Oates has done time in academia, and the best part of this erratic novel--set among literary faculty at an upstate N.Y. college--are her descriptions, verging on dark farce, of professorial vanities, rivalries, insecurities, and petty tactics: much of the book involves a handful of faculty parties, and Oates efficiently captures the spilled drinks, bored wives, snide put-downs, labored jokes, oblique namecallings, faux pas, and hurt egos that characterize such sloshy gatherings. (At the first party, there's a ghastly moment when the guest of-honor--a great, aged, failing English poet--vomits at the climax of a vain young composer's eager-to-please performance at the piano.) And at least one of the strutting literati here--a self-important prof having an affair with a young teacher's insomniac wife (she's out to save her husband's job)-takes on a real tragicomic pathos in his desperately fawning attempt to win over the visiting poet, who'd rather chat with the folks at the public library. But Oates wants more from her cast than dark irony (which reaches its peak when the old poet bums to death after fiercely shooing the tireless sycophant out of his bedroom); she wants, as usual, fear and trembling. And the attempts here at tortured, soulful characterization are less successful: many of the players have fitful stream-of-consciousness moments, but it is 38-year-old novelist/teacher Brigit Stott, a vaguely autobiographical figure, who carries the emotional weight--in memories of her brutal former marriage, in her half-thwarted attachment to the old poet ("He would be one of her holy loves. She has had holy loves and unholy loves"), in her recurrent fear of being suicide-prone, and in her unconvincing affair with that vain young composer, a preening bisexual. With Brigit, who is made to reach some sort of unwarranted epiphany, Oates turns on her familiar tortured-soul prose ("Her stomach was bloated, hard, her brain was emptied of blood. . ."); but the character remains sketchy and out of place, like a study for some other, more focused novel. A mixed bag of Oates, then--insightful and sharp when it's content to view the academics with a satiric curl of the lip, but characteristically morbid-shallow when trying to reach into their very souls.