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April 22, 2001|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS

LEMON

By Lawrence Krauser

McSweeney's Books: 246 pp., $16.50

Imagine three objects in a snow-globe: a cockroach, a computer and a lemon. A little man floats among these objects when his master shakes the globe. The cockroach is a reminder of time and history and inevitable decay. The computer is work, the future, the treadmill and the goals. The lemon is pure beauty and the hopeful effort of humans to reach a state of beauty through love. The world that Lawrence Krauser's narrator, Wendell, creates by free-associating in this novel is not unlike one of those little globes filled with snow.

"The man with the deformed heart and lopsided face approaches his illegally sublet brownstone." This is Wendell. "Something stirs behind him. Undo, Undo, Swivel. Although baboons smile to express hostility, baring the incisors, this is only Michelle, sapient, saying: Peace and Love. Wendell wonders, not for the first time, Am I emitting a hippie vibe?" Wendell, you see, is in the post-relationship breakup hyper-awareness state of being, a ready victim for fragrant seduction by a lemon. He works in a techno-media pseudo-company run by Buckminster Fuller's nephew. They speak the language of fast companies and fractals, not lemon sections. There's something to it, all right, the idea that one could fall in love with a lemon; the shape, the yellow, the smell. Also, the possibility that such a love would be somehow purer, beyond the norm, but still subject to the same wobbles and pitfalls as any relationship involving human beings. Wendell's obsession helps him get better. Go ahead, choose your fruit.

*

TIME LORD

Sir Sanford Fleming and the Creation of Standard Time

By Clark Blaise

Pantheon: 272 pp., $24

Sanford Fleming was born in Scotland in 1827. When he was 18, he emigrated to Canada, where he became a surveyor and lithographer. In 1884, at the Prime Meridian Conference in Washington, D.C., he was recognized as the founder of standard time, the leader of the movement to establish 24 time zones around the Earth (every 1,000 miles), starting in Greenwich, England, at midnight. Clark Blaise, for many years the head of Iowa's international writing program and no stranger to world travel, brings this unknown character, born of Scottish ingenuity and raised in the 19th century faith in rationality, into our consciousness, and for this we are grateful. But he does not give Fleming a life, a spiritual or human dimension. He is a character in history who changed the way we tell time and the way we communicate with people and machines around the world. Standard time, what Blaise calls "the unexpressed operating system of all interdependent technologies," unhinged the human day from "the irregular sunrise and sunset of nature," to which it was heretofore affixed. Blaise writes about how the explosion of technology based in part on this new predictability created a universe "ruled by the swifter" that "eroded traditional morality." A few of Blaise's readers (this one included) will be frustrated that there so few of the implications of Fleming's legacy are discussed in "Time Lord." Perhaps he ran out of time.

*

PAGES FOR YOU

Sylvia Brownrigg

Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 264 pp., $22

Sylvia Brownrigg's previous book, a collection of short stories called "Ten Women Who Shook the World," was a fast-moving, funny, metaphysical meditation on men, women, God and the West. It had glimmers of perfect timing and brilliance. "Pages for You" is a slow-moving, often awkward novel about a 17-year-old college freshman who falls in love with the teacher's assistant in a criticism class.

The freshman, Flannery, is naive, virginal and terrified of her attraction to Anne, beautiful, cynical, snappy and seductive. You want to read about it, but it's too excruciating. Brownrigg drags out the start of the attraction, attenuating any power it might have on the page until it's so thin you can see right through it. Then it's just two women pretending to be engaged in a love that is unique, smoking cigarettes and talking about Paris and, yes, breaking up. When they finally do get together, the book fairly lurches forward with Brownrigg's signature sparkle (it could just be the very nice sex). But in the end, the unevenness between real feeling and ho-hum, in the plot and in the writing style, fries a reader's patience. Brownrigg could have taught us something about this girl's mind and heart, but she focused instead on the teacher's phony intelligence (she's all of 28 years old). Brownrigg's better than this. Phrases such as "emerald mockery" manage to betray her talent.

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