Natural born thriller

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The Independent Online
It is the day of the Oscars ceremony. Bruce Delamitri, a ''Quarantino'' figure in black Levis and pointy boots, has won the ''best film'' Oscar for Ordinary Americans, a send-up of violent crime in America. Bruce has two appointments to keep before the evening's big event. The first - to appear on Coffee Time, a morning TV chat show; the second to give a film seminar to students at his old college. He also has an appointment with a killer, but he doesn't know that yet.

On Coffee Time Bruce is tough and fun. It's nonsense to say his films give people ideas, or glamorise violent crime. The movie camera, he explains, is just a mirror. ''I don't believe that people get up from the movie theatre or the TV and do what they just saw. Otherwise the people who watch this show would all have their hair set in concrete and their brains sucked out along with their cellulite.'' Later, under pressure from the media professor, who would like to know why, in Bruce's films, all the victims are cool and beautiful, he replies less convincingly: ''Dull, ugly people lead boring lives devoid of sex and adventure. It is no part of my duty to report life. I am an artist. I take what I want in order to create what I like.''

You can feel that Bruce's wicket is sticky with the blood of potential victims here. He's right to be feeling a bit defensive - there are two killers out there, Wayne and Scout, a young couple who appear to have taken their inspiration from one or all of the 57 murders shown in his smash hit ''art'' movie. By the end of the novel he's been knocked for six, and it is part of Ben Elton's complex achievement in Popcorn that we are not entirely sure whether or not he deserved it.

After the Oscars party Bruce comes home with a Playboy model. He's a bit down about his acceptance speech, a masterpiece of parodic brilliance from Elton, but anticipates a considerable pick-me-up from his pick-up. In the drawing room of his ''fabulous Hollywood home'' the killers are waiting to congratulate him on his triumph. Wayne may be a bit imprecise in his administration of justice, but he's extremely precise in the execution of his plan for his and his girlfriend's ''salvation". By taking Bruce, the Playboy ''actress'', Bruce's ex-wife and his daughter hostage, and getting Bruce to debate the ''do violent films create violent societies?'' argument on live TV with a gun to his head, Wayne hopes to persuade the entire TV population of America that he is the victim of a society that glamorises murder and should therefore be allowed to walk - like OJ Simpson and Lorena Bobbit before him. Et ego victima sum. And if the film is a killer, TV is a vulture. Copycat crimes are cooler than straight ones and TV channels have a ratings interest in convincing us that the ''film creates reality'' connection exists, with film setting the style. Thus a news item can, with impunity, double as an undercover snuff movie.

There is so much brilliance in this novel that a short review can hope to do little more than paraphrase the theme for people like, say, world leaders, directors of TV channels, film makers or heads of police departments - people who are maybe just that bit too busy and important to read novels. For anyone else - read it, memorise bits of it, and be glad Ben Elton exists and that lesser talents didn't have to invent him. In a short, fantastically funny novel, he has resumed and explored a debate that has generated so much hypocritical space-wasting in newspaper columns, we might almost have been in danger of growing weary of it. Fiction, in Ben Elton's hands, proves infinitely more capable of a succinct and intelligent handling of the argument.