Fuentes rarely sets an easy task for himself in his novels; usually, in fact, he takes on some sociological, political, or philosophical enormity. And this time the challenge is especially daunting, with disquisitions on a broad range of ideas: the Old World held hostage by the New; French garden architecture; sensuality; the fascination of Latin American intellectuals with all things French; the power of ancient pre-Columbian objects; the art of narration ("a desperate attempt to reestablish analogy without sacrificing differentiation"); and memory's interaction with the past ("We imagine that the instant belongs to us. The past forces us to understand that there is no true time unless it is shared"). Oddly, however, when Fuentes packs all this imposing intellectual material into a narrative bag here, the bag seems not overstuffed (as you would expect) but softly collapsed over empty space. The framework: Fuentes as narrator is having lunch with Branly, an 83-year-old Parisian count. And Branly tells a book-length story about: his acquaintance with Heredia, a Mexican anthropologist; his invitation to Heredia and young son Victor to stay with him a while in Paris (Heredia's wife and other son were killed in a plane crash); his participation in a game of Victor's--which involves phoning any other Victor Heredia listed in the phone book; and the nightmarish sequence of events that goes on in the home of this other Victor Heredia (duplication, ghosts, homosexual reunion, cruelty, history-through-humiliation). As you may have already sensed, this plot is terribly hard to follow--especially since Fuentes combines a slow-moving Jamesian style with the elegant surrealism of late Bunuel. And there's a distracting self-consciousness throughout. So--though patient readers may find themselves gradually appreciating the meditative yet tough-minded approach here, the mode of ruminant distillation--this novel is one of Fuentes' less successful experiments: anemic when it attempts to be limpid and (even more so than usual with Fuentes) without the controlled craft to match its ambition.