The Fall From Little to Nothing : THE RADIANT WAY by Margaret Drabble (Alfred A. Knopf: $18.95; 432 pp.)

Here is Margaret Drabble again with the news from Britain. It is bad. It has been bad for as long as many of us can remember. For 40 years or so, British writers have been reporting it in a style that raises the spirits and goads the wits. It has been a national treasure, this bad news; it has provided a golden age to the theater and possibly a silver age to the novel.

There is a passage in "The Radiant Way" that just about makes the point. Two of the characters travel to a moribund industrial town in the North of England and find, on the outskirts, a luxury hotel. It serves, one of them suggests, to house the journalists and television teams who come in from all parts of the world to do still another series on Britain's terminal decline.

There is real profit, aesthetic and moral as well as material, in writing of Britain's losses. But the news seems to be getting worse.

A bleaker tone has come over the writing. Three years ago, retracing J. B. Priestley's 1930s route in his affectionate and--despite the Depression--encouraging "An English Journey," Beryl Bainbridge wrote a new version that was closer to nightmare than irony.

Last year, Doris Lessing's "The Good Terrorist" offered a vision of pure evil flickering beneath its sympathetically detached account of the tattered far left.

And "The Radiant Way" is Drabble's darkest book. True, it has its full share of the author's caustic social wit. It displays her up-to-date skewering of styles and appetites, her careful tracing of the mined frontier between English affections, and her irresistible flashes of comic absurdity.

Likewise, it has her tendency to give her characters more sharpness than depth, and to simulate depth by surrounding her significant detail with drifts of insignificant detail. Too often, she will confuse the ordinary with the symptomatic. Drabble's glances, in terms of fictional art, are better than her steady regard.

Though her novels are essentially comedies of manners, Drabble has always had serious things to say. And in her newest book, the seriousness turns scary. It fractures her surfaces. They are as polished as ever, but they don't contain her alarm. A shattered surface may not be the same as a trip to the depths, but it does announce them.

"The Radiant Way"--the title of a children's primer published in a departed era of optimism--deals with the lives of three women. All three were at Cambridge together in the 1950s on scholarships. All three, coming from backgrounds of disadvantage, represented the postwar hope of a wider and more generous evolution of Britain's fenced society. They are friends; not so much by affinity--their lives go in very different directions--as by a kind of blood bond.

In their differences, they are Drabble's exemplars--her messengers sent out north, southeast and southwest to report the doleful state of the kingdom. Three phrases serve to dispatch them. At Cambridge, one night, they voice their hopes.

Liz, daughter of an impoverished and troubled family, says she wants "to make sense of things. To understand." And Drabble--who functions throughout as commentator as well as narrator--adds: "By things, she meant herself. Or thought she meant herself." And Liz will become a successful psychiatrist and, married to a wealthy TV executive, a powerful hostess to the artistic and intellectual chic of the '70s.

Alix's ambition is "to change things." Drabble: "By things she did not mean herself. Or thought she did not mean herself." Alix is a social idealist. She marries a teacher who shares her faith in change and the Labor Party, lives in genteel poverty and teaches literature to women in prison.

Esther's aim is voiced more dryly. "I wish to acquire interesting information." She becomes a brilliant art scholar, lives at a remove from politics and social involvement and, though not untroubled, keeps firm control over her life. At the end, it is only her choice of life that will survive; unscathed if humanly sterile.

Drabble opens the book at a moment of crisis for Liz. She and her husband, Charles, are giving a glittering New Year's party for the London elite to usher in the decade of the '80s. At its start, Liz contemplates without distress Charles' forthcoming move to New York to head up a vast television project. They will have a stylishly tenuous transatlantic marriage, suitable to their already distant relationship.

By the party's end, Liz has learned what most of her guests know: Charles is leaving her for another woman. The chasm between tenuous and zero is profound. The blow is not to her feelings but to her life, centered as it was on her wealth and social position.

The party--Drabble works it hard--marks a bigger crisis as well. It is more of a farewell than a hail. The '80s will be a tougher, meaner time in Britain, with a governing philosophy that celebrates the strong and gives little thought to the weak. The vision of a just society, however woolly and hypocritical, gives way to sharklike defense of particular interests.

The right, in power, makes few concessions; the left, with little hope of getting power, retreats into intransigence, eroding that hope still further. Many of those at the party--and, Drabble adds, many of her prospective English readers--will compromise by joining the morally agreeable but politically feeble Liberal-Social Democrat Alliance. Among other things the author will tell us is that there is no middle anymore.

When it is not recapitulating Liz, Alix and Esther's lives, careers, hopes and disappointments up to the time of the party, "The Radiant Way" is advancing them into the '80s.

Not one of the three is destroyed, but Liz will recede disconsolately from public life into her work and her messy family relationships. Alix and her husband both lose their jobs--victims of the Thatcher budget cuts--and move back to the depressed North they came from. Alix puts aside her social conscience and goes to work as assistant and scholar-in-residence for an aged literary lion of the '20s. A kind of art for art's sake becomes her refuge; as it has been, all along, for Esther.

In Britain, Drabble tells us, ambition and idealism are damned equally. The women survive, detached from the world they were so engaged in a decade earlier. The men do worse.

Charles--the power opportunist who once was a radical film maker--goes mad. Brian, Alix's husband, a gentle practical idealist, retreats into the paranoia of the extreme left. It is, in a way, the most hopeless, the most shocking thing in the book.

Drabble surrounds her chilling message--violent disintegration lurks just under the surface--with all kinds of skillful social detail. There is a wonderfully funny scene of Alix, the self-denier, dithering about using some expensive makeup before Liz's party. It goes against her thrifty nature, yet thrift has meant a history of bald tires blowing out and poisonings from sausage kept too long. Besides, it would be extravagant to throw the stuff away. And then she discovers, astonished, that it actually makes her look better.

Such gravely absurd comedy recurs time and again, and it does much to compensate for some of the book's trying qualities. Drabble's devices can be awfully trite. Using a party to set, through its guests, the array of personal and political relationships that will be treated is pretty worn stuff. Having three of Liz's four former lovers present is close to schlock fiction.

It is true, on the other hand, that by using her intelligence and discrimination on devices that American writers of her sophistication would eschew, Drabble avails herself of their undoubted residual power. They include melodrama, cliche and a blatant maneuvering of characters, many of whom are not much more than types.

There is a lot of slickness in "The Radiant Way," along with a good deal of humdrum filling. But the slickness is something like a ski trail's: It speeds Drabble up, and when she takes off into her own elegant figures and jumps, she puts on quite a show.

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