The first time that St. Bran -- or the devil, or God or whatever name you prefer -- takes possession of the young Irishman named Michael Devlin, three men die and Michael has to flee Ireland for America.

Even in exile, his destiny and his deity will not leave him alone. Guided by vision, he works on the railroad, lives among the Indians, and even has transcendental experiences with whales before he dies, passing his divine burden on to his grandson John.

All the while, we know -- as the characters do not -- that the Galactic Consciousness is pushing and prodding humanity to its next evolutionary stage.

This combination of science fiction, occult fantasy and multigenerational saga might easily have been a disaster if Adrian Malone and Steven Talley, who have worked together for several years producing television documentaries, were not such skillful writers. Instead, "The Secret" is always interesting, often effective. But the very strength of the writing makes the flaws of the book all the more frustrating.

Malone and Talley have labored to unearth the mythic, archetypal roots of the story and expose them. Alas, when the roots are bared, the whole story comes perilously close to dying. Big things happen, constantly, until all sense of scale is gone, and nothing can possibly take the reader by surprise.

Not that any particular event strains belief -- provided you concede the science fictional premise in the first place. I could accept the Irish innocent being led off to America, joining a railroad crew, encountering Indians and being captured and adopted. But when in a single page he then goes off to have another mystical experience with Eskimos and whales -- well, that was overkill.

In a technique that might work better for television documentaries, the authors cut from one breathtaking event to another. There is almost nothing in between. Nothing of the detail of life, the passage of time between climaxes. The reader may accept magic and visions and a Galactic Consciousness, but the reader has a much harder time accepting that all these things can happen to one person in so short a time.

An even more serious flaw, however, is one that perhaps could not be avoided. A major point of the novel is that the "final Dominant-Free Will phase of planetary civilization had resulted in a sort of evolutonary quagmire . . ." It is individual will that is being overcome in this story.

So it is understandable that the authors create characters who never seem to desire anything except what St. Bran orders them to do. Yet passive characters rarely have the strength to carry a work of fiction to the end. And here, the characters are abandoned so quickly as we skim through generations that even those that do begin to earn our sympathy are gone before they accomplish much of anything.

When characters don't care about themselves, it's not easy for the reader to work up much concern.

And yet it is possible to enjoy this book. I suggest you set aside any expectation for "The Secret" to work as fiction, and instead take pleasure in it as a romp through an assortment of mystical ideas.

If you receive it, not as a novel, but as speculation -- not as story, but as a myth designed to express a philosophy -- then "The Secret" is quite a good book. I doubt this is how the authors meant the book to be read, but as readers, our business is to make of a book what we can.