Again Oates penetrates the dead center of consciousness immobilized by magnetically opposed imperatives--need and impotence, the individual and the "flow" of God, love and murder. And assassination is inevitable when we and our enemies (mirror images of one another) "do the things we must do." Andrew Petrie, ex-Senator and a "radical conservative" political philosopher, is in fact murdered; his widow Yvonne is killed (is it real or a dream?--it doesn't matter), her limbs methodically hacked away; and Andrew's brother Hugh lies in living death after a suicide attempt. Andrew's other brother Stephen, an ex-seminarian from whom God had "withdrawn" examines guilt like the others: "The less human you are, gravitating toward God or away. . . the more danger you are to human beings." The countdown away from, and toward, the various assassinations is intoned through three narrators--Hugh, Yvonne and Stephen. Hugh gasps on about his obsessed love/hate for Yvonne and his attempt to "keep Chaos away" with his art. Yvonne, as widow, preserver of her husband's voice through his written words, realizes finally that "we are all the same person, the same words. . . his life did not matter." Stephen stresses the world's essential absurdity. The narratives cover roughly the same time period, touch lightly here and there, but like the marriage of Yvonne and Andrew, never achieve a true union. Everyone says "I'm sorry." "Murders everywhere (await) the kind words and apologies." Oates records each frisson of the tormented consciousness with ruthless exactitude. Reading this is like following the spasmodic jerks of a cardiograph stylus through a long nightwatch, and truth to tell, it's rather a chore. The attention tends to wander--the stasis is too deadening, the range too circumscribed. But then there is the absolute integrity of Oates' bleak vision and an occasional efficient scene of stark horror--the unique powers of this irritating and demanding writer cannot be altogether dismissed.