Monsters of the multiplex

POPCORN by Ben Elton Simon & Schuster pounds 12.99
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The Independent Culture
You've read the interviews, you've written to the letters pages, now read the novel. Ever since May, Popcorn has been heralded by articles deliberating the issues it raises (it's also been heralded, more worryingly, by a rave review by A N Wilson in the London Evening Standard). Ben Elton is unashamedly an "issues" novelist. In his first three books, Stark, Gridlock and This Other Eden, the subject he was losing sleep over was the ruin of the environment by unchecked capitalism. Now it's time to get serious.

Popcorn puzzles over the question of who is responsible for a violent crime. Is it the criminals alone, the society that nurtures them, or, more specifically, should the makers of sadistic action films shoulder a large chunk of the blame? It's a head-achingly complex and inconclusive debate, especially compared to "save the planet", and so Elton's customary approach of blasting broadsides at a big, concrete enemy is a problematic one. He's firing the wrong calibre gun.

And the identity of his main target? In Bruce Delamitri (oddly named after a half-famous Scottish rock band), there's Quentin Tarantino, with a bit of Oliver Stone thrown in. For Ordinary Americans, read Pulp Fiction. Delamitri wins a Best Director Oscar for this movie (considering the Academy's attitude towards Tarantino and Stone, this is stretching credibility from the off) and returns to his mansion with the statuette in one arm and a Playboy centrefold, who will not respond to any job description but "actress", in the other.

Suddenly, the greatest night of his life becomes the worst. Two of his biggest fans have broken into his house. And if that weren't enough to put the dampeners on a romantic evening, these fans are the Mall Murderers, a homicidal young white-trash couple named Wayne and Scout, who have a less than co-incidental resemblance to Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis's characters in Natural Born Killers, and who are, as it happens, articulate and informed when it comes to dissecting the causes of brutal behaviour. They know that the electric chair awaits them at the end of their trail of bloodshed, but Wayne has come up with a plan that will save his life, at the same time as it ruins Delamitri's. Is the cocky director being taught the responsibilities that accompany an artist's power? Are these butchers his own vengeful creations come to life, turned on to violence by the violence in his films? The answer in both cases is: probably.

The first hundred pages - a third of the novel - could be condensed to a 1,000-word feature on why Elton doesn't approve of Tarantino, or a four-word one: "He makes murder sexy". The next two-thirds of the book, when the director is confronted by his Nemesis, are much more thrilling. The story zooms in on the siege in Delamitri's home, while the satire widens its mark to take in the venal, self-centred newsgathering media, and the corrupt, election-wary police force. After tricking us into believing that Delamitri alone was his fall guy, Elton makes it clear that he's not about to let off the rest of us so easily.

His writing is more settled and less attention-seeking than it has been, his only literary trick being to present some scenes in Delamitri's life in the form of a film script, and some scenes in his movie as if they were parts of the novel's main narrative. Where Popcorn really disappoints in comparison with Elton's previous novels is in the characterisation. The colourful cast we have come to expect from him has been squeezed out to make room for one-dimensional satirical types: the airbrushed daytime- TV anchorman, the weight-obsessed film star, the therapese-spouting bimbette. We know the protagonists only as well we know those of a short story - Popcorn is, in essence, a 300-page short story - and there's not much chance of us caring about them, when Elton so obviously dislikes them himself. The most positive character in the novel bleeds to death.

If this sounds a bit grim for one of Britain's most prolific and consistently high-class humorists, that's because it is. His novels are always bleaker than his work in other media - Stark concluded with the painful, choking destruction of all life on the planet, which is pretty bleak by anyone's standards - but here he is at his darkest. Themes from his stand-up routines surface from time to time, such as his parody of absurdly vacuous Coca- Cola adverts in the opening pages, but there are no actual jokes. The black ironies and wryness that take their place only deepen the sense in which this is a joyless, disillusioned, despairing book.

The author's mood is particularly apparent when we come to the disturbing, horribly clever endgame, and an epilogue which amounts to a shrug of the shoulders. By listing who blames whom for the carnage (everybody blames everybody) Elton lampoons litigious, Oprah-fied American society, where one's every action is the fault of the Government, television, parents or family pets. The paradox is that Elton ends up with no choice but to spread the blame just as widely. There is no doubting the nobility of his intentions, but he doesn't advance the debate more than a few paragraphs. When you've put down the book, you're left with the gnawing feeling that reading the articles and writing to the letters pages might have been a more constructive use of your time.