Last week in part 2, I had a look at the idea of turning Gore Vidal’s 1981 novel Creation into a graphic novel. In this third and last part of this series, join me for a trip into the obscure with what may be Vidal’s least-known fictional work: Kalki.
Hindu mythology is not a trifling matter. In millions of verses, the Hindu epics and ritual texts spell out an elaborate cosmogony that describes cycles of eras-called yugas-in which even the most powerful gods eventually face their end.
According to esoteric Hinduism, four yugas comprise every cycle of the universe, starting with a golden age in which morality is clear. Things go gradually downhill as the yugas progress, ending with the Kali Yuga, the “black time,” the shortest and most corrupt of the four ages: a countdown to destruction.
Throughout the epochs, this belief system contends, Vishnu, a member of the highest trinity of gods (Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva, representing creation, preservation, and annihilation) incarnates as a physical being-an avatar-in periods of transition. The epic heroes are considered such incarnations, the tenth and last of which, Kalki, is a mysterious figure who, Hindu scriptures say, will appear to guide us through the final darkness until this universe is destroyed, sticking around to lock up and turn off the lights on his way out and start off the next golden age. Prophecies about this final avatar abound, describing him as a man astride a white, winged horse.
What does all this have to do with Gore Vidal? Only that he chose this demanding subject matter as the backdrop of his 1978 novel, Kalki. The 255-page story-for Vidal and his epic tendencies, a mere novella-describes the rise of a religious cult leader who believes himself to be Vishnu’s tenth avatar, born to deliver humanity from the age of corruption. With typically Vidal-ian perversity, this messiah is a former American soldier named James J. Kelly, gorgeously blond and unmistakably Caucasian. The story is narrated by Teddy Ottinger, a bisexual woman chosen by Kelly to be a “perfect master” in the end times, a preserver of what’s good in human culture to send forward into the coming golden age. If Kalki has a critical flaw, it’s that the whole thing hinges on whether or not the reader will be able to relate to the jaded, sardonic Teddy. She’s not for everyone.
Kalki is hard to categorize genre-wise. Without giving away too much, it’s apocalyptic, has elements of science fiction, is written as a character’s memoir, and reels through history, mythology, and contemporary American culture. Like most of Vidal’s work, it’s full of his keen observations of human nature, all seen through a typically jaundiced eye. Critics received Kalki with negativity or ambivalence, some dismissing it as a vehicle for Vidal’s cynicism about a world and civilization he would happily see destroyed.
For those who follow Vidal’s work and the events of his life, it’s also packed with a bit of revelation (no pun intended) about the author’s emotional scars. Self-proclaimed messiah James J. Kelly (Jimmy) bears more than a passing resemblance to the love of Vidal’s life, Jimmy Trimble, who died toward the end of World War II. Vidal repeatedly describes Trimble’s golden blond-ness and cheerful certainty in his memoir Palimpsest, a contrast and perfect compliment to Vidal’s dark looks and brooding nature.
Trimble’s memory haunted Vidal throughout his life-Vidal’s home in Ravello, Italy apparently contained a huge portrait of him-and makes for complicated template. Kelly is morally ambiguous, both beautiful and terrifying, sane and crazy, charismatic and totally seductive. A fusion of Trimble’s memory with a whole range of complicated characters, imagined extensions of who or what he may have become had he lived, is a distinctive characteristic of Vidal’s fiction. Images of a beautiful, golden youth appear throughout his work. As I wrote about The City and the Pillar in part 1, Vidal’s grief about Trimble’s death in 1945 is tied up with images of destruction, divine judgment, and apocalypse (in that case, in an epigraph referring to Sodom and Gomorrah and a love story that results in violence and murder). It’s not hard to see why Vidal might envision him as a harbinger of the end of the literal world, not just Vidal’s ability to love-another human being, or the mass of humanity itself.
I found Vidal’s research into Hinduism fairly seamless, right down to its frequent misinterpretation by the West, although (as in much of the rest of his work) he’s not above taking pot shots at the whole idea of organized religion. Still, there’s always a faint trace of reverence whenever he describes ancient cultures and modes of thought, particularly in relation to their corrupt modern counterparts. Remember that this was toward the end of an era of the West embracing everything Indian with a peculiar sort of naiveté: Beatles hanging out with Ravi Shankar, flower power, and transcendental meditation. Timothy Leary’s work with LSD had been in full swing for over a decade, conflated heavily with images of Hindu spirituality. Vidal was disgusted by the whole thing, most of all a sanitized approach to some very dark themes in a religion as old as language. As the late 70s began their slow roll into the spiritually impoverished 80s, Kalki was, in some ways, a death knell of the Age of Aquarius.
In my opinion, whatever genre it is thought to occupy, Kalki is perfectly paced, the more so because it is framed as the hurried recollections of a single character. There are scenes in Kalki that are so visual, so perfectly suited to be rendered in graphic format, that I have often wondered whether Vidal may have originally conceived it (or even written it) as a screenplay.
If I were to adapt this, I’d choose an artist who could keep up with Kalki‘s mercurial narrator. Indie comics great Colleen Doran is best known for her epic fantasy series A Distant Soil, which I first discovered in 2003. (This work is all the more remarkable in that Doran began it when she was 12.)
With her ability to render both nuanced faces and sweeping vistas, Doran would be a perfect choice for an illustrated Kalki. While the constant references to Hindu mythology in Vidal’s story would seem to suggest a riot of color, I think Doran’s ability to work in her signature unshaded monochrome-or, if color were used, flat colors-would give the art a feeling of starkness and emotional coldness that would serve the story best.
One scene in particular clicks into place when I imagine it rendered in Doran’s fine hand. A pivotal moment in Kalki is the messiah’s cult organizing “Lotus Lotteries,” in which paper lotus flowers are showered to the earth from a 747. Winners of the lotteries enjoy a lifetime-abbreviated though it may be by the coming apocalypse-of prosperity. Doran’s ability to draw ecstatic faces, combined with her masterful use of perspective in works like A Distant Soil, would truly bring these scenes to life.
And so, with the end of the world-or Gore Vidal’s vision of it, at least-we end our series on Vidal books that might make good graphic novels. Literary executors, take note. Vidal may or may not have approved, but maybe it’s time to adapt some of his works into this format. (You have my number.)