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BOOK REVIEW / Lost in karma water: 'What's Wrong with America?' - Scott Bradfield: Picador, 14.99

IT IS often said that literature can only be judged in the context of the political and social conditions under which it was written. So, for example, Pennsylvania in the 1840s produced a dark tale of murder, metaphysics and the tormented soul, Edgar Allan Poe's The Tell-tale Heart. Given largely the same ingredients, California in the 1990s has produced Scott Bradfield's What's Wrong With America.

Like The Tell-tale Heart, this is a first person account, presented in this case in the form of a journal. The author / confessor is Emma O'Hallahan, a 69-year-old widow who, for a little under 200 pages, contemplates the contemporary malaise in America and in her own life, having just terminated her husband's with a shotgun. What makes this satirical story so pointedly symptomatic of the moment is that the crushing guilt and icy horror which pervade Poe's story, and which are commonly associated with murder, are as thin on the ground as frost on an LA lawn. It isn't that Emma is a cold killer, it's just that this is California - not just a place but a state of mind where 'good and evil are not separate ideas'.

Review the news stories of the last year and you will quickly realise that the phenomenon of unstable women bumping off or even cutting bits off unpleasant men isn't just becoming socially acceptable, it's a cause celebre. But this is only the novel's starting point. Having given himself such an all-encompassing title Bradfield touches base with as many current 'issues' as he can, everything from Valium addiction and the savings and loan scandal to talk-radio and gun control. He also clearly revels in the perverse language of the politically correct culture he is sending up. Terms like 'negative karma', 'malign patriarchal hegemony' and 'denial-mechanism behaviour pattern' sound even more questionable when they roll off the tongue of an old woman suffering from advanced senile dementia.

As a feminist icon, the comic character of Emma O'Hallahan, emerging after 40 years of life in the shadow of her husband, is fearsomely trite. But she is a classic ingenue and surveys the world around her with bemused eyes which are both experienced and child-like. When Emma sees her dead husband return as a decomposing corpse, rather than recoiling in horror she is irritated that he has left the refrigerator door open. Everyone is 'aware' but no one seems to understand; even the most remarkable events become banal.

The 'optimistically-oriented' Californian mentality with its 'Dance-o-Metrics' and 'Rama Life-Force Workshops' crackles across every page like radio interference. It does make for some amusing diversions, but there is also a sense in which this is a short story that has been over- stretched, and that is unsure how to balance seriousness and spoof. As for what's wrong with America, in the words of the corpse of the late Mr O'Hallahan: 'Why don't you wake up and smell the coffee?'