By Christopher Sorrentino

Farrar Straus Giroux. 516 pp. $26

Trance is a panoramic, documentary-style novel based on the final months of Patty Hearst's tenure in the Symbionese Liberation Army. Christopher Sorrentino is most interested in capturing the 1970s zeitgeist, and his obsessive narrative eye rambles almost haphazardly after one character, then another, like an extended Robert Altman opening shot that covers 500 pages.

It is, at times, a compelling piece of work. Sorrentino is best at capturing the inbred logic of the radical revolutionary cell and their members' instinctual mistrust -- even hatred -- of the individual human heart. For example, here is Sorrentino following a heartbroken Tania (a stand-in for Patty) after she watched on TV as half of the SLA was incinerated in a massive firefight:

"They killed them. They killed him. They killed her. She crawls on hands and knees to the bathroom, closes the door with her shoulder, and then wedges her upper body in the space between the tub and the toilet, feeling the cool of the porcelain and tile against her skin. . . . She will never see Cujo again [her SLA captor and lover]. They've taken him. She will not know this grief again until she repudiates him in open court. But that is twenty-one months away. . . . Yolanda starts banging on the door.

" 'Come out here, Tania!' she says peevishly. 'You're not being very respectful of our fallen comrades!' "

Over hundreds of pages, Tania becomes a symbol of the 1970s (will she or won't she disown the social revolution?). But sadly, no rounded, living, breathing Tania, no literary reincarnation of a flesh-and-blood Patty Hearst emerges in the novel. There's no explanation of how her change from preppy to revolutionary occurred.

Here we are in Tania's mind while on the run early in the novel:

"Three nights at the Cosmic Age. Every minute, all thirty-seven hundred of them, meaningless, each a sort of obstacle to be overcome by the habit of being. First you put one foot down. Then you put the other in front of it. . . . Her job is to stay in the room. Just another face in an upstairs window, she parts the drapes to survey the parking lot, the cars rolling in and out. Vacationers, deliberately insulated from the news, arrive wide-eyed, like refugees from the road, the desert's affectless serenity."

The only fresh snippet here is Tania parting the drapes to look out. All the rest is the author's philosophical voice intoning rather flatly. Did the words "habit of being" or the "desert's affectless serenity" ever really cross this girl's mind?

Instead of revealing Tania, Trance shadows various players involved tangentially in the final acts of the SLA drama. When the characters are worthy of this extended attention, the novel works, even if you're wondering what Tania and her SLA pals are up to as you head to Manhattan with, say, writer/hustler Guy Mock, who's pitching a book based on his ties to the SLA. (Actually, these pages provide some needed comic relief and cut through the radical inertia that pervades the novel.)

Strangely, if remaining in the reader's mind is the definition of a well-drawn character, and even though she only has a bit role, Lydia Galton (Tania's mother) steals the show from her daughter toward the end of the book. Here is a scene between Guy Mock, Lydia Galton and Hank Galton (Mr. Hearst):

"[GUY:] 'More information has come to light.'

"[LYDIA:] 'And what would you like in exchange for this information?'

"[HANK:] 'Lydia. Guy freely offered information to us last time.'

"[LYDIA:] 'Isn't that how pushers work? The first time's always free?'

"[HANK:] 'Apparently you know more about that than I.'

"Guy gazes wistfully at the icy dregs in the bottom of his glass.

"Lydia says, 'Oh, don't pretend to be embarrassed. You don't have to put on a phony display of discomfiture.' "

Such tightness, such icy interplay, shows Sorrentino's possibilities. But something is wrong if Tania's mother is more interesting than Tania. Amazing facts and compulsive observations hide the reality that the novelist only infrequently connects with his characters' hearts. After half the SLA dies in the shoot-out with police early in this book, Sorrentino takes four full pages in the section titled "Threnody" to address Tania's father directly, giving him a guided tour of the autopsy room with such sentences as: "Would you have guessed, Mr. Galton, that burned corpses possessed so many specific traits . . . ? Were you surprised to learn . . . that even the most badly burned corpses routinely present with organs that are more or less intact? That the fluid level in the organs and body cavities prevents total incineration?" Mr. Galton thinks he has just lost his child; why not use these four pages to explore his affections rather than drag us through the scientific and repellant minutiae of the autopsy room?

In the end, this is a case of the novelist as a trendy but rather chilly genius, more impressed with his own voice than the humanity of his characters. *

Tom Paine is the author of "The Pearl of Kuwait," a novel of the Gulf War, and "Scar Vegas," a collection of stories.