I change, but in death


James Kelly wants to bring about the end of the world. In the guise of Kalki, the final avatar of Vishnu, that's precisely what he will do. But why? If Kelly really believes himself to be a god, that question is more complex than it appears; if he's bluffing, and the government's investigations into his all-too-human history of drug dealing and post-Vietnam activities have revealed the truth, then the question and its answer are more straightforward. Few people dare to think of the third possibility: that Kalki is really among us, and the end is as nigh as he, or maybe He, claims.

Enter Theodora Ottinger, flying ace and largely failed mother. The glow surrounding her memoir Beyond Motherhood has largely faded, and the alimony payments are due. Just in time, word reaches her that Kalki wants her to interview him, and will accept no other: until, of course, an interview with CBS scheduled for a week or two later. But what, apart from sex and the distribution of his origami peace flowers to all nations, does Kalki want with the stridently bisexual Ottinger? And what, apart from sex and a good story, attracts her to Kalki and others in his coterie? How might all these dysfunctional, possibly deified individuals depend upon each other? And what does it mean to the rest of the world---for the next month or so, at least?

Vidal understands his genre well: in this as in other novels, he combines noirish suspense with a soap-operatic absurdity that turns comedy tragic at the same time as turning tragedy comic. Ottinger's journeys and her plane flights are at the same time a shambolic gamble on her own mortality and a purposeful, insightful investigation of the tendrils of Kalki's international organizations. The book's general atmosphere also remains timely, describing the 1980s American dystopia in a way that chimes far more eerily with the circumstances of our new century: a weakened, tottering American empire, set like shit on a rock in a decaying, dangerously unstable climate; bleached, poisoned, beset by other world powers it feels far too certain it can control; and ploughing on regardless into its own oblivion, with or without the help of the Destroyer of Foulness.

In keeping with the suspenseful style of the narration---from Ottinger's point of view---the book is riveting and complex. Vidal has proved himself time and again as one of America's foremost writers: a master of style, searingly intelligent and with an acidic, biting sense of satire (one daren't call it humour) that could etch any politico to the bone. His status as an author, however, is more easily contested. Vidal finds it hard to distance himself from his subject, and his voice often creeps into those of his characters. When Ottinger creeps too far into political comment, or when her stream of consciousness freewheels through philosophy or psychology, one can hear the rumbling, crackling tones of the author turning her charming, rich voice into a brief succession of bum notes. But in Kalki more than in other novels Vidal is capable of largely forgetting himself, and his own prejudices, and reconciling himself with his varied and generally sympathetic characters. Just as well he and they are able to set aside their differences: after all, life is too short to fall out; brutally short.