Life with the Duluth bits left in


When people die in Duluth, they reappear in "Duluth", the popular TV show that has divided the townsfolk. But, while the reincarnated occasionally attempt to make contact with their onetime relatives, reality itself seems subject to the whims of a parade of pulp novelists: aliens land in the city; a statuesque blonde policewoman sexes her way through the barrios; and the high society of Duluth, led by magnate Bellamy Craig, drug-dealer Big John and shadowy figure The Dude, attempt to subvert and control the rioting masses. And when the spaceship seems to move wherever the sheriff puts the drawing pin on his map, or when famous novelist Rosemary Klein Kantor uses her database of everyone else's fiction to change the social and geographical landscapes of the town, it's clear that not all of the problems can be laid squarely at the door of Mayor Herridge.

This is a novel about the power of fiction as much as it's a social satire. It boasts special effects and complicated visual sequences alongside such typical necessities as plot and characterization. As such, it suffers occasionally under the weight of the explosives and machinery required to keep the fires and bullets stoked, and the alien spacecraft moving around by pomo-magic. Vidal's typically acerbic malice is here so flamboyant and over the top that it occasionally reveals the puppetry that guides his protagonists in their roles. Shallowness of character is not something that one expects from a Vidal novel and, while a brief managing of expectations permits you to settle down and simply watch the show, in the interim it's easy to feel lost among a carnival of exciting, but ultimately pointless, distractions: "is this all there is?"

Rather aptly, then, Duluth is one of a breed of novels (all kissing-cousins of Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions) that express a kind of mid-life crisis both in the lives of the individual authors and also in the way that the novel can be written. Personal and technical fears go into the writing of such books, and it's understandable that excesses of style and technique are to be found in what are, in some ways, attempts to fend off insecurity. That Calvino was a fan of Duluth reveals a lot about its content: it's a novelist's novel, pointing the way for all sorts of techniques, but ultimately, like Captain Eddie standing for mayor but messing with his maps and plans, too busy with prestidigitation to win the popular vote.