An overwrought and highly precious first novel by the Oxford don and essayist whose previous works (Where I Fell to Earth, 1990, etc.) displayed a rather florid imagination reluctantly reined in. Here, he pulls out all the stops. On the edge of an unnamed city at an unimaginable future date, gangs of outcasts and criminals live in a desolate valley, where they traffic in stolen goods and prey upon such unfortunate commuters who wander in by mistake. One of these, a prosperous and rather obnoxious businessman, is robbed, killed, and dismembered by a pack of hooligans who wrap the severed head in a bundle and play football with it. The crime is witnessed by Wilf, a local boy who subsequently flees into the city, where he is adopted by Kate, an artist who is drawn to the valley by the same violence and desperation that drove Wilf away. Kate's boyfriend, Paul, is an architect who dreams of creating a new city in the valley, and the two prevail upon Wilf to bring them into a world that he was only too happy to abandon. A deranged Jehovah's Witness, a sadistic thief with chronic indigestion, a gasworks whose perpetual flames illumine the valley at night, and a subterranean tunnel that is the locus of much misfortune are a few of the more obvious elements of this tale, in which the allegory is laid on with a trowel. The pity of it all is that Conrad's prose is lucid and engaging enough to make coherence of theme and progression of narrative seem unnecessary luxuries--for a spell. But the aimlessness of the story eventually becomes an aggravation. Pointless and artificial: the characters and situations are contrived in the extreme and entirely unconvincing. Too many points are being made with too little finesse by a narrator whose tone throughout is far more academic than imaginative.