Books: Time-bombs behind the scenes at the museum

This way for the Hall of Presidential Wives: Scott Bradfield enjoys his American history with a subversive twist; The Smithsonian Institution by Gore Vidal Little, Brown, pounds 16.99, 260pp
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ACCORDING TO Gore Vidal's inventive new novel, American history may have nothing to do with what people remember. Rather, it consists of all those things they have never been told. Vidal's protagonist is 13-year-old T., a Kafkaesque math-sciences whizz-kid who has been summoned to strange doings at the Smithsonian. Arriving after- hours on Easter Sunday, 1939, he discovers that the guards have been transformed into wax statues, the exhibition dummies have taken on a life of their own, and the hokey dioramas of Midwest Plains Indians and Old West Mining Towns are now big enough to get lost in. Even weirder, the mysterious "Chief" has developed this new-fangled gizmo.

Turn it one way, and time advances; turn it the other, and time retreats. In other words, the Smithsonian no longer puts on cheap shows for punters. It manufactures reality, takes it out for test spins, and tinkers with the damn thing until it gets it right.

"Your Smithsonian concept is a sort of metaphor," declares Chief Yellow Sky Bird, just before trying to turn the errant T. into an especially spicy form of bouillabaisse. It is "yet another world imposed on ours and invisible to us". But in Vidal's world, history does not just colonise the heathen, but subdues the masses as well.

As T. journeys deeper into the Smithsonian's maze-like structure, he finds himself eavesdropping on what America's secret masters tell each other behind closed doors: Annex more territory. Build more weapons. And whenever the public grows restless, start another war to keep them distracted. In other words, history may be a lie. But it is a lie which can accomplish certain purposes.

Outside the Smithsonian, the clouds of the Second World War gather on schedule. Inside, T. and his fellow scientists hurry to design the atomic bomb, and save their country from all those things that are supposed to happen. They time-jump through different versions of the past, visit the Hall of Presidential Wives, encounter multitudinous images of themselves, and speculate about where their pure research will lead.

Perhaps they will design a bomb which kills people but leaves property intact (known as the Realtor's Dream Bomb). Or perhaps they will accomplish exactly the opposite, and save countless lives - especially, T. hopes, his own. As one character muses, "Plainly, this is one of those dreams where anything goes." And history doesn't just repeat itself. It refracts.

The Smithsonian Institution boasts a cast which includes many real-life figures, along with all the people they might have been. Oppenheimer, Einstein, Lindbergh, Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson and Dr Smithson himself: all contribute to a sense of quantum incertitude in which only one thing can be predicted. Those who have will keep it. And those who don't, won't.

Many mainstream writers have tackled fantasy and SF without success - Mailer, Updike and even Martin Amis. But Vidal pulls off his bizarre series of imaginings through sheer audacity. Like T, he opens every possible door and charges through it, and whenever he gets lost in one alterity, he launches boldly into another.

As the various paradoxes of the novel mount up, the whole thing can grow a bit entangled with itself. But, for the the most part, Vidal does what few writers ever manage: he combines genuine speculative joy with heartfelt political convictions. For years now, Vidal has been composing his own personal history of America, from Burr and Lincoln to Hollywood. With this book, he shows where a real novelist goes when he reaches the end of history - which is, of course, right off the map.