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D'ALEMBERT'S PRINCIPLE: Memory, Reason and Imagination;\o7 By Andrew Crumey\f7 ;\o7 (Picador: 208 pp., $21)\f7

MASTER GEORGIE;\o7 By Beryl Bainbridge\f7 ;\o7 (Carroll & Graf: 190 pp., $21)\f7

THE STORM;\o7 By Frederick Buechner\f7 ;\o7 (HarperSanFrancisco: 200 pp., $18)\f7

PARABLE OF THE TALENTS;\o7 By Octavia E. Butler\f7 ;\o7 (Seven Stories Press: 366 pp., $24.95)\f7

THE BOOK OF BLAM;\o7 By Aleksandar Tisma\f7 ;\o7 (Harcourt Brace: 226 pp., $23)\f7

November 22, 1998|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS | Susan Salter Reynolds is an assistant editor of Book Review

D'ALEMBERT'S PRINCIPLE: Memory, Reason and Imagination; By Andrew Crumey ; (Picador: 208 pp., $21)

What makes math so cool? What makes the history of math so romantic? Could it be that we still harbor the hope for salvation through equations? France, the late 1700s, is the setting; was it still too soon for the grim certainty that technology would one day control us? "I saw," thinks D'Alembert, the orphan turned genius and the hero of Andrew Crumey's novel, "a series of mathematical formulae by which all of the contradictory affairs of men . . . could be reduced to a single principle." Crumey's heroes are fictional, but the novel is also visited by Diderot, Rousseau and Voltaire, who traipse in and out of the Parisian salon run by the love of D'Alembert's life, Julie de L'Epinasse. The legacies of D'Alembert, Ferguson and Goldmann, a principle, a vision and a story, combine to create a portrait of the 18th century European mind stretched thin between the heart and the stars.

MASTER GEORGIE; By Beryl Bainbridge ; (Carroll & Graf: 190 pp., $21)

Authors fascinated by chance and destiny are bound by a certain style that determines their arrangement of details, their grip on the story. If that grip is too tight, they lose authenticity. If it is too loose, they lose authority. I imagine Beryl Bainbridge with a certain fixed and vacant stare while she writes because of the concentration an author must maintain in order to travel through history, not unlike the gaze of a bird of prey, sweeping over the landscape and diving, swiftly and mercilessly, scattering dust and leaves and other animals. Master Georgie is George Hardy, a doctor and amateur photographer. The three narrators who alternate chapters are tied to Master Georgie; he is the mute nucleus of the book, which begins in Liverpool in the late 19th century and ends on the front lines of the Crimean War. Myrtle is an orphan found at age 3 and taken to the Hardy residence, where she is raised, if not loved. Pompey Jones, an urchin, also becomes a fixture in the Hardy household, the object from time to time of Master Georgie's homosexual yearnings. And there is portly Dr. Potter, a classicist, the most visionary voice of the three, the keen-eyed keeper of the facts. When horror makes him wander, it is into the refuge, physical and spiritual, of his love for his wife, a comforting contrast to Myrtle's enduring obsession with George and Jones' obsession with himself. The chapters in "Master Georgie" begin with a great deal of momentum and screeches to a halt--a revelation, an image, an impasse, a memory--a construction which shows the eagle-eyed Bainbridge flying and diving, watching and pouncing.

THE STORM; By Frederick Buechner ; (HarperSanFrancisco: 200 pp., $18)

Only Shakespearean talent could construct and navigate a terrain in which all of the characters are shellshocked. A place like that fills a stage more believably than a book, so "The Storm" resembles a board game played out following the story of "The Tempest," the play that inspired Frederick Buechner's novel. His characters are mostly bourgeoisie living in New York and Florida. Kenzie is an appealing, leonine gentleman who, in middle age, falls in love with a 17-year-old Chicana he meets while working at a home for disadvantaged children, where his upright lawyer brother serves as a prominent board member. They live together for a short time; she becomes pregnant and dies in childbirth. The scandal alters the course of Kenzie's life, even as the baby girl, Bree, becomes his life's joy. Though other characters weave through the story, these two are its main source of voltage. Buechner is very good with gestures, moments and epiphanies, but the mechanisms that move the story forward are a little threadbare. The daily lives of these people, overwhelmed by their pasts and hurtling toward reconciliation on this planet of the dazed, will seem too charmed for the cynical but just right for the Big Chill, feel-good audience.

PARABLE OF THE TALENTS; By Octavia E. Butler ; (Seven Stories Press: 366 pp., $24.95)

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