Despite what Christopher Hitchens may think about Gore Vidal these days, for years Vidal has been the brightest, most outspoken and infuriatingly witty American to, maybe ever, take up the pen. For this reason, rather than cringe when discovering a copy of his 1978 book Kalki, I jumped at it. Normally a white guy writing a book about a Hindu deity would clamp my jaw shut. But this is Vidal. Vintage Vidal. Chances are he knows what he’s doing.
And damn straight he does. Kalki–the final avatar of Visnu in traditional mythology–takes the story of the god and puts it in a modernish context. Instead of what we’d expect from an apocalyptic Indian deity, we get a former Vietnam GI who runs an ashram in Kathmandu where he prepares his followers for the end of the world.
The story is made even weirder in that it’s told from the perspective of a female pilot, Teddy, who is both an Amelia Earhart fanatic and a thinly disguised manifestation of Vidal himself. Teddy’s distrust of the government and attacks against the hick president (Carter) read much like Vidal’s diatribes of the late 1970s, proving that Vidal even in fiction, Vidal is never more than a step away from his non-fiction literary rants.
Agree with his politics or not, Kalki is a fascinating read. The mixture of fantasy and reality set the book in a pseudo-realistic world, much like the one in which we live and yet simultaneously worlds away. And though the book is set, sort of, in the near future from when it was written, it certainly sounds a lot like the present. Kalki and his end of the world message make it onto billboards across the world and his appearance at Madison Square Gardens, at which he announces the date of the end, is watched ny the faithful, disbelievers and those focused on ratings, with fervor.
Adding to the constant twist is Teddy’s double-agent work as both a journalist trying to uncover the truth about Kalki and his followers’ involvement in the drug trade and her work as Kalki’s personal pilot. Teddy doesn’t exactly believe that Kalki will mount his white horse and bring the world to an end, but she doesn’t believe that it’s not possible either.
Whether he does or does not, and how people will react if in fact the world does not end, is the question she asks herself throughout her narrative, which clearly written from the White House after the shit’s gone down. Despite this, what makes Vidal amazing, is that we still, throughout the novel, don’t know for sure whether Teddy lives through the end or not.