Vidal. His mother, Nina, was living at the Beverly Hills Hotel after two divorces and the death of her third husband. "I much preferred my father to my mother," Vidal says, "but I much preferred Hollywood, or the notion of it, to either of them. So, 'L.A. is where I come from,' I said." He was delivered to Birmingham General Hospital in Van Nuys. "It was pretty wonderful. Charles Laughton used to come over and read poetry and act plays. But only for the guys who were interested; he didn't want the ones who were just in it for autographs."

Nina's friend Jules Stein, head of MCA, gave Vidal a pass to all of the studios, and he would hitchhike in and watch the movies being made. The first set he breached was that of "Marriage Is a Private Affair," written in part by his dear-friend-to-be Tennessee Williams. Vidal remembers Bette Davis, on the set of "The Corn Is Green," standing in front of a manor house "in a riot of Harris tweed" and struggling to mount a horse. "You don't need an actress," Davis was saying. "You need an acrobat!" Vidal, now in his armchair, chuckles.

New York stole Vidal for a few years, which is where he met Auster, who had given up a career as a singer and was pursuing work in advertising. "He was having trouble getting a job in a New York advertising agency, despite an NYU degree," Vidal remembers. "The agencies, in general, did not hire Jews. So I said change the 'r' to an 'n.' He did, and was promptly hired by an agency that had turned him down the previous year." (Auster was thus known as Austen, in some circles.)

Then Hollywood wooed Vidal back; he signed a screenwriting contract at MGM and he and Auster lived with Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward in Shirley MacLaine's old house in Malibu. He worked on "Ben-Hur," among other movies, but was ultimately dissatisfied with the studio system. It was too rigid; fluid collaboration seemed impossible. Europe beckoned; he answered. Rome. Ravello.

"I was fascinated by the movies," he says. "We all were, my generation." Fascinated, in past tense. "The problem with movies is that they're not for encouraging argument, for the mind," Vidal says. "It's for emotions. And you can excite people to a point.... Well, a medium that has that trouble is in deep trouble. And I think one of the problems of today is that literature has no prestige, while movies have all the prestige. And movies cannot do argument, they cannot do the mind, they cannot do anything -- except get your pulses going a little faster."


Despair and dreams

MOVIES, in other words, cannot do change, or at least cannot do it effectively enough. It was change that Vidal was after through politics, as well; in one way or another, he's always been after changing society, under many auspices, wearing his many hats. He is credited as the first to label the United States an empire, back in the 1970s, and has long been an outspoken critic of what he sees as American stupidity, greed, reliance on archaic moral structures. It's as bad now as it ever was, Vidal says, with Bush and the neoconservative agenda running the White House. "Did you see that story in the New York paper?" he asks. "All the money that Halliburton owes the government, and they're being forgiven this vast debt, because it's Cheney. In a well-run country, that wouldn't happen, a country of law. But we're now lawless."

"I don't see any optimistic signs on the horizon," Vidal says. "It's just, how much money can we wring out of the public, before all the oil has dried up and before soybeans can be properly processed? So we're at a curious point; obviously there are intelligent people who do have solutions, but not one of them will ever get inside the White House, not one of them is going to get to Congress, and God help you if you take on the bench. So all doors are shut at the moment."

Even in liberal Hollywood, after a year in which gay sheepherders fell in love, a preoperative transsexual reunited with her son and CBS reporter Edward R. Murrow took a stand against Sen. Joseph McCarthy, all in front of audiences' eyes, even after this, Vidal sees little reason to rejoice. After all, "Brokeback Mountain" failed to win the Oscar for best picture, exactly as Vidal predicted. "Nobody believed me," he says, relishing his prescience. "I said there's not a chance in the world the older members of the academy, the carpenters, the grips, the this's, the thats, living over in Van Nuys, they're not going to vote for that."

It seems hopeless, really, and yet, at 80 years old, Vidal continues the fight. "I have no choice," he says. "I have no selfish interests. All of my selfish interests are public interests." Under the weight of the world, at the apex of his frustration, Vidal is wont to smile. There is satisfaction in the muck, somewhere. "I'll never forget the joy," he says, and trails off, and pauses, and sips. "The four greatest words on Earth are 'I told you so,' " he says. "I have seen to it that I'm able to say that at period intervals, like a cuckoo clock."

One of the few people Vidal speaks with regularly on the telephone is Barbara Epstein, his longtime friend and editor at the New York Review of Books. "Like many people in Los Angeles, he's in exile," she says of Vidal. "Los Angeles is a place of exile. In a way, I think the one fits in the other very nicely."

Perhaps home, for Vidal, is exactly that -- exile -- a home that is not a home, from which he spies, somewhere in the nowhere of the distance, a better world.

But Vidal is not sentimental. The closest he comes is in his dreams. On good nights, as he sleeps in a second-floor bedroom down the landing from his study, he dreams of his father. "I'm always happy to see him again," Vidal says. "He starts climbing up a hill, and I follow him up, and it gets more and more full of bushes and so on. And then he vanishes." The landscape is not Los Angeles and not Ravello. "It's placeless," he says. "It's just a hill. It's wild country. When you dream of your father after a certain age, you're having a death dream. Any more of these doctors, and it won't be a dream."