Is the world going to hell in a handbasket, or racing toward the millennium? Are we at the end of history, or the beginning of hope?
These are the grand, the cosmic questions of our day. They are unanswerable, but they must be confronted. And confront them British writer Margaret Drabble does in her newest novel, "The Gates of Ivory." In this sprawling, cluttered, annoying and admirable book, she embraces a world full of contradictions, our world at the close of the 20th century, and casts upon it the novelist's perceptive and ironic eye.
In this last installment of her trilogy about the '80s, Ms. Drabble returns to her usual venue of modern-day, middle-class England and the preoccupations of a certain cast of bourgeois, socialist-leaning characters headed by psychiatrist Elizabeth Headland. But this time, she stretches her canvas to take us far afield of this cocoon -- to the Far East, to the neon-lit sidewalks of Bangkok, to the muted suffering of the refugee camps on the Thai border, to the jungles of Kampuchea.
Liz Headland receives a package one day. It is postmarked Phnom Penh and contains written materials belonging to her friend, novelist Stephen Cox. Nestled among the papers, Liz finds, to her horror, a human finger bone.
Is it Stephen's, she wonders, realizing she has not heard from him for nearly two years -- since he left for Indochina with plans to write a play about Pol Pot.
Liz sets off on a search for Stephen -- first among mutual friends in England, ultimately in Indochina itself. Her quest alternates with flashbacks to Stephen Cox's own journey in search of artistic and spiritual renewal, his attempts to find a meaning in the madness of modernity, to recapture the simplicity and idealism of an earlier, perhaps illusory time.
Kampuchea, where the Khmer Rouge had sought to dispense with modern mores and machines and to return to people power and primitive tools, is clearly a metaphor for that yearning for simplicity among some men, who look in half-horror at what we have made of the world. But the Kampuchea of Pol Pot was a failure, and so is Stephen Cox's quest.
"It never roll back now. Is finished," Bangkok beauty queen Miss Porntip tells him sagely. "Socialism finished, simplicity finished, poverty finished . . . Is new world now."
Ms. Drabble has done her homework on the Kampuchean quagmire, and it shows. She spills her knowledge onto the page without reserve, especially in the early sections of the book, in which long passages detailing refugee statistics and historical data read more like journalism than fiction and skirt the edge of pedantry.
Furthermore, Ms. Drabble is a writer who has apparently never met a historical, political, literary or pop cultural allusion she didn't like. The England sections, in which she traces the mundane travails of various colorful secondary characters, groan and sag under the weight of her intellectualism, while the buildup of excess descriptive detail can be at times positively maddening.
For such a vastly detailed book, "The Gates of Ivory" also falls curiously flat at the end, where such intriguing details as the truth about the finger bone and the fate of Stephen's last novel are never explained.
But none of this detracts from Ms. Drabble's accomplishment here. She has boldly tackled the perplexities of our brave new world, where progress is king, where everything is for sale (even art: "[Writers] seemed to purvey messages, but in truth they sold commodities. Art was nothing but a trading speculation"), and no corner of the earth is safe from the future. Broadly, she contracts East and West, the modern and the primitive, reality and the dream of an ideal. She takes us from Good Time into Bad Time and back again.
"The Gates of Ivory" can be cloying and smart, it doesn't always work, but it is a vigorous effort, a serious effort, and a challenge worth meeting.
Ms. Smardz is a writer living in Washington.