BOOK REVIEW / Killing for company: 'What's Wrong with America' - Scott Bradfield: Picador, 14.99 pounds

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The Independent Culture
HOW Scott Bradfield manages to write such interesting novels is a bit of a mystery. He seems indifferent to the textbook principles of storytelling - 'character development', plots that reward explanations and so on. And yet his first book, The History of Luminous Motion, was a stylistic tour de force, a postmodern footnote to Kerouac's On the Road, in which a seven-year-old boy travelled the California highways and into a world of lights and dreams. Also set in California but (despite its title) less ambitious, What's Wrong with America is a dark suburban comedy about the perils of middle-class respectability.

The story is cast in the form of a journal, with snippets of correspondence and autobiographical essays. Emma Delaney O'Hallahan is a cartoonish heroine, a puppet of her fixations, but she is also hard to forget. Out of the blue she tells her children and her grandchildren that she has had enough of her cantankerous, bigoted husband who has tormented her for more than half a century with his right-wing diatribes and xenophobia, his paranoias and his lists with titles like Biggest Lies of the Century or Capitalism's Finest Achievements or What's Wrong with America.

For better or worse (or, more likely, for better and worse) Emma decides to kill Marvin and bury him at the end of the garden. She gets away with murder only to discover that life as a single woman is often weird, but more interesting, perhaps, and less routine than the safe monotony of life with a husband. The old woman rebels against her former self. And for the rest of the narrative she struggles with the besieging shadows of a claustrophobic America, bingeing on Kit-Kats and brandy in front of innumerable soaps.

National and international problems - the economy, unemployment, homelessness, Aids, nuclear weapons, self-doubt - beset Emma in the course of the novel, but not unduly. She is philosophical and reflective, not argumentative. And, in any case, what's really wrong with America, Bradfield implies, is a sort of inertia: you can shoot more than a dozen rounds of ammunition into your husband, then dump his body in the yard, and nobody bats an eyelid.

When it comes to representing the detritus of a junk culture, Bradfield has distinctive gifts. He is a close observer of detail and precise with language. It hardly seems to matter that he often relies on implausible dialogue; Bradfield's characters are among the most purely self-conscious in American fiction. Take Emma's grandson. His consciousness has been raised by EST, peyote, psilocybin, bad acid, theosophy and non- penetrative sex. Teddy utters stunning apercus on the ethical ambiguities of life in California. 'What Americans want is what they haven't got,' he says. 'And that's why they came here. To California. To get everything they never got all over again. We're the trailblazers of the trailblazers, sort of like immigrant immigrants but with lots more baggage. California is America squared.'

This sort of balance between doom and daffiness is not easy to sustain: if it went on too long, it would seem frivolous, as though the horrors of the counterculture were being evoked simply in order to play straight men to the silly interchanges of Emma's life. Bradfield seems unaware that Teddy is something of a cliche, and it is a good measure of his skill and self-assurance that he gives us choices about how we are to understand Emma and her palpable world.

(Photograph omitted)