Vidal's 'Smithsonian': Wild wisdom

March 01, 1998|By Chris Kridler | Chris Kridler,SUN STAFF

"The Smithsonian Institution," by Gore Vidal. New York: Random House. 265 pages. $23.

The science of physics has become a playful literary device for writers from Alan Lightman to Martin Amis. Now Gore Vidal toys with time and space, not to mention American history, in his whimsical novel "The Smithsonian Institution."

Vidal's unveiling of the secret life of the Smithsonian, founded in 1846 with money bequeathed by James Smithson, is a delightful and occasionally thought-provoking romp through the personalities of America's past. His central character, named only T., has been recruited for the museums' research staff in 1939, on the eve of world war. A schoolboy of 13, T. has scribbled an equation on his algebra test that has caught the attention of all the great minds of physics. T. could help America win the war.

What T. doesn't know is that he'll have a lot more help than he realizes in the mysterious passageways of the Smithsonian. After dark, the dummies on display come to life, sipping tea with dead presidents and visiting each other in the Old West or the Arctic, all of which become inexplicably real when the visitors leave.

An addled Abraham Lincoln administers the place, while Smithson himself just might live as a kind of puppet master underneath the Castle, in a warren of passageways that are laid out like a Parcheesi board.

T.'s task is to help solve the problem of the atomic bomb. But he realizes that humanity is going to destroy itself anyway, unless he does something. And so he begins to toy with time, altering history in ways no one could have suspected. (Example: Hitler and Einstein become best pals. Go figure.)

Vidal uses the Institution's convenient gathering of all the great (or not so great) minds of American history to have presidents exchange theories and first ladies exchange gossip (the 22-year-old Mrs. Cleveland is known for her affairs).

A seasoned historical novelist, Vidal also has a great deal of fun taking shots at everything from Congress ("He liked monsters and whenever he could get time off from his busy classroom schedule, he would play hooky from school and go up to the Capitol and look at the Senate") to a certain poet's biography that has brainwashed the Great Emancipator ("Sandburg's Lincoln must be stopped").

The novel is best, however, when it focuses on the adventures of T., a genius and budding baseball player (what else, for an American boy?). T.'s journey is filled with adolescent passions, encounters with the famous from Lindbergh to Oppenheimer, absurd juxtapositions of exhibits come-to-life and premonitions of what is to come -- especially when he finds himself re-created as a dead soldier in the war display.

Vidal's novel might not stand up to a science-fiction logic test, in bTC that its time paradoxes are beyond baffling, but who cares? "The Smithsonian Institution" is a wild and wise celebration of the absurdities of American history.

Chris Kridler is assistant arts and entertainment editor at The Sun. Her work has appeared in The Sun, the Maryland Poetry Review, the Miami Herald, Premiere and elsewhere.

Pub Date: 3/01/98

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