THE HOLLYWOOD DODO

By Geoff Nicholson

Simon & Schuster. 323 pp. $23

Once upon a time, in an entirely different world, a fairly frantic graduate student labored intensely on a doctoral dissertation about the Hollywood novel. It was no easy task: There were so many of them, for one thing, more than 500 at the time, and more coming out every day. She read the 500, and came up with a few tentative thoughts: Chronological time meant nothing in these novels; artifice, on the other hand, meant everything. And since few characters in these novels would have been able to know each other by "normal" means, the narratives were pushed along by a heavy reliance on parties, suicides and funerals.

So reading Geoff Nicholson's "The Hollywood Dodo," for me, was deja vu all over again. The form hasn't changed much -- or at all -- since I dejectedly penned that unpublished, totally unreadable diss.

"The Hollywood Dodo" takes place in two time frames. One half of the novel is set in 17th-century England during the reigns of Charles I and II, and the interregnum. The other half takes place in Hollywood, in the present, although one character, would-be movie director Rick McCartney, has "auteur of the future" printed on his business cards. Henry Cadwallader, a medical doctor from London, is escorting his self-centered, not terribly attractive daughter, Dorothy, to Hollywood, to see if she can make it in the film industry. Rick, for reasons never adequately explained (to me, at least), has become obsessed with the dodo bird and wants to make a film about it and its extinction.

Flashback to the 17th century, where we find William Draper, student of physics, also obsessed with the dodo. In fact, he has purchased what may well be the last dodo on Earth. If only he might find another dodo, so that he can keep the species going! To thicken this section of the plot, poor William comes down with a terrible disease that turns him into a bit of a walking freak.

Back to Hollywood again, where Dorothy strikes out repeatedly (and is a terrible sport about it), but Henry, her dad, although middle-aged and chubby, finds himself immediately in the Hollywood thick of things, going to parties, having sex with a charming ex-actress turned real-estate agent in a Tudor house that salutes a Britain-of-the-past, hobnobbing with Hollywood cognoscenti of every kind.

And then the parallels begin. William Draper falls in with a medical quack, who is really an honest lady healer. She not only helps him with his disastrous complexion, but when his dodo dies, she stuffs it; taxidermy, then, with its crude artifice, is but a forerunner to the elaborate special effects we find in so many movies nowadays.

In the Hollywood present, Rick, the would-be director, consults a psychological quack who is actually an honest lady healer. She sends him tumbling either back in time or into the pages of another book, which helps him considerably with the dodo movie he's working on. And Rick's roommate, a special-effects man, provides him with an actual, feathered, wind-up version of the dodo.

Nicholson is widely recognized as a satirist, but to be perfectly honest, I don't know what he's satirizing here. Hollywood movies, with all their preposterous conventions? (Henry allows himself many conversations and asides about this subject.) The evanescence of life? Not only does the dodo die in a big way, but Henry himself casually kills one, maybe two humans without giving it a second thought. The vapid longings of brainless females for celluloid fame? Certainly Dorothy is vain to the point of pathology, and another female character, Tawnee, a rambunctious porn star, barely makes it to an animal level of intelligence.

As for porn, this look into the nether regions of the film industry suggests that, yes, sex without affection is the stuffed dodo of another kind of ("meaningful"?) relationship. A pornographer, Jack Rozin, is a villain of the piece; he's thwarted the life and career of Rick, the "auteur of the future," who eventually makes his bad movie about the dodo of his dreams.

Is this book heavy-handed to a fault, or feathery enough to fly away on the very lightest breeze? Is it profound, or is it the shallowest of literary exercises, not meant to be taken seriously in the slightest? Beats me. But I can report that in "The Hollywood Dodo" chronological time means nothing; artifice means everything, and characters interact by means of parties, suicide and funerals. Just like 40 years ago.

This Sunday in Book World: Ward Just chronicles a midwestern reporter's passage into maturity in his novel "An Unfinished Season"; reviewed by Jonathan Yardley.