Books: Hitting the G-spot

Marina Benjamin takes a rollercoaster ride without brakes; Gravity by Joseph Lanza Quartet, pounds 10
This book ought to carry a health warning. "Acrophobes, barophobes and ochnophiles are advised to sit down while reading" would do. Better still, they could wear seat belts. This vertiginous exploration of climbing and falling ascends via elevators and skyscrapers to the frothiest, queasiest heights, only to slam us back down to earth with a rollercoasting, bungee- jumping, earth-quaking thud. Philobats, though, will love the ride. And Joseph Lanza counts himself among their thrill-seeking, hang-gliding, semi-suicidal number.

In Lanza's view, the gravity that was Newton's "orderly angel", that kept feet on the ground and the planets securely in their orbits, is a spent force. The world we inhabit is governed instead by by Einstein's "chaotic devil", that intemperate warper of space, time and minds. You can detect its mischievous hand at work in the boom-bust cycles that enslave our economics, in our wonky, ever-shifting morality and in the spin that passes for politics. But the best place to become acquainted with this wayward demon is in the amusement park.

A rollercoaster junkie, Lanza is onanistically addicted to pleasuring his own negative G-spot. He has toured America's playgrounds, vetting every ride, comparing "out of seat" sensations, veering endlessly between euphoria and panic.

Lanza finds in the rollercoaster's history a parable of the 20th century. From sober Victorian origins in improvements to inclined railways, rollercoaster design became increasing wild. First, it borrowed from Modernist experiments with monorails and then from rocket technology. You can even trace this crazed projectile launch into instability through the names of the beasts, which came to challenge preconceptions of up and down: the Mystic Screw, the Whoopee Track and the famous Coney Island Cyclone. In short, the rollercoaster graphically demonstrates "how the applied sciences intended to `save' us also were destined to go berserk".

The problem is that this book takes its rollercoaster motif too much to heart. Its breathless prose jerks us at breakneck speed from one anti- gravity feat to the next. Only where it crests, pausing briefly, are we treated to insight. On the Space Age, Lanza says "the future as we have known it peaked in the late 1950s". Or, poised on a skyscraper roof, we are "flabbergasted by our free will". But the lows are real plungers. Chapters on gravity as a kitchen liability and an office gremlin are unremittingly banal. So what if things fall off surfaces? It ain't Armageddon.

Various subjects float in and out of the text as if they have wafted into a reduced gravity environment from another book. What has Liberace to do with anything? Or the San Andreas Dancer? At its worst, the book reads like one of those Fascinating Facts sheets made for ring-binders that criminally underestimate levels of reader interest. Ultimately, it just doesn't cohere. It lacks the very thing it seeks to side-line - good old-fashioned Newtonian G.