Barnes (Flaubert's Parrot) has used portraiture-at-three-ages before, in 1980's Metroland. Where that book had an aggressively sociocultural finish, though, this new one hooks a rug of metaphor more philosophical and religious. Jean Serjeant's childhood in the 1920's is bedeviled and enlightened by her golf-course outings with her Uncle Leslie, during which his charming eccentricity poses to her certain questions and conundrums (Is there a Sandwich museum? Why don't Jews like golf? Why is heaven up the chimney? Why is the mink excessively tenacious of life?)--mysteries that provide her with a kind of bravery and fear mixed together. Also they seemed to have had the capacity to render her all but unfit for normal life. Marriage, a son, divorce, travel--she goes on to have and do all these things but never feels herself quite connected to them. Her son, Gregory, inherits the deracination; and, then, as a bachelor of 60 (Jean still doughtily hanging on at 100 in the year 2002), he decides to ask his own versions of Uncle Leslie's questions lo a great central computer that will--to a select few--reveal ultimate truths, i.e., Does God exist? Why is there death? As Flaubert's Parrot proved. Barnes is special at subtle recapitulation; he can under- and over-knot a mere detail until it comes to seem like a living seed; and he has a fine, off-center sense of humor that falls toward the commonsensical and sends up the needlessly fancy. This is all here again--but more pokily; Jean's teenaged acquaintance with a scared fighter pilot, for instance, etches the fine line between bravery and cowardice--but too portentously. Her impressions of travels lo China and the Grand Canyon are intelligently odd--but, in a novel, sit there like travel notes all the same. Probably a better way to read this book is as an elegantly well-done successor (and homage) to Cyril Connolly's black diamond, The Unquiet Grave: an excursus, a self-mocking meditation. Certainly the final section--Gregory's search for and the finding of faith--is very moving, a hundred juggled balls in the air, all somehow--wizardly, humanely--caught. Not truly a novel, then--nor satisfying as one--but added proof of Barnes' deft skill for artistic and intellectual cubism.