Frederica in wonderland

With enough footnotes and explanatory diagrams, books by A.S. Byatt may one day be readable. Until then, display them prominently, praise them broadly.

Fans of A.S. Byatt's fiction can be divided into two groups: Those who cannot understand her novels and those who lie. Even her most popular work, the Booker Prize- winning "Possession," was demanding, and her previous novel, "The Biographer's Tale," was downright baffling.

Her latest, "A Whistling Woman," completes a tetralogy, meaning a fair number of us already feel intimidated. The series began 25 years ago with "The Virgin in the Garden," which introduced Frederica Potter, then a precocious teenager. Now, three novels later, Frederica has abandoned her university post - driven away by self-righteous and dimwitted undergraduates, no doubt the kind of lazy readers who would find A.S. Byatt's novels too arduous.

The British publisher claims that "A Whistling Woman" stands on its own, but I just wished it would stand still. This peripatetic story about the late 1960s is as fascinating, eclectic, and confusing as that psychedelic era.

The various strands of the plot wind around a body-mind conference being planned at a new university in Yorkshire. An infinitely patient vice chancellor hopes to inspire "a biological-cognitive Theory of Everything," while his vindictive New Age wife traipses around campus reading hippies' horoscopes. To ensure maximum academic and media attention, he's invited speakers from every possible discipline - even, against his better judgment, religion.

Meanwhile, back in London, Frederica has reluctantly accepted a job as the host of a new television talk show called "Through the Looking Glass," a wacky and cerebral kaffeeklatsch about the way "television is going to change everyone's consciousness." The first step in her preparation for the job is to buy a television and watch some of it. She's not impressed, but something intrigues her about the possibilities of this new medium. Soon she's appearing on the screen as "the Witch in the sugar cottage" talking about "Doris Lessing's idea of Free Women, George Eliot, and a Tupperware bowl." (Check your local listings.)

Unfortunately, just as she begins to find success and a bit of fame, her boyfriend moves back to Yorkshire to continue his work in advanced mathematics at the university. He's working with researchers who are studying the physiology of memory by observing snails. But he's also drawn inexorably to his mentally ill twin brother, who's a member of a therapy group that's metamorphosing into a religious cult.

Everyone's looking forward to the body-mind conference, including a group of radical students who have founded an antiuniversity outside the grounds of the old-style university on land owned by the religious cult where the biologists' well-observed snails live.

If you're still with me, you're probably thinking this is a pretty poor inventory of the story, but actually, it's something of a miracle that I could corral "A Whistling Woman" even into this unruly summary. The plot is so fragile that it breaks into tangents at the slightest touch of coherence.

And yet it's all strangely engaging, partly because Byatt constantly tempts us to pursue connections between these disparate elements, but also because she's embedded the cosmic ideas of this ultimate novel of ideas in the lives of such interesting characters.

One of the most gripping and disturbing is a psychiatric patient known sometimes as John Lamb. He gradually emerges as the charismatic leader of the Spirit's Tigers, an apocalyptic cult near the university. Byatt moves back to his childhood and the ghastly murders that derailed his life, sending him into the fiery tropes of the Bible for guidance.

Other narrators watch Lamb too, responding in various ways to his seductive theology. Letters from his Jungian analyst, for instance, to a colleague show the slow corrosion of the doctor-patient relationship. And a sociologist secretly studying the cult provides increasingly terrifying reports about its madness.

In the best tradition of chaos theory, everything in this story refolds to greater complexity. That can be maddening, but it's also fascinating. Where else can a religious maniac explain Kierkegaard's analysis of Abraham's faith, and keep you on the edge of your chair?

The most unnerving implications surround issues of faith in a world rapidly becoming convinced that all thought can be reduced to matter. Trapped in recurring hallucinations of blood, poor Lamb is lost in a thicket of theological symbolism that forces us to confront a blurry line between the mentally ill and the spiritually minded. The psychiatrists studying Lamb ask themselves how science will ever distinguish between a dangerous fanatic and a religious visionary.

On the university campus, even the scientists most devoted to snail and memory research sense something inadequate about their attempts to reduce all cognition to the activity of electricity in gray matter.

Jacqueline, a brilliant young student toiling in the sexist shadow of her adviser, cries out: "I don't know how I got myself so cocooned in my self. I want to be able to do the things people do - I want to live, not just to think." Ultimately, she needn't worry: There are forces within these characters - noble and shameless - that defy their rationality, that thwart their perfectly logical, Darwinian explanations and throw them into life with a vengeance.

Clearly, this is serious play for a writer who can make words do magic, and she's never been more intellectually lush than here. One senses in Byatt's witty satire of the antiuniversity a venting of authorial rage against lazy minds that fail to appreciate the accumulation of wisdom. And yet, the conflagration that ends the vice chancellor's quest for a Theory of Everything casts a humble light on the all-inclusive ambition of this remarkable quartet of novels.

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send comments about the book section to

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