THE YEAR OF SILENCE

By Madison Smartt Bell

Ticknor & Fields. 194 pp. $15.9

WITH The Year of Silence the young novelist Madison Smartt Bell (he is 30) has published his fourth novel in as many years. Zero db and Other Stories, his first collection, was published earlier this year. His talents are prodigious. Each of his novels has been different, technically and structurally more adventurous than the one before. He has a superb ear and an ability to describe the physical world with what someone in his novel Waiting for the End of the World called "a clinician's camera eye."

The structure of The Year of Silence is conceived and executed with care; each chapter is told from a different person's point of view, in a clever and elegant time sequence. What's missing are characters who are as complicated and engaging as the structures the author has created for them. Hardly any of them have families -- spouses, kids, parents or grandparents -- that figure in their stories. Attachments here are between estranged roommates, drug addicts and drug dealers, cops on patrol together, boyfriends and girlfriends about to break up, men who fantasize about the woman across the bar they've never met. All are consumed with anomie. Thinks one of them: "Why, it's just that we're still alive . . . That's all that's wrong with us." One character feels, for his recently deceased brother, "the beginning of resignation and he harbored it with no special emotion."

There are too many characters who feel no special emotion for each other or for Marian, a New York City freelance illustrator, glamour girl turned druggie, the novel's central character. She dies, from an overdose of pills, about midway through the book.

Each chapter is told from the point of view of someone who knew or observed her: her boyfriend Weber; the cops who are about to discover her body; a drug dealer named Crystal; and a fascinating, sympathetically drawn Dartmouth-educated dwarf who lives in a Harlem rooming house and dreams of being tall for Marian. The only chapter in which we see Marian is the one in which she dies. There we learn that she recently had a frightening abortion and is in a lot of spiritual and physical pain.

At a memorial service for her friends, Weber's friend Sinclair realizes that he, Sinclair, "had not loved her. Perhaps she had not been easy to love. But Weber had loved her and he did love Weber. In this context there was nothing else to call it, and so there was a chain that went from him through Weber to her, and possibly, through her, to others too."

The Year of Silence is about the chains -- though "threads" might be more accurate -- that connect these people to Marian and to each other. But most of the connections are so fleeting, so circumstantial, so unfelt, that it's difficult for us to care much about them. When Bell means for connections to matter, he goes for melodrama or a sort of wooden banality, as in a chapter that focuses on Marian's oldest friend. She "had already cried enough {about Marian} . . . though of course the mourning would go on forever. Well, I do miss you, there's no bones about that, she thought, knowing that she could not be heard . . . " Sinclair tells us that Weber loved Marian, but I would not have concluded that independently from what little Bell lets us know about Weber's feelings. He's upset about Marian's upcoming abortion, sullen at her funeral, and a year after her death he climbs to the upper reaches of the Brooklyn Bridge.

IN FACT, you don't need to be in love with a woman to feel anguish over her abortion or her death -- and suicidal gestures are not evidence of love. By the same token, women needn't experience drug addiction, abortion or miscarriage to feel genuine despair. Unfortunately, Bell relies heavily on the broad strokes, on bold external drama, to reveal and justify his characters' feelings of loneliness and longing. Perhaps the challenge of his next work is to explore people's vulnerabilities, not in the face of death or disfigurement but in the face of the quotidian, the family, the self.

Finally, one wishes Bell had let us feel a "special emotion" for Marian, so that her death would be our loss too, as well as the unifying "event" at the center of this impeccably structured book.

Elizabeth Benedict's "Slow Dancing" was nominated for the American Book Award for First Fiction. Her forthcoming second novel is "The Beginner's Book of Dreams."