A CARACOLE is a spiral (obsolete).

A caracole is a helical staircase. A caracole is a half-wheel to the left or right performed by a horseman, or a zigzagging succession of such wheels. It is also -- as a rare but enjoyable fit of frowning by the Oxford English Dictionary informs us -- a word that "many writers have used . . . without any clear notion of its meaning." Only the rash would include in this number Edmund White, whose use of the arcane term is always nimble and precise.

Caracole is a caracole, presumably, in that its characters pursue their lives in a zigzag of half-wheels. It is a hard novel to describe and only slightly easier to enjoy. It is set at an unidentified time in an unidentified place (a sort of Americanized Europe -- Venice with a touch of New York) but doesn't aim to create a specific alternative world: instead, it relies on an amalgam of familiar, inherited ones. It is set in a land where unspecific conquerors lord it over passive patriots, but its intentions are scarcely political. It starts off with characters called Gabriel, Angelica and Conception, with events like the Miracle Cure, the Initiation Ceremony and the Prince Imprisoned, as if it's heading towards Myth or Romance or even Disney (the Wicked Step- Mistress) but then thinks better of this.

Mainly, it is a tale of Gabriel and Angelica, young country lovers (he from a good but decaying family, she a native girl) who come to the capital, are parted, and separately explore the city's pleasures: love, sex, opera, dressing-up and dilettantism. They meet Mathilda, the fashionable intellectual, "conscience of her generation"; her son Daniel, a fashion-happy decadent; Mateo, the aging dilettante; and Edwige, the depilated actress and sex-artist. Liaisons are struck, then unstruck, and on the final page the lovers are reunited: it all has a feel of Hollywood out of Laclos, or a more loosely circling La Ronde. Hints (for this is a hint-dropping novel) suggest the influence of opera -- certainly the plot proceeds in slabs of stagey, rather static passion. And then there is the hint dropped by Mateo about a roman.

EVEN THESE ISLANDS off Northwest Europe from which I write have received the rumor that Caracole is -- or at least is being read as -- a roman Sontag, her son, and Richard Sennett have percolated. From this distance it doesn't matter much; but it might explain why the characters, despite their opinions being transcribed at great length, remain heavy-hipped and unrealized on the page. In part this seems a mattr of technique; these people are insufficiently aerated with dialogue; but it might also be that their closeness to White prevents him from usefully reimagining them for us.

Edmund White is widely applauded as a stylist: indeed, as "one of the outstanding writers of prose in America today," according to -- well, yes -- Susan Sontag. Caracole has frequent incidental felicities: the soles of someone's feet emerging from a bath "puckered like seersucker"; women at a party "goitered with pearls"; people throwing branches into a fire "as if they were live lobsters." White can describe a platter of cheeses, a haircut, a cat or the sound of orchestral music with a rare celebratory precision. He can write rhapsodically of clothes, masturbation and sodomy. He can turn a brilliant paragraph about porcupines picking up apples with their quills.

But just as often he tumbles into tranced Euphuism, latterly known as creative writing. "As she spoke, traces of her scent, like a pack of nervous dogs, circled him, nipped him or caressed him. He could actually see the dogs, bald and beige, yawning or snapping at the air, their haunches huge . . . " and so, yappingly, on. Or this, from the next page: "Autumn was infiltrating summer's ranks but only under cover of darkness; it was dark now and cold spies brushed against him." All White is saying here is that the nights are getting colder, and the dud military metaphor can't conceal that this is all he has to say. Maxime Du Camp and Louis Bouilhet, rebuking Flaubert for the florid excesses of the first Temptation of Saint Anthony, famously reminded him of La Bruyto say that it is raining, say 'It is raining'."

Far worse novels than White's produce far less irritation. But with a largely inert plot and a cast of non-talking intellectual lounge lizards whom one would not normally cross a short story to meet, dangerous stress is put on the prose. And as the novel sprawls on, the writing begins to tire: "He forced her to eat raven (at least something more ceremonial than mere crow)." There is a cursory injection of plot toward the end, though by this time discovering the true identity of Daniel's father is about as exciting as learning the secret of Lili's paternity in Lace II.

Julian Barnes, television critic of the London Observer, is the author of the novel "Flaubert's Parrot." CAPTION: Picture 1, Edmund White. dud military metaphor can't conceal that this is all he has to say. Maxime Du Camp and Louis Bouilhet, rebuking Flaubert for the florid excesses of the first Temptation of Saint Anthony, famously reminded him of La Bruyto say that it is raining, say 'It is raining'."

Far worse novels than White's produce far less irritation. But with a largely inert plot and a cast of non-talking intellectual lounge lizards whom one would not normally cross a short story to meet, dangerous stress is put on the prose. And as the novel sprawls on, the writing begins to tire: "He forced her to eat raven (at least something more ceremonial than mere crow)." There is a cursory injection of plot toward the end, though by this time discovering the true identity of Daniel's father is about as exciting as learning the secret of Lili's paternity in Lace II. Picture, Edmund White.