By Ariel Dorfman

Farrar Straus Giroux. 358 pp. $25

Reviewed by Joanne Omang

The jacket of Ariel Dorfman's new novel features a naked female torso with an iceberg covering her crotch. Too obvious? Throw in Chile post-Pinochet, Che Guevara's ghost and the 1992 World's Fair, along with mistaken identities and sex contests, and you get a kind of Chilean cazuela, a stew that's supposed to be delicious. If, however, your stomach turns instead, if the mix strikes you as repellent and boring, it must be that you have no taste. Here's a literary chef serving his latest, and only a Philistine would gag. Right?

Dorfman's breezy postmodernism has its stylistic charms, but his tale seems as silly and improbable as a brainless sitcom. Sex is the only motivator, women are cardboard sex objects, and everyone is up to something sneaky. Allowing for all that, if one must bow in deference to a celebrated writer's cultural quirks, there's this: The book could be entertaining if it had any kind of larger point, and one can be dimly discerned at the end. But even so, it feels constructed, a moral tacked on to excuse a prolonged, self-indulgent ramble.

Gabriel McKenzie of the baby face and virginal loins goes home to Chile and his father in 1991 after 17 years in New York exile with his firebrand mother. Gabriel hopes that his father, Cris, a celebrated rescuer of runaway boys, will reveal to him the secret of bedding women, for, in pursuit of a bet, the senior McKenzie has had sex with a different woman every single day for nearly 25 years. The bet was with his best friend, Pablo, now a senior government minister, who is working on capturing an iceberg from Chile's southernmost straits for shipment to the World's Fair in Spain. But just as Gabriel becomes smitten with Pablo's daughter Amanda, Pablo reveals that someone wants to blow up the iceberg. The McKenzies are enlisted to find out who.

Dorfman doesn't seem to know what to do with all the portents and symbols he strews around. Gabriel's ancient Nana, maker of the healing cazuela, offers mysterious Indian counsel; Cris McKenzie's substitute son, Polo, lurks and menaces to no effect; and the iceberg is variously offered as whitewashed Chilean history, an immaculate tomorrow, virgin purity, boredom, Amanda, fear, and, of course, the anguished hero-narrator Gabriel himself, seeing the world through a veil of semen. All is tediously sexual, even illness: "I was open like a vagina into which the sickness could spill and then congeal." Whatever the author's point, he's trying too hard. As if sensing the reader's impatience, Dorfman resorts to a labored e-mail form that promises details if we will just stay tuned. "Murder will make an appearance in this story I am telling," he says, and "I have other plans. But you don't have a chance in hell of finding out about them until it's too late to stop me."

One wishes that Dorfman would just get on with it, because the noted writer must have some secret ingredient that will rescue this stew, mustn't he? At first it seems as if the magic might come from that perennial bitter herb, loss. Chile is relentlessly beautiful, seductive, and the image of white Antarctica and the iceberg is one of cold truth. Perhaps Dorfman's subject is the truth of what really happened during Pinochet's regime, who screwed whom and why, and who will be cynical enough to survive. Will Cris McKenzie win his bet? Will he once again seduce Gabriel's mother? Will Gabriel win Amanda? Will Gabriel learn who wrote the threatening letters? Is it all a dim metaphor for hope and survival that only someone looking for character development might miss?

This seems the case toward the end of the book when Gabriel has an epiphany. "Women want two things from men," he realizes. "They want a father to protect them and they want a son to protect. You can play one card or you can play the other or you can play them both. But if you play them wrong -- that's when things begin to go sour." In other words, Gabriel concludes that duplicity is key to everything. Dorfman seems to be saying that a rebirth of hope from this stew of cynicism is what we really need, but he leaves redemption in the hands of ghosts, and he revels too much in the sordid details. Either Dorfman is profoundly cynical himself or his book is a waste of time. Either way it is hard to care about the book or anybody in it.

Joanne Omang is a novelist and former Washington Post correspondent for Latin America.