''Hazards'' is not a word usually associated with the ebulliently inventive author of ''Flaubert's Parrot.'' (Also the author of ''Staring at the Sun,'' ''A History of the World in 10* Chapters'' and ''Cross Channel,'' all of which joust for the mind's gaiety and melancholy; and of the neater, more confined novels of erotics and autocracy, respectively: ''Talking It Over'' and ''The Porcupine.'') In fact, Barnes has always dealt uncertainty. It is just that he deals it in paradoxical high spirits -- a troubadour jangling at a window behind which the twitching shadow may as likely be a curtain as a princess. In ''England, England,'' the jangling, though often as spry as ever, flags at times. Perhaps it is a curtain after all.
The three parts of the novel are told in contrasting tones. Although Martha figures in all three, she is different in each. In the first she looks out with the child's keen and fertilely mistaken eye; in the last, with the worn, aridly exact eye of age. Both these Marthas are inveterately human; at his best Barnes wrestles his characters skyward while letting them keep a foot on the ground.
In the middle and by far the longest section, on the other hand, human Martha is stretched into a cartoon. This is deliberate, and plays out the author's message: Until recently, we conceived life as a tangible reality. The post-modern world -- Barnes blends in everything from deconstruction to the manipulation of entertainment and imagery to electronic communication -- is edging us into a virtual reality. The price will be paid. Reality will reassert itself on a mortally injured retreat.
And so the titles of each of the parts: ''England'' for Martha's tangibly recalled childhood and ''England, England'' for her adulthood among the simu-lacra of a lampooned near future. ''Anglia'' is her old-age withdrawal into a counterpart English remnant: rural, cut off from the world, technologically stripped, uncomfortable, devoid of ambition or modern conveniences and very far from utopian. All that can be said for it is that it may be the only human alternative (very different from a solution) to what awaits us. It may be the bottom line -- bog-house connotations and all -- of the bottom line.
To begin with the smart and accomplished ''England, England'' section. Running four-fifths of the whole, it is the book's heart, though perhaps not the author's (or mine). It plays out a lavish satire on Britain today extrapolated into a day or two after tomorrow. Its protagonist, Sir Jack Pitman, is a publishing megabeast with traces of Lord Coppers (in Waugh's ''Scoop'') and the late Robert Maxwell (hulking frame and faint East European accent). Mostly, of course, he is Rupert Murdoch, with his communications empire and unwalled expansiveness, though carried here to kinky extremes. (Sir Jack patronizes a brothel where he gets his kicks as a diapered baby.)
Determined upon a last feat of personal empire, and after considerable reflection -- his excesses are coupled with some shrewd insight -- Sir Jack buys the Isle of Wight. He hires the inhabitants and gets the local councilors to set up a parliament, declare independence and ask to join the European Union. His aim is a Disney World carried to its ultimate conclusion. Having taken a poll to determine the things that visitors most associate with Britain (among them the royal family, thatched cottages, Shakespeare, bowler hats, breakfast and double-decker buses), he reproduces them all, apart from a few he finds insulting (not washing/bad underwear).
He hires a Samuel Johnson to be witty to visitors at a Cheshire Cheese, contracts an R.A.F. squadron to spout Battle of Britain slang while waiting to scramble, and builds a half-size Buckingham Palace. Inside he places the genuine King (a wonderfully parodied Prince Charles), whom he has compensated lavishly for abandoning Britain (big pay, no boring dignitaries and, since Sir Jack owns and has relocated The Times of London, no bothersome press).
Among his experts, Sir Jack brings in a late-model Derrida to do Theory. The modern world prefers the simulacrum to the real thing, the Frenchman explains. Barnes, whose simulacrum of a French intellectual is far funnier than the real thing, quotes:
''We prefer the reproduction of the work of art to the work of art itself, the perfect sound and solitude of the compact disk to the symphony concert in the company of a thousand victims of throat complaints. . . . To understand this, we must understand and confront our insecurity, our existential indecision, the profound atavistic fear we experience when we are face to face with the original.''Modernity has won. ''It is our intellectual duty to submit to that modernity, and to dismiss as sentimental and inherently fraudulent all yearnings for what is dubiously termed the 'original.' We must demand the replica, since the reality, the truth, the authenticity of the replica is the one we can possess, colonize, reorder.'' This is satire at its best, and there is much in the ''England, England'' section that is ingenious, funny or both. There is much else, though. Both the planning and the functioning of Sir Jack's utopia are developed in a protracted and insistent detail that tends to turn mechanical. Some of the parody is familiar: the Godzilla-tycoon -- tyranny, diapers and all -- and of course the already scraped-to-the-bone royal family. You are surprised not that Barnes (like the dog walking on its hind legs) does it well but perhaps, given his particular genius, that he does it at all.
Even in its best moments this middle section is not Barnes at his best. He is not a pure satirist. His vessels sail under flags of irony and parody, to be sure, but what makes them remarkable are the stowaways: the human gesture, the idiosyncrasy that deflects the arrow of wit and flies it the other way, the attentiveness that remains after the wit is flown.