ANN BEATTIE IS ALREADY well known for her three previous works of fiction: a novel, Chilly Scenes of Winter, and two volumes of short stories, Distortions and Secrets and surprises. Readers of her earlier books will not be disappointed in Falling in Place, her second novel. Neither will they be particularly amazed. It's similar territory, seen, if possible, with an even sharper vision, a more mordant sense of humor.

To say that Ann Beattie is a good writer would be an understatement. Her ear for the banalities and petty verbal cruelties of the late '70s middle-American domestic idiom is faultless, her eye for the telling detail ruthless as a hawk's. She knows her characters inside out, down to the very last nastiness and sniveling sentiment, and she spares us nothing. The characters themselves are representative rather than exceptional: both halves of a splitting marriage, the husband enraged because he feels he married the wrong woman and had the wrong children, the wife obsessed, for lack of anything better, by her dead dog; their children, whose mutual hatred mirrors that of their parents, the boy fat and unhappy, the girl despising everything except Peter Frampton; the husband's young lover; the lover's ex-lover; the ex-lover's lover. There are loose connections among them, but part of Beattie's point is the looseness of the connections.

All could be illustrations for Christopher Lasch's The Culture of Narcissism, (CONTINUED ON PAGE 9) demanding love and commitment from those around them but unwilling to give it. They feel that their lives are entirely out of control, that they lack power and cannot be expected to take responsibility for the consequences of their actions. Their dominant moods are anger and self-pity, and we find their triviality enraging until we come to see them not as minor sadists but as downing people clutching each other's throats out of sheer panic. Adrift in a world of seemingly pointless events, bombarded with endless media flotsam, trapped in a junkyard of unsatisfactory objects, plugged into the monologues of others who appear to be deaf to their own, these characters cry out for meaning and coherence, but their world hands them nothing more resonant than popular song titles and T-shirt slogans.

Despite it all they remain yearning romantics. What they want from each other is nothing less than salvation, and Beattie's vision is ultimately a religious one. With religion having been designated as uncool, however, they're stuck in Middle Earth. Heaven is being in love, and stoned too if you can manage it, and Hell is a family barbeuce. In fact, not just Hell but the entire cosmology is other people. "Save me," says Cynthia, as she falls into the arms of her just-returned lover Spangle. We know he can't.

The only answer for these glutted but spiritually famished people would be God or magic. God appears only as a T-shirt slogan -- "God Is Coming And She Is Pissed" -- and magic is reprsented by a third-rate party magician who gets a crush on Cynthia in a laundromat. He's a fraud, but he does represent magic of a kind: His love for Cynthia, unrequited though it is, is the only bit of disinterested altruism in the book. He doesn't want to possess her, he wants to wish her well, and it is through his magic binoculars that Cynthia sees her vanished lover as he finally appears again. It isn't much, but in view of the odds it's a tiny miracle.

The society Beattle depicts is chaotic and random. Things happen to these characters, they change, but there is no plot in the traditional sense of the term. The major event, the shooting of the husband's daughter by his 10-year-old son, is an accident, and the general reaction to it is stunned disbelief. "Things just fall into place,'" says one character, commenting on Vanity Fair. "Maybe things just fell quickly because of gravity," thinks another, "and when they stopped, you said they were in place." Which is a comment also on Beattie's particular art. Sometimes the reader feels caught in an out-of-control short story, sometimes in a locked train compartment filled with salesman's samples and colossally boring egomaniacs, but most of the time, thanks to Beattie's skill, her novel not only convinces but entrances. The details are small, but the picture of our lives and times built up from them is devastating.