Keeping up with Wu Ming's novel 54 is like trying to follow a lively conversation in a packed room, with good reason: "Wu Ming" ("no name" in Mandarin) is a pseudonym for a collective of Italian authors, and their profusion of styles, characters, and tones suggest that they were competing rather than collaborating during the writing process. Just learning the book's rhythms enough to follow it through its many shifts is exhausting. It's a book for multitaskers and ADD sufferers.

Ultimately, 54 breaks down into a few major plot streams, mostly taking place in 1954. The most improbable involves Cary Grant being courted by British intelligence for a secret mission to visit Yugoslavia's Marshal Tito. Another centers on Mafia don "Lucky" Luciano and his lieutenant/executioner Stefano Zollo, who's secretly skimming from Luciano's drug trade and hoping to retire on the proceeds. And the most prominent revolves around young Italian layabout Pierre Capponi, famed for his dancing and not much else. But each of these stories breaks out into a staggering flurry of ancillary-character chapters. Pierre is sleeping with a woman who's obsessed with the fate of her institutionalized brother. Pierre's dancing buddies have their own lives and problems. His war-scarred brother runs a bar where a group of cantankerous locals regularly argue politics and football. And his father is an exile in Yugoslavia, where he deserted his Italian unit to join local rebels a decade earlier. All these characters and many more get their own POV chapters and their own detailed agendas; a few sequences are even written from the perspective of an American TV set, tellingly named "McGuffin."

Some of these threads are highly compelling; in particular, Cary Grant's story is entertaining and nuanced, as he obsesses over his personal style, struggles with his inner Archibald Leach, and lives out a spy story with pointed references to Ian Fleming. But much of the random character business is irrelevant and distracting, with the cumulative effect of watering down the joy that hits whenever two seemingly unconnected stories cohere. In interviews, "Wu Ming" has encouraged readers to embrace the book's simultaneous delving into political philosophy, genre-novel pulp, and broad self-parody, but any one of these directions probably would have been enough for a single book. The authorial collective added a fifth member since its last novel, Q (written as "Luther Blissett"); for its next project, a sixth member—a discerning editor—might be a good idea.