Ambitiously, Moravia seems to have decided to counterpoint his fiction about the moody Italian adolescents of the Fifties with a portrait of a very Seventies young girl; the ""time of desecration"" (in Angus Davidson's titling) is much stranger than ""the time of indifference"" two decades previous. Desideria is the formerly fat (she sees herself as a ""holothurian"" or sea-cucumber) stepdaughter of a rich, widowed, polymorphously perverse American woman living in Rome named Viola (a sexual monster, alternately mother to Desideria and, after the girl slims, a lesbian seducer). And one day Desideria hears ""The Voice""--an inner but morally alien director leading her through a ""plan for transgression and desecration."" The plan includes: the acceptance of Viola's intimate caresses, then the humiliation of her for them; using foul language and defecating on I Promessi Sposi; being almost sodomized by Viola's conservative ex-lover; meeting a gigolo-cum-revolutionary named Erostrato and installing him as Viola's lover; sexual submission to a real revolutionary from Milan; and, finally, a double murder. Desideria understands that ""the Voice"" urges only acts of symbolic value: sodomy (conservative Italian politics), lesbianism (rich decadence of the bourgeoisie), and loveless intercourse (proletarian vulgarity) are all political ciphers. Her choice, as she sees it, boils down either to the orgy (escape from the world) or the group (futile attempts to change it). All this political cross-referencing distances and symbolizes the novel, of course. And so does its interlocutory format: the ""I"" of the novelist questions, and Desideria provides long answers. Hardly a book to be comfortable with, then, especially since the self-admitted grotesqueness of the socio-sexual set-pieces often veer far from plausibility. Yet for all the overstatement and the occasional plain smuttiness (as always, Moravia's eroticism fills, then overflows), there is a genuinely investigatory spirit here, Sadean in its purity. The spirit of the age, to Moravia, is apparently one of psychopathology--and he seeks its outer limits in a chilling, grating, nightmarish book.