The Heart Broke In, By James Meek

An accomplished novel changes gears from detached satire to complex meditation on death

James Meek is Britain's answer to Don DeLillo, or he would be if Don DeLillo were a question. The similarities are obvious. The differences take time to emerge. There is the same mineral-hard language. Dialogue moves from phatic to apocalyptic without a beat. Science is real and fantastical in indistinguishable proportions. There is satire that may not be satire. Fame is a fissile commodity. The fictional world is so hyper-real as to be blurry.

What sets the two writers apart is Meek's old-fashioned moral earnestness, 21st-century situations viewed through a 19th -entury lens. Add to that an inflection of language that may have something to do with Meek growing up in Dundee, where English is spoken with an improvisational looseness that is two parts obsessive semantic precision (it's not a town in which to pick your words carelessly) and one part pure sound.

The Heart Broke In marks a deepening of the vision of The People's Act of Love and We Are Now Beginning Our Descent. The chief characters are rock star-turned-television producer Ritchie Shepherd, formerly of the Lazydogs, and Ritchie's sister Bec, a medical researcher. On first encounter, they seem like schematics for sense and sensibility, hedonism and anhedonia, selfishness and responsibility.

Ritchie is screwing a 15-year-old contestant on his TV show. Bec has injected herself with a benign parasite that may control disease but subjects her to periods of blindness. Ritchie's moral flip-flop is defined by his insistence that cheating on his wife Karin, former charismatic frontwoman of Lazydogs, is a measure of his love for her.

The human geometry is complex, but the other main players are Alex Comrie, former drummer with Lazydogs but now also a charismatic scientist in the Brian Cox mould and Alex's scientist uncle Harry, who has discovered a means of controlling cancers other than his own. Alex and Bec fall in love. The most important offstage character is Bec's and Ritchie's soldier father, tortured for information and murdered by an IRA cadre now rehabilitated as a poet.

The title, with its obvious pun, comes from a Koestler-like discussion on the evolution of the organs. In the course of the story, Ritchie's fame is overtaken by Bec's, and Alex's.

There is a sub-plot about the Moral Foundation, a secretive cyber-vigilante group that outs the dark deeds of celebrities. Ritchie has made a pragmatic decision to forgive the murderer-poet in order to make a film with him. Bec has a different concept of forgiveness and attains a different kind of closure.

Confronted by the MF, Ritchie has to choose between disgrace and betrayal of his sister. The outcome is anything but obvious.Meek writes with taut control. The plot is dreamy, deceptive and allusive, packed with cues and clues.

When Harry is given a designer dog-coat by a grateful patient, he acquires a Jack Russell to show it off and calls the pup Gerasim, which is the name of the loyal, vital, nurturing peasant lad in The Death of Ivan Ilyich; Meek's variations on Tolstoy are much concerned with the relative commands and betrayals of the blood.

Where DeLillo sustains a brittle, glassy idiom, Meek, like Tolstoy, surrenders to the human. Halfway through, the heart breaks in, a real chronology begins, and cool, detached satire gives way to a complex meditation on death and time and the family. The book's radical proposal is that the heart is, indeed, a parasite, but a benign one.