Arc d'X
Steve Erickson, 1993

In Brad Neely's brilliant Wizard People, Dear Readers, there is a bit in which Harry Potter and friends have just escaped from some kind of evil black tentacles and now find themselves in a chamber full of marble columns and CGI dragonflies. The narrator declares:

Harry is totally uninterested in this next challenge. He runs through this problem like a set of crunches as his mind's eye daydreams again. He sees himself dressed as a conquistador, crashing in the faces of werewolves and bigfoots with an enormous telescope. He then goes on to envision himself arriving on the coast of a then-undiscovered America. He mingles peacefully with the natives, and trades secrets of magic with their shamans. He makes friends, and blends bloodlines of greatness. He teaches them wizard spells, and they in turn teach him how to fly across the continent at ridiculous speeds. He learns to slay deer with laser beams from his eyes, and how to make all things around the house out of buffalo parts.

Harry could live with a woman who has strong, magical jet-black hair. She'd be enchanted, and almost a giant. She'd carry Harry around on her shoulder as she walked through the forest, and he'd hold on to her perfect ear, smiling. They'd fly off into the clouds and spend weekends up there, dictating the North American weather patterns. He'd need not worry about clothes, because he'd wear those strappy skirts that were popular back then in America.

But that world of America, of light and natural beauty, and of those people, who were so one with the perfect ecosystem, that world dissipates, and Harry is back in the dark, hoary bowels of storm-ridden England, trying to save all of wizard-dom from his crazed, Dracula-ghost father. Harry almost sobs, but moves on. He is a true champion.

Arc d'X is pretty much exactly like this, only we're supposed to take it seriously. It starts off very promisingly as an uncompromising historical novel about Thomas Jefferson, who spends his days being fawned over as the heroic liberator of the masses and his nights raping the barely pubescent slave Sally Hemings. This section is marked by lyricism and psychological insight, and I was settling in for a great book... but then after about fifty pages or so it just goes hurtling off the rails into a world of risible surrealism with unexplained characters who turn out to have wandered in from one of Erickson's earlier books. Do not want.

Gore Vidal, 1973

Well, that was a waste of time. Burr is the first volume — chronologically, not by date of publication — in Gore Vidal's series of novels about American history. It is the story of the former vice president's last years, as he dictates his memoirs to a thoroughly uninteresting junior newspaperman whose life takes up way too much of the page count. Now, you'd think it wouldn't be hard to get an interesting novel out of Aaron Burr's life: though perhaps most famous for killing Alexander Hamilton in a duel, Burr also went on trial for treason, charged with a plot to declare himself sovereign of a country made up of breakaway American states and land seized from Spain. But while Vidal obligingly runs through the numbers of Burr's life, his account is thematically empty.

So why write about Burr if you have nothing to say about him? Likely because Burr seemed like the most promising member of his generation to serve the only function Vidal is interested in: that of demythologizer of early American history. Of all those present at the founding of the nation, Vidal seems to have asked himself, who would be most likely to mention that when he met with George Washington, Washington couldn't sit down because he had a boil on his ass? And so we get hundreds of pages of slams on all the big names. Washington's a terrible general. Jefferson's an underhanded hypocrite. It quickly becomes a tedious reflex. If a character shows up for half a page, Vidal is careful to throw in a mention that he has bad breath. Someone goes to a play? Must mention how dull it was. This may have all been thrillingly shocking back in 1973, but having grown up in a less hagiographical era, I found it shallow and tiresome.

I probably should have known better than to bother with this one considering that Julian was also fairly poor as a novel. I guess I figured that Julian appeared relatively early in Vidal's career and that he might have learned something about craft in the intervening decade; I also thought that a less exotic setting might be a plus. Neither turns out to be true. At least Julian had an agenda I agreed with. Burr has little to offer other than the pleasures — if you find them pleasurable — of gossip.

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