O, brave new venture that has such people in't!

ENGLAND, ENGLAND By Julian Barnes Alfred A. Knopf 275 pp., $23

In the disturbing tradition of Orwell's "1984" and Huxley's "Brave New World," fellow English writer Julian Barnes has produced the first classic dystopia of the 21st century.

"England, England" is an unsettling satire of corporate ambition gone wild in a culture that values convenience above all else.

Sir Jack Pitman thinks big. He rules his financial empire from a worldly cathedral of the most extravagant design. Subjects coming for an audience pass first through the Quote Room, where they can reflect upon a lavish description of Sir Jack chiseled into a monolith of slate.

Having conquered every field, he laments to his sycophantic minions, "What is there left for me?" A secretary's body microphone immediately clicks on to archive Sir Jack's answer: "Perhaps what I need is one last great idea," he muses, "one for the road."

Sir Jack's final idea, the concept worthy of crowning his brilliant career, is to solve the problem of Britain's long, steady decline.

England enjoys the most enviable past, but the bleakest future. Its empire distributed, its wealth depleted, its military reduced, the country desperately needs turning around, and Sir Jack is up to the challenge. "It's a question of placing the product correctly, that's all," he notes.

In passages as brilliant as they are witty, Barnes satirizes the modern world's obsession with imitation. A French intellectual brought in to analyze Sir Jack's plan explains, "Nowadays we prefer the replica to the original" because originals present "a reality which appears more powerful and therefore threatens us."

"Once there was only the world, directly lived. Now there is the representation," he goes on in mock post-structural lingo. "It is not a substitute for the plain and primitive word, but an enhancement and enrichment.... This is where we live today. A monochrome world has become Technicolor, a single croaking speaker has become wraparound sound. Is this our loss? No, it is our conquest, our victory.... It is our intellectual duty to submit to that modernity, and to dismiss as sentimental and inherently fraudulent all yearnings for what is dubiously termed the 'original.' We must demand the replica."

To realize his grand scheme, Sir Jack purchases the entire Isle of Wight and constructs a perfect imitation of what tourists want to see in England.

Soon, wealthy buyers of "Quality Leisure" can experience Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, the white cliffs of Dover, Robin Hood and his Band of (culturally diverse) Merry People, the West End, the class system, Harrods (in the Tower of London), Stonehenge, thatched cottages with sheep in the meadow, snobbery, Devonshire cream, and a robin in the snow - all in a convenient weekend package.

It's expensive, of course, but as a publicist points out, "If you attempted to cover the 'originals' it would take you three or four times as long. We're merely following the logic of the market."

Sir Jack quickly moves to declare the island's political independence and appeals to The Hague for defense against the crumbling motherland. He has no worries: Military invasion would be great publicity.

This "brave new venture" serves as the nation's government, with Sir Jack as its "governor for life." All laws are replaced with corporate rules, rights are transformed to contractual obligations, and civil functions are performed (or eliminated) by the corporation. This is Disney's "Celebration" town extended to its natural, though frightening conclusion.

Beneath the outrageous satire, Barnes spins the sad tale of Martha Cochrane, an ambitious young woman determined to climb the corporate ladder of this faux nation.

Her struggle to determine what matters and what love means in this hall of mirrors provides the novel with a degree of emotional depth beyond its clever social satire.

Unfortunately, the novel is burdened by a vulgar sex scene that many readers will find beyond the pale. Though the event is crucial to the plot, a writer of Barnes's enormous talent could have aimed for more wit than shock.

Cynical and dark as the book is, there's a stirring of optimism in the corporation's difficulties. la "Jurassic Park," real life asserts its messy, inefficient force even under the most artificial and controlled conditions.

It turns out that the human spirit isn't, in fact, so easily satisfied with replicas. Virtual reality is finally untenable because it involves only self-love. Sir Jack may never realize this - he's eventually replaced by an actor - but we've got more time.

* Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send comments to charlesr@csps.com

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