Books: Platonic time-travel

The Smithsonian Institution

by Gore Vidal Little Brown pounds 16.99

T he jacket cover of is a piece of work. Before the Gothic splendour of the Smithsonian museum, surrounded by roses, a young blond Adonis stripped to the waist embraces a brunette (eyes closed, lips parted) with ample bosom proffered by a silk and lace ballgown with plunging neckline. It seems to promise an historical romance of the gooier, gushier variety. Until you spot the huge bold typeface over a nuclear mushroom head emerging from the Institute spelling out the name GORE VIDAL. Behold Gore, destroyer of worlds (of sentiment).

The blinding flash of Vidal's wit, the searing heat of his irony, the supersonic shockwave of his archness are irresistible forces which have threatened the pax Americana since he was dropped on New York in the 1940s. Over the years, however, we have grown accustomed to him and the awful threat of the emotional winter that would cover the Earth if he were read in enough places simultaneously. And as we have learned to love The Vidal, he has learned to up his megaton yield.

Having vaporised Christianity in Live from Golgotha, Gore sets out in his latest novel to incinerate something even more sacred: the American Empire. Set in the national museum of the same name in 1939, it tells the story of a humpy teenage maths prodigy and baseball star called simply "T", who is called to the Smithsonian to help with their programme to build an atom bomb, but whose special gift for visualising complex mathematical equations also allows him to travel in time. Glimpsing himself dying in the Second World War he then tries to change history to keep America out of the war and his future self alive.

In addition to the space-time continuum malarkey, the dummies in the exhibits come to life after hours, providing T with the opportunity for a (purely pelvic) under-age affair with President Grover Cleveland's lusty wife and Vidal with an opportunity for goosing the grandees and Immortals of American history. In another parallel America, General Douglas MacArthur is passed over for promotion and in a fit of pique he becomes a Tokyo Rose, taking to the airwaves to persuade American soldiers to surrender. Meanwhile, Abraham Lincoln has fallen in love with Carl Sandburg's pompous hagiography of him: the Prime Mover of American (Imperial) history is but a mannequin mouthing someone else's idea of what he should be and is bought by Walt Disney as an animatronix.

All good fun, but perhaps, given Vidal's habit of using his characters as nothing more than mannequins for his ideas, setting the novel in a museum of dummies which come alive is an irony too far.

There's also a little too much showing off - not something you usually complain about in Vidal's work because high-wire intellectual egotism is what we look to him for. But here the scholarship slips. The physics is very wobbly, and Darwinian ideas are confused with Lamarckian ones. Even the history is occasionally off-beam: in one passage, Charles Lindbergh, who really should know better, states that the US Navy's aircraft carriers were sunk at Pearl Harbour. In fact, the carrier fleet, the main target of the Japanese torpedo planes, happened to be out at sea on exercise at the time and were largely spared. Perhaps these points would be mere pedantry if they concerned a novel less convinced of its own intellectual unassailability.

What saves Smithsonian is the warm realisation that it is a historical romance after all, that Vidal is actually more love-bomb than A-bomb. The central character, T, has faint echoes of Jimmie Trimble, the blond, baseball-playing, belly-rubbing, school-buddy love of Vidal's life who was unveiled in his memoir Palimpsest. And who died tragically and somewhat conveniently on Iwo Jima in 1945, building the American Empire, aged 19.

In Palimpsest Vidal interviews Trimble's mother, telling her, "I'm thinking of making a little book about Jimmie, photographs, letters, what people remember." If Palimpsest turned out to be that memorial, Smithsonian seems to be the resurrection. All that messing around with time-lines, all that buggery-pokery with physics is just so that Jimmie Trimble can survive the war, pursue his baseball career, get married, and have kids.

As he made clear in Palimpsest, Vidal considered Trimble his true "twin" (he subscribes to the Platonic idea of love as a union of two halves that make a whole): "What I was not, he was and the other way around." In The Smithsonian, it is the maths prodigy T who saves his alter/future-ego the baseball-playing T by substituting himself just before the Japanese attack that killed him. T is able to save his "twin" because he has enough imagination to visualise the equations that make time-travel possible. In other words, he's a novelist.

It's a moving idea. Vidal, in what he has described as "the departure lounge of life" and already being measured for inclusion in the wax-work museum of Great American Men of Letters, wishes that he had been able to give his life for that of a Marine. But quite who is being saved by whom is unclear. The ultimate paradox of this novel of paradoxes is not one of time but of the heart. Is it the American Empire which cuts T off from his destiny by throwing away his life on some rock in the Pacific, or is it the childless, ageing Vidal who wields the gelding knife by denying the lad a dignified death and commissioning him to live in his stead?

Whatever the answer, this historical romance is assuredly about the greatest love the world has ever known. L'amour propre.