Noted for novels that subtly skew reality, Australian Booker Prize winner Carey (The Tax Inspector, 1991, etc.) now invents countries for his protagonist to illuminate in a story that only flirts with the big issues it raises. Set in a vague, near future, the two countries Carey creates, Efica and Voorstand, possess many suggestively familiar characteristics. In geography and landscape, Efica is vaguely Australasian, and Voorstand, while its language and history resemble that of South Africa, is culturally and militarily a power like the United States. The hero, Tristan Smith, born with numerous deformities, is the only son of Felicity Smith, a Voorstander who fled to Efica, where she headed a troupe of actors who performed political agitprop, as well as Shakespeare. His father is a young actor, Billy Millefleur, whose talents soon remove him to Voorstand, where he becomes a famous performer in the notorious Voorstand "Sirkus." This "Sirkus," which uses holograms and electronics and no animals -- the Voorstanders worship animals, especially Bruder Mouse, a sort of spiritual Mickey Mouse -- dominates Efica and the world culturally. Eficans are a poor people, "uncomfortable with dogma, suspicious of high-sounding rhetoric," who, though nominally independent, must accept Voorstand military installations on their territory and Voorstand influence on their politics. Tristan, reared by loyal theater folk after his mother's murder by a Voorstand operative, relates how he grows up to seek his father in Voorstand, confound his mother's enemies, as well as somehow become the great Efican actor he'd always believed to be his destiny. An ambitious book decked out with lots of imaginative finery, this picaresque tale promises the bite of an Orwellian satire but never delivers.