On Page 423 of Gore Vidal's latest novel --"Creation" -- there is a description of a Chinese feast, served in the southern fashion. That is, "bitter food alternates with salty food, which alternates with sour, which alternates with pepper, which is succeeded by sweet. I recall tortoise; goose in sour sauce; casseroled duck; dried flesh of crane with pickled radishes -- and the famed bitter-sour soup of Wu."
Vidal's "Creation" is like that. A sweet sour potpourri, appetizing, tantalizing, and more than a little indigestible. Vidal takes us back to Persia in the 5th century BC, to the times of Darius and Xerxes, Themistocles and Pericles, not to mention Buddha, Confucius, and Lao Tzu. Yes, they are all present in this Chinese banquet of a novel, a little as if Steve Allen had summoned them together for a great conversation.
Vidal's narrator, Cyrus Spitama, now at the end of the long travelogue that was his life, dictates his memoirs to his nephew Democritus, who later wrote that the universe is made of atoms -- and since Cyrus Spitama is the grandson of Zoroaster and the boyhood companion of Xerxes, Cyrus gets around.
As "king's eye," Cyrus visits Greece, India, and Cathay. He marries and Indian princess aged 12 tender years. Later he marries the sister of Xerxes.
"'Which of your sisters,' Cyrus asks, 'am I to marry?' 'You're going to marry . . . uh . . .' Xerxes stopped. He thought hard, then shook his head. 'I don't remember. I've only met two of the five. . . . Why don't you ask Lais? She knows the harem.'"
"Creation" is full of plums like that, or are they spicy meatballs?
The novel's slow progress across Persia, India, Cathay, allows Vidal to introduce endless historic tidbits. How Pythagoras had wooden teeth. How the destroyer of the city of Sybaris diverted a river to cover the city in everlasting flood. How the Greeks had only olive oil, but ancient Iran had already "a variety of civilized oils." How Jain holy men walked the earth "sky-clad," that is, dressed only in the blue sky about them. How the Chinese consult the "I Ching," traffic in "dragon's bones," ritually observe the four directions, north, south, east, west: "Boiled fish is served in winter with the belly to the host's right; in summer the belly is to the left. Dried meat is folded to the left. Spouts of jars face the host. And so on, and on."
The list of such curious and rambling information is vast. The question is: Does information -- however tasty and inviting -- constitute a novel? I'd say not.
Cyrus Spitama learns many strange customs. He also learns various theories of the world, and its creation from Buddha, from Confucius, and from a host of others. He remains eclectic, ecumenical, a Zoroastrian at heart. His narrative , "Creation," is filled with creeds and intrigues. His world is about equally divided among those who would deny its very existence.
Meeting all men, "the king's eye" remains aloof, a spectator, not an actor.And that is the flaw. We meet in this novel no one whose hear we come to know. No one whose passion commands our attention.
It is symptomatic of "Creation" that although we are given the Persian version of the Peloponnesian War, it sounds in our ears like a distant twang. It brings no tear to the eye, no quickened beat to the pulse. A dynasty passes, and we look up from the page half bemused. "Oh," we query, "what was that? Did you hear a sudden sound?"