Cold Comfort

The Ice Age By Margaret Drabble Alfred A. Knopf; $8.95; 295 pages

ENGLAND, the "noble and puissant nation" of Milton's poetry, is dying. As the characters in Margaret Drabble's The Ice Age grapple with the meaning of that decline, England's hard times--the "Ice Age" of the title--come to dominate their lives. IRA bombs explode, the economy stagnates and Drabble's heroes try to pick up the pieces. If most of them at the end are not much better off than when they started, the same happily cannot be said for the readers of this wry, compassionate, and suspenseful book.

Since Erica Jong overcame her fear of flying, and Philip Roth professed desire, it is a great relief to find a novelist who isn't hiding, naked ego poorly concealed, behind her central character. The Ice Age is not about any one person, but rather a constellation of characters in an historical content, the downfall of their country. Each character, we feel, has his own identity, his own rationale for living, and a small but important fate to be played out against the background of a faltering England. Drabble has the novelistic strength to make the most of her role as omniscient author, taking a God's eye view toward her characters that is at once demanding yet sympathetic. Fortunately for the reader, she has the psychological insight and talent to carry it off.

The characters in The Ice Age become linked through their involvement in the property-development boom and bust in England during the mid-seventies. Len Wincobank, the whiz kid property developer, along with Maureen, his secretary-girl friend, have been unashamedly "raping the city centers of Britain and making millions." His freewheeling charisma pulls in Anthony Keating, the clergyman's son raised to be a cultivated and useless esthete, who revolts against his proper past by leaving his broadcasting job to become a property speculator.

Anthony then draws in Giles Leggett, his wealthy friend from Oxbridge days, as a backer. Alison Murray, Keating's lover, is a beautiful ex-actress who retired in order to care for her brain-damaged daughter, but also to avoid competition with her less successful actor-husband. While doing fund raising for a cerebral-palsy fund, Alison learned how to read balance sheets and ask knowledgeable questions about interest rates, investments, and tax relief. Now she shares a common interest with Anthony Keating: money.

Drabble's sardonic treatment of the British attitude toward money calls to mind a conversation earlier this year in North House with two economists, an American and a Briton. A question was put forth: How can a country with a skilled industrial work force and a scientific establishment that regularly produces Nobel prize winners, a country that invented the Industrial Revolution, be such an economic weakling in the modern world? The American replied by noting that bright young men do not go into business in Great Britain. Commerce is considered vulgar, his British colleague concurred. The ablest young people go into university careers, the civil service or cultivated idleness, but they do not go into business. And England has paid the price.

Anthony Keating's conversion from the smug anti-commerce snobbery of his idle friends (rich and not-so-rich alike) to the property fever of Wincobank occurs while he is reviewing video clips of Austin Jones, the "bright young man" he has sent to interview Wincobank. Suddenly, lightening strikes.

How could he not have noticed it before? The truth was that Len Wincobank was a genius, about ten times as intelligent, ten times as perceptive, ten times as alive as Austin Jones. Austin Jones, in comparison was a boring somnambulist, a ventriloquist's dummy, mouthing without conviction or information or even any intelligence the obligatory provocative questions.

The interrogation was a meaningless charade, Keating realizes, because Jones based it on the false assumption that he and his viewers lived in a society which frowned on free enterprise and the profit motive.

Anthony Keating's new-found faith leads him to paper riches, then promptly to rags, followed by a heart attack the recovery from which dictates that he abandon drink, smoke, and sex. Exiled to High Rook House in Yorkshire, an estate which he bought in better times to use as a retreat, Keating muses over the meaning of his forced, inactivity.

Meanwhile, Alison tries to resuce her ungrateful daughter from Wallacia, a Communist satellite in the Balkans, where Jane has encountered the misfortune of killing two Wallacians in a car accident, earning herself a potentially open-ended jail term.

If Anthony Keating's transformation is pecularly a product of his times, Alison Murray's dilemma has a more enduring nature. She has struggled in her adult life to be beyond reproach, to be called a "perfect woman," a "perfect mother." Now, mirroring the demise of England, her own value system collapses. She realizes that the sacrifice of her career done in order to care for her defective daughter Molly has only ended by causing other women to hate her. They had already hated her for her beauty; they now hate her because the example she sets makes too many demands on them.

Unwittingly, her struggle to be the perfect woman has led to failure amidst success, as she hears the undertone of hatred in the voices of those who pay her the compliment. At more sanguine moments a feeling continues to haunt her that she deserves the blame for the tragedies that rock her loved ones, for Molly's cerebral palsy, for her older daughter Jane's traffic accident behind the Iron Curtain, for her sister Rosemary's breast cancer.

She glimpsed for a moment, in the dark night, a primitive causality so shocking, so uncanny, that she shivered and froze. A world where the will was potent, not impotent: where it made, indeed, bad choices and killed others by them, killed them, deformed them, destroyed them.

I gave Rosemary cancer of the breast, said Alison to herself, aloud, to see how the words sounded. They did not sound very foolish.

The novel as an art from is dying, one sometimes suspects when the gimmickry of a Tom Robbins or the verbal pyrotechnics of a Thomas Pynchon seeking to conceal an empty core are accepted by critics as serious literature, or when intimate and vulgar biographies of the great or the merely eccentric push novels off the bestseller lists.

Margaret Drabble is not a Zen guru, a panderer, or a showman. She is a novelist. She does what the writer-as-artist can do better than anyone else: dig down to the truth of our inner lives and make it visible. The Ice Age is convincing evidence that, like England, the novel in modern times is not really dying, but undergoing a strange metamorphosis, from which it yet may rouse itself "like a strong man after sleep."