BEHINDLINGS

By Nicola Barker

Ecco. 534 pp. $27.95

It is almost impossible for a novelist to say something interesting about the modern cult of celebrity. It exists; it exercises a certain organizing function, like the seasonal fashion catalogues; it keeps itself decorously in rhythm with national events. Beyond that, you're in the realm of jeremiads, and very few novelists can make those interesting.

Nicola Barker is wise, then, to avoid philosophical complexity in Behindlings, a novel at least nominally about celebrity. The book describes a weekend in the life of Wesley, an environmentalist prankster and rakish seducer of middle-aged librarians who has become very famous. The exact mechanism of his superstardom remains vague -- his stunts have received wide publicity, but the crucial thing is simply his following: fan sites, a corporate sponsorship and, finally, a group of people who literally follow him around. They are young and old, fat and thin, human and canine; some of them can make it only on the weekends while others haven't missed a day in years. These are the Behindlings.

It's an intriguing premise for a novel, though Barker, who is a very hot literary property in England, does not pull it off. One problem is the peculiar style: a thesaurusized, caffeinated, abusively italicized narration that deploys interior monologue with utter abandon, constantly interrupting speech with the characters' supposedly truer thoughts ("Oh God," for example, or "The wounds were still there. Still raw. Even after all this time"). On the one hand, this means the book is not as long as it looks, because large chunks of it are one-word-per-line thought fragments; but the promiscuous interior monologuing also means that the complex plot, involving small-town scandal, computer viruses, attempted murder and so on, remains totally obscure, landing Barker in an uncomfortable fix that necessitates a last-chapter summary from the semi-villainous Wesley. It's as if the reader were a captured spy who, because he's about to be dispatched by the super-laser-death ray, can finally be told what's going on.

Behindlings is best when it deals with the psychology of following. The newest Behindling, Jo, is an environmental activist who actually finds Wesley ideologically compelling; the others follow because it gives their lives a shape and a purpose. When Jo violates the rules by talking with Wesley, Doc, the elder statesman of the Behindlings, is crushed: "Wesley doesn't talk to the people Following," he tells her. "That's the whole . . . the whole point." Another man's decision to follow Wesley is presented as quasi-religious conversion: "And he ran [toward Wesley] -- But why? -- to lend a hand -- to prompt -- to prop -- to light -- to ham . . . to . . . to . . . What -- as ticket collector -- as previewer -- reviewer -- enthusiastic applauder . . . Witness Audience Fan He didn't care. So long as it was him, and so long as he was there."

The religious aspect is central, and like a respectful unbeliever Barker has a sort of grudging admiration for her Behindlings -- at the very end of the novel, when Jo halts in her tracks and quits the game, the ones who keep going appear to have achieved a certain dignity. "And soon the boy drew adjacent with her -- then Hooch -- then Doc -- just one shoe on his foot -- the little dog -- they drew abreast of her, they drew ahead of her, they pulled away from her." They continue to follow.

Celebrity, Barker seems to say, meets a powerful yearning. As Frederick Exley writes in A Fan's Notes, the best book yet about the pain celebrity culture inflicts on the obscure, the dream of one's own celebrity is almost the last to die: New York Giants star Frank Gifford, Exley wrote, "more than any single person, sustained for me the illusion that fame was possible." It is an illusion that skews our politics, distorts the informational field. And yet if celebrities didn't exist, we would, clearly, have to invent them. *

Keith Gessen has written about books for Dissent, the Nation and Slate.com.