You know you're holding a Nadine Gordimer novel from the disorienting first line of Get a Life, her icy and astringent new book: ''Only the street-sweeper swishing his broom to collect fallen leaves from the gutter.'' This is the passing observation of a nervous, unnamed young woman who stands in a driveway waiting for a man, also unnamed, whom she will not be permitted to hug. ''He radiates unseen danger to others from a destructive substance that has been directed to counter what was destroying him. Had him by the throat.''
With this pretentiously portentous introduction, we meet the Bannermans, the attractive, educated family under Gordimer's microscope. Over a dazzling 56-year career, this powerful instrument has captured the ironies and pathologies of South African life, magnifying the myriad ways in which the political in particular, apartheid perverts the personal.
But apartheid has been dismantled, and with it the subject for Gordimer's lacerating novels of the 1970s and '80s. Here, she gamely (but tentatively) tests out new material: the junction of private life and an amorphous corporate juggernaut that is destroying Edenic African lands to make way for resorts and toll roads.
The woman of the novel's opening sentences soon acquires not one, but two names: She is Berenice, a copywriter for an ad agency ''whose name is globally familiar as a pop star's,'' and she is Benni, a devoted wife to her ecologist husband, Paul Bannerman, who has just undergone radiation for thyroid cancer.
Recuperating at the home of his generically handsome and cultivated parents, Paul sourly reflects on the state of the world, and of his marriage. How, he wonders, can he stay with Berenice/Benni, who works for the forces that are gobbling up the land he is committed to preserving? ''She is that persona who has no need of convictions,'' he thinks. ''What is it? A terrible lack. A kind of awful purity? A virginity; or underdevelopment. That term fits.''
Does it? The reader is in no position to judge based on Gordimer's sketchy portrait of Berenice/Benni. But it hardly matters: Paul's doubts simply trail off in the novel's second half, when Gordimer shifts her focus to escalating troubles between Paul's parents.
Gordimer's distinctive prose has become a problem. She writes in a jumpy shorthand, moving abruptly between the minds of her characters, a technique that provides flashes of brutal insight but little nuance or narrative continuity. This elliptical style served the Nobel laureate beautifully in earlier novels, such as July's People, in which the broken sentences, funky punctuation, and dislocating shifts in perspective evoked the paranoid surreality of apartheid-era South Africa. But the moral quandaries of the well-fed, well-read Bannermans are, in the end, little different from those in a John Updike novel. Gordimer's cryptic, choppy language both fails to convey their subtlety and suggests a mysterious urgency they simply can't support.