Book review / The regeneration game

INDEPENDENT CHOICE Pick of the week Are You Experienced? by William Sutcliffe

This month, the Penguin Group launches a trio of "hip" young novels for the twentysomething readership. A venerable media conglomerate like Penguin is hardly noted for being out there as a publisher. So in order to reposition itself, Penguin is promoting these novels as "New Brit Lit", trailing them with vogueish buzz-words and decking the pack of proof copies in a Union Jack. Very Cool Britannia!

Although I half expected one of the novels to feature an Oasis song for a title, it is in fact the Spice Girls who are referenced. Apparently, Girl Power is all that Camden Girls (Penguin, pounds 6.99) really want. Jane Owen's debut novel features a crew of horny, Lycra-clad boozing babes on the prowl in North London's coolest quarter.

Juno is young, free and single. She is a beautiful, middle-class loafer who, between gatecrashing the very best parties and dealing drugs to music business types, simply lives for having a good time with no strings attached: "Oh for a man honest enough to just say I'd like to shag your arse off baby but after that I never want to see you again."

During a long, hot summer weekend of girl mayhem, Juno stops to wonder if she's a bit on the shallow side. Trying to locate the motivating force in her life, she quickly rules out religion, ambition, good works, even love: "the only thing I really enjoy nowadays is doing drugs."

The lurking tone of moral censure in Camden Girls turns full on in Wasted (Penguin pounds 6.99). Krissy Kays' first novel finds young people of today to be aimless, selfish, and constantly off their heads - a generation lost to chemicals, adrift in a joyless and alienating London. Starting with a drug-related fatality at a pop music festival, Wasted ends with Saul, the leading character, giving up cocaine and heading for India to search for the meaning of life. Too much fun, suggests Kays, and not nearly enough utilitarian striving, is very bad for the soul.

Such disapproval prevents Kays from conveying the thrill or euphoria of pleasure, or from writing in a style which reflects the experiences of her characters. In recent times, the fusion of new leisure technologies - drugs, dance music, computers and videogames - has had a considerable influence on the shape of British art, fashion and advertising, as well as on the popular fiction of writers such as Alan Warner, Bridget O'Connor and Stewart Home, with their varied experiments in non-linear narrative forms.

Even the old fashioned, boozy Camden Girls makes some stab at expanding the reader's mind, dropping the occasional fragment of stream-of-consciousness into the mix. Going into a rave, Juno abstains from using any punctuation for a while: "Let it go now just feel the music feel the power in all these people we are family." I suppose even William Burroughs had to start somewhere.

These difficult questions of style don't really come up with Are You Experienced? (Hamish Hamilton, pounds 9.99), the third and the best of these novels. Where Wasted ends with Saul leaving for India, William Sutcliffe's second novel opens with Dave and Liz already on the plane, bound for New Delhi.

During her year off before starting college Liz is hoping to find spiritual meaning in the subcontinent, whilst Dave, being of a more materialist persuasion, is hoping finally to get Liz to have sex with him.

What he in fact gets is all the high- grade dope he can handle, and vicious diarrhoea. In turn, Liz comes to realise that she can't stand Dave, dumping him for a charlatan holy man and tantric sex. She also takes to wearing saris and hugging street beggars.

Are You Experienced? is a comic novel of oneupmanship and bickering between young people desperate to be liked by each other. It is therefore both very modern and timeless.

Wisely, Sutcliffe doesn't try to be so trendy, or to catch the mood of a generation. Instead, he deploys a fine talent for social satire, brilliantly, if bizarrely, relocating the screwball comedies of Thirties Hollywood to the hippy trail of the Nineties, where young backpackers trek through "Indiaahh" mainly as a character-building experience to put on their CVs, and the truly sacred text is not The Baghavad Gita but The Lonely Planet Guide. Here, beneath the hype of a publisher's tilt for fashionability, lies a wonderfully acute, heartfelt - even "wicked" - piece of new fiction.

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