Time travel; American Culture? 

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Time travel

If you love Richmond, if you think our political system doesn't need drastic correction, you will probably hate Richmond author Dennis Danvers' new book, "The Watch" (HarperCollins, $24.95).

On the other hand, the book is set in Richmond and each incident seems to take place in a familiar setting — think Byrd Park, the Canal Walk, the Capitol. It's fun and almost eerie to read a time-travel story set in spots you see almost every day.

Danvers, whose literary territory is definitely not literal fiction, selects a real person as his protagonist in "The Watch," Russian prince Peter Alexeivich Kropotkin (1842 - 1921). Known as the "Anarchist Prince" he did not recognize the authority of the state and was imprisoned in Russia for his outspoken anarchism. Escaping to Britain he became well known for his advocacy of anarchist socialism and for his opposition to Lenin's form of Marxism.

In Danvers' novel, when Kropotkin is on his deathbed, a stranger offers him the chance to live again in the future. Of course he accepts. Finding himself in Richmond, he discovers that the political "paradise" he had worked for so hard is certainly not in place even after all these years. His magical "savior" tells him:

"This place … is obsessed with the past, constantly suppressing it, resurrecting it, worrying over it, opening old wounds, so that the past is always close to the surface…." And "It's like this: I brought you here because you are in several important respects, the exact opposite of this place. It's obsessed with the past and slavery. You're equally obsessed, but with freedom and the future. This place loathes change: you live for it."

This is indeed a challenge to a political idealist. Putting an anarchist in such a place is setting him up for failure, and, in the end, he is forced to choose between a manipulated future or an acceptance of a flawed world in which people have free will and injustice in commonplace.

This is a profoundly pessimistic book. Unfortunately, I found myself not caring much about the characters but interested in (if not agreeing with) Danvers' ideas. — Rozanne Epps

American Culture?

With apologies to Oscar Wilde, art has always been said to imitate life. But the question that Sam Lipsyte's debut novel, "The Subject Steve" (Broadway Books $23.95), seems to ask is, can art imitate a life molded by the fads and whims of contemporary culture? What matters most to the characters that inhabit Lipsyte's vision of the world are the advertising gimmicks and the commercialism; the self-help groups and the Neilson ratings. Steve, the protagonist of the novel, discovers his dubious achievement of being the first person to come down with Preparatory Extinction Syndrome (PREXIS for short), an illness that no one has ever died from before. This illness, caused by ennui and, therefore, not an actual illness at all, sets Steve off on a quixotic quest for a nonexistent cure. While both smart and funny, Lipsyte's book focuses primarily on the author's critique of American culture and leaves character development and plot as secondary. In one scene Steve boards an airline and is seated in Urbane Class. The pilot's voice announces that he is "feeling good" about flying the plane. "I mean, why not?" the pilot rationalizes, "Pilot error is all in the head." While Lipsyte's humor sustains the novel, it is not enough to maintain a driving interest in the protagonist's plight. In the end, it is Lipsyte's critique that eventually responds to the question about the relationship between life and art. His answer is neither the traditional 'yes' or 'no' but an absurd 'maybe.' And unfortunately 'maybe' just isn't enough. — Francis Decker

Heads-Up

If you have a guest bedroom that is at least occasionally occupied, you might put "What Makes Flamingos Pink" by Bill McLain (HarperCollins $24) on the bedside table. McClain, the Webmaster for Xerox, has collected answers to questions you might never have asked: "Who invented plastic?" or "Do all bears hibernate?" His brief and amusing answers are just the right length to interest a visitor but also probably won't to keep him or her from falling asleep. — R.E.

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