Umberto Eco’s first new novel in five years, Numero Zero, weighs in at 192 pages, versus 400+ for his previous efforts. I’m pretty Eco-friendly—The Name of the Rose was a lot of fun, if a bit overlong—so I was looking forward to something like Rose or Foucault’s Pendulum, except shorter, tighter, and brighter. Instead, readers of Numero Zero will find a little mystery, a bit of fantasy, some humor, and a lot of explanation: for better or for worse, this is a change of pace for Eco.

The Name of the Rose, 512 pages long, covered a week in a Dark-ages monastery; Numero Zero covers two months in 1990s Italy. From the very first page, it’s evident where we are, in style, genre, and time: “No water in the tap this morning … I knocked next door: ‘everything was fine there. You must have closed the valve,’ she said.” Someone has been inside the squalid apartment of Eco’s narrator, Colonna. But who?

Colonna is a frustrated academic whose house, desolation, introspection, and setting place him firmly in cyberpunk. He’s not quite Neo or Mr. Robot or a Murakami hero, though: for, like Eco, Colonna is learned. Soon enough we get allusions to “Rue Morgue” and “my dear Watson.” So Numero Zero is to be a mystery. This is promising, for Eco’s erudition is just varnish on typical thrillers. As a fiction writer, his strength is plot.

The next chapter flashes back two months: Colonna has been called upon to write a book about a newspaper written in retrospect. The newspaper is to be called Domani, “tomorrow,” and Colonna’s book is to be called Domani: Yesterday. This joke is clever enough, but it is more this kind of exchange, between Colonna and his editor Simei, that typifies the style of Numero Zero:

“And you want me to write the book? Why not write it yourself? You’re a journalist, no? At least, given you’re about to run a newspaper …”

“Running a newspaper doesn’t necessarily mean you know how to write.”

The first half of Numero Zero is filled with comments like this. Simei, mastermind and mouthpiece, says things like, “Note that ‘making news’ is a great expression,” while Colonna wallows in the past, “I had my first sexual experiences then, with a singer, in exchange for an indulgent write-up.”

As characterization, this is flat—Colonna, evidently Watson, once actually says “Let me get this straight”—and, as plot, Eco’s métier, it doesn’t really work. It’s clear enough that Simei wants to “create a model of journalism independent of all pressure” with a free voice. What isn’t obvious is why it matters.

To tell us, Eco uses his other characters—chiefly a guy named Braggadocio: “I no longer trust anything,” he tells Colonna, “There are lies all around us.” These lies concern the history of Milan, kind of; after a long digression on brothels, not much else has happened.

Getting out of this rut requires yet another character: Maia, the cyberpunk love interest for the lonely Colonna. But when they go on their first date, the dialogue is still wooden and journalistic:

“Don’t take it personally, Maia. Let’s go, I’ll walk you home. We could have a drink on the way.”

“I live by the canals, plenty of bars around there.’”

It’s a welcome respite from the narration, though, which spends a page describing what a mob front is, and indulges in yet more pages containing nothing but the journalists reversing clichés, enumerating euphemisms, and so on. These little listicles are sometimes funny, but the impression is more that Eco just couldn’t help but put them in.

Later, the plot finally starts to bubble. Braggadocio advances a theory that Mussolini’s death was faked, giving the novel, its fugazi newspaper, and the reader some stakes. But he gets bogged down in the details: Braggadocio’s monologue spans ten pages. Worse, the details are predictable. The real Mussolini was smuggled out to Argentina (where else?); the Vatican was involved; nothing is sacred. It is then that Braggodocio observes “newspapers are not there for spreading news but for covering it up,” and it is in these pithy observations Numero Zero is at its best.

Alas, Braggadocio is not long for this world; stabbed to death, he becomes the news. When Colonna, in full Watson mode, says, “I was beginning to realize that if someone had bumped off Braggadocio, it had to do with his investigations,” you have to wonder if Numero Zero is too short for Eco to develop a strong plot and characters, or too long to justify its pale imitations of these things.

Numero Zero ends with a whimper: in the closing pages, Colonna says, “The world’s a nightmare, my love. I’d like to get off, but they tell me we can’t, we’re on an express train.” His fantasy, trés cyberpunk, is to peace out to Central America, with lady love in tow. Apparently this is because these countries are at least open about their corruption, but Maia rebuts this notion: “Italy is slowly turning into one of those.”

As dialogue, this is mediocre; as history, it’s bad. Sure, actors from the Borgias to Freud to Mario Puzo have argued Italy’s politics of rival city-states necessitated greater intrigue. But this is also the culture that gave the world The Prince and The Book of the Courtier, which put it all out in the open.

Eco must know the truth is more complicated than Maia’s lame line, but there is no room for this kind of nuance in Numero Zero. Accordingly, the novel works better as a send-up of start-ups, fictional history, and journalism—though anyone who watched The Wire Season 5 knows how hard it is to pull this off. As a book of one-off jokes, Numero Zero is passable; as a thriller, it is not great; as social commentary, it has the weight of an editorial from Tomorrow, the foresight of a contrivance from Yesterday.

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[Image via AP]