BOOK REVIEW / Truth and Popeye get to a dead end: 'Special Effects' - Hugh Barnes: Faber & Faber, 14.99

READING Hugh Barnes's first novel is like being trapped in a vast maze: every signpost, every potential opening leads only to a sense of closure and entrapment. But why, when there is much to applaud in Special Effects, should this be so?

First, one should start with Hugh Barnes's great ambition. Many English novelists have been accused of failing to engage with contemporary concerns, but this charge cannot be levelled against Barnes. Self-referential, perpetually punning, obstinately abstruse, his novel is drenched in modernity. It's all here: political disintegration, currency speculation, dirty sex, the nuclear threat, fraud. It's about how, in an age of instantaneous satellite communication, massively powerful media tycoons are able to manipulate governments, thus altering the consciousness of entire nations.

McNab, a struggling civil servant, stumbles on a plot to destabilise the government. Supported by a journalist, he schemes to expose the chief conspirator, a monstrously rich quasi-politician called Crazy Eights, but only succeeds in destroying himself. 'We're suffocating from brain fade,' someone says in Don Delillo's White Noise, 'we need an occasional catastrophe to break the incessant bombardment of information.'

There's a comparable sense of desperation in this novel. Victims of media overload, the characters are corrupted by information, crushed by the radiant uncertainties and the spluttering hypocrisies of the age. In the end, with civic society close to collapse, McNab becomes quite hysterical and slips slowly into madness, a fever of unknowing.

Although admirably interested in ideas, Barnes's problem is that he imposes them on the narrative rather than allowing them to emerge during the telling of it. McNab's girlfriend, a physicist, delivers interminable monologues on her subject; another character is an expert on Aristotelian logic, and so on. Reluctant to present a developing series of events, through which his characters are developed themselves, he is too prescriptive.

The language - frenzied, brash, confessional - is disappointing too. Curious and exotic words are sprinkled throughout the text, as though he were trying to impress an admired yet aloof tutor. We encounter 'ectoplasmic tower blocks' (ectoplasmic appears twice in the opening 70 pages); trees that 'melted emulously'; and 'brumous sunlight'. His story is not so much told as seen intermittently though a haze of sentences. Then there are the ridiculous names - Truth, Crazy Eights, Popeye. Dickens, Saul Bellow and, of course, Martin Amis have had immense fun with names. Nowadays, though, it's almost impossible to pick up a book by a young writer without finding someone called, say, Fat Stan or Sally Struggle.

Reading Special Effects, one is reminded of John Barth's barren, reader-teasing novels, and also of some of Paul Auster's less successful stories about stories. There are some good moments, and the occasional line - like 'the station vibrated with the throb of announcements' - is memorable. The mystery, however, is how such an obviously talented writer seems to have led himself and his readers into something of a dead end.

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