Satire that sings the universal

Zero Gravity, by Richard Lourie. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 284 pp. $16.95. How shall ``the universal'' fare in the Media Age, when every perception is mediated by television in terms fit for global consumption? Traditionally, the universal has been the responsibility of poets and prophets, and in the epigraph to his new comic novel ``Zero Gravity,'' Richard Lourie quotes Walt Whitman. ``Come said the Muse,/ Sing me a song no poet yet has chanted/ Sing me the universal.''

With a cast including two poets, one Russian and one American, and a Soviet-watcher/Russian-teacher/Daniel-like American Jew named Eliot Rabin, Lourie puts a zany spin on the problem of the universal in our time.

As a satirist, he uses food and sex and drugs to bring the universal down to earth, as well as take it up to the moon, which turns out to be pretty much the same thing.

A scholar and translator of contemporary Russian literature, Lourie is well known for his previous novel, ``First Loyalty.'' It featured Soviet scientists, KGB agents, and 'emigr'es, and was taut, suspenseful, and scary. ``Zero Gravity'' features a similar cast, but it's madcap and satirical.

The difference is glasnost. ``Zero Gravity'' is a glasnost novel. You don't have to be Lourie to know that glasnost means publicity, and publicity means TV. In ``Zero Gravity,'' what threatens Soviet-United States relations is a bungled cultural event on the moon. The plan was for the two poets to ``sing the universal'' up there, with the Soviets having exclusive media coverage. In this meeting of East and West, vodka prevails, with not entirely expectable results.

The snafu is untangled by Rabin. Abducted by Leonid Poplavsky, the Jew-loving KGB chief in charge of all espionage on the Eastern Seaboard, who is also the Soviet cultural attach'e in Washington (the witty combination of jobs suggests Lourie's realistic base for the novel), Rabin proves a very Daniel in the court of Nebuchadnezzar. By solving the symbolism of a dream of the general secretary, he escapes further treatment at the ``Gogol Institute of Higher Sanity.''

This may seem as complicated as a Russian novel; it's true that sometimes Lourie sounds as if he's translating himself from the Russian. In humor and insight, ``Zero Gravity'' recalls Vladimir Voinovich's ``2042'' and Vassily Aksyonov's ``In Search of Melancholy Baby.'' A certain silly innocence gives the sometimes ribald humor a timeless tang.

Lourie even shows off sometimes as a writer of descriptive prose, as in a passage describing a scene off Pacific Grove Beach when his hero takes a lesson from the golden Californian, Vikki, who mixes Zen and scuba-diving. Together they end up dancing a jazz ballet with schools of fishes in the chorus line.

In ``Zero Gravity,'' the ridiculous is never far from the sublime. Rabin is abducted by the KGB after having sex with Vikki on the beach. In this and everything else, Rabin is implicitly contrasted with the American poet Arthur Blaine.

Blaine (whose name has a faint though doubtless intentional Nabokovian ring to it) carries ``the universal'' to bathetic extremes. Lourie's satirical razor is especially sharp in a scene in which Blaine - at home in Boston - warms up to write the great ode that will eventually win the Apollo Prize and take him to the moon. In his musing he compares himself to Jacob wrestling the ``Dark Angel.''

But muse and mistress are inseparable for Arthur Blaine. Davis, his real mistress, angered and hurt by his preoccupation with his poem, seduces him.

As in many satires, so in ``Zero Gravity'': As a medium for the experience of the universal, sex is almost beat out by food. Rabin is a messy eater, likes to burp, and has an almost mystical relationship with cheeseburgers. This makes for a slapstick brawl in an ersatz McDonald's just outside Moscow, run by the KGB to train agents in American mores.

Satire originally meant something like ``smorgasbord,'' and ``Zero Gravity'' is as tangy as a sausage cooked in onions, the kind Rabin would like. But in the spicy mix, the universal almost gets lost.

At the climax of the novel, when Rabin has to come up with an interpretation of the dream of the general secretary, he's been treated for delusions with a drug called ``Trotskyzine.'' Like the original Daniel, he comes up with an interpretation that foreshadows the future that the general secretary admits he fears: the corporate merger of the superpowers.

If TV is a superficial, expansive medium well suited to an age that worships the media rather than debating the message, satire is a reductive form, and whatever limits ``Zero Gravity'' has as an entertainment seem tied to this fact.

In the end, its ebullience makes it more than satire. Unlike some satirical novels, Lourie's is carefully constructed throughout, from the title, which refers not only to the state of affairs on the moon but also to Lourie's approach as a satirist, down to the final sentence, where the universal is invoked one last time by a tired Rabin back in Washington.

Having survived his abduction, the treatment for sanity, and a brief affair whose intensity helped carry him back in sweet repose, he bent ``to admire a rose.'' For Rabin, carrier of the universal in an age of manic propaganda, ``the red of the rose was like a sudden kiss at a crowded party.''

Nice line, with almost ``zero gravity.''

Thomas D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor.

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