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David L. Ulin
Joseph Lanza's Gravity falls into an odd, growing subgenre of popular literature -- what you might call the philosophy of the mundane. Over the last few years, we've witnessed the emergence of the writer as everyday theoretician, from Alexander Theroux, author of The Primary Colors, to Richard Klein, whose Cigarettes Are Sublime and Eat Fat are masterpieces of the form. Lanza has mined similar territory; the author of The Cocktail and Elevator Music, he has made a specialty of the discursive, heavily subjective explication of a simple idea. Gravity seeks to continue these investigations, by examining "the tilted laws of matrimony that gravity -- the ever-troubling spouse -- holds over (or under) all of us."
It's a compelling premise, based on the assumption that we take gravity for granted, which, for most people, is precisely the case. Yet as Gravity progresses, Lanza never quite hits upon a unifying concept, leaving us to wonder what exactly he has in mind. In 15 short, largely self-contained chapters, he looks at roller coasters, elevators, home offices, sagging bodies, Liberace and furniture, but too often, his accounts seem to be made up of unconnected observations drawn together by generalizations that are tenuous at best. Writing about motion pictures, for instance, Lanza suggests that gravity is cinema's true subject: "That is what the movies have been all along: calculated methods to shake audiences off their rockers," he declares, dismissing "cozier films about love and angst" as "somewhat less satisfying and more phony," when, in fact, the opposite is equally true. By the same token, he uses a discussion of angel food cake to critique our "multicultural and spicy mishmash of varying languages, hues and customs," arguing that "these babbling hordes are flirting with burnout and one day will get so tired of their ethnic identities ... that they will gladly embrace angel food as an homogenizing symbol propelling them out of the tribes and onward" -- an utterly specious conceit.
Lanza's leaps of logic might be easier to take were they phrased in more conversational language, but throughout Gravity his prose remains stilted, as if he were an academic struggling to adjust to vernacular speech. It's ironic, since one of his goals is to look past earthbound heaviness toward an ethereal world of lightness and air; among those he rejects are "the Italian Futurists of the early part of the century, who fancied themselves so forward-looking [yet] were the most unapologetic lovers of steel and concrete." In that sense, Lanza undermines his own message, for his inability to cut loose belies the essential intention of this book. How, after all, can we accept his notion of the "angel food future" when he describes it in words that are all girders and stone?
The answer is that we can't. For a project like this to work, it needs, literally, to fly. To his credit, Lanza occasionally gets there; his mini-biography of anti-gravity zealot Roger Babson is fluid and accessible, as are his thoughts on the relationship between the aerospace industry and amusement parks. Ultimately, however, these are isolated fragments, surrounded by a great deal that doesn't gel. It's as if, in the thrall of Gravity, Lanza is so overwhelmed by the weight of his material that he never can get the book off the ground. -- Salon