All right, since you insist, a precis:
Jake, a historian nearing retirement, kills himself for unknown reasons. This leaves a doctoral student of his, Saleem Singh, whose work is unpopular with the rest of the department, undefended. Saleem is encouraged to continue his studies elsewhere. A younger colleague of Jake’s, Linda Derwent, is outraged. After an intemperate outburst in a department meeting, when she is facing a tenure decision, she decides to find a different job.
Saleem ends up teaching film in a state university in southern California. He shares an apartment with one Roger, a librarian in a school for the deaf. Roger’s friends… well, never mind, this is getting complicated. One of them is Bill, whose companion has gone off to do humanitarian work in Iraq, is captured, and beheaded on television. Saleem, tired of coping, tries to kill himself by running his car into a tree. He misses, and kills some picnickers instead. Etc.
Derwent ends up teaching history on contract in a small college in upstate New York. Among her friends … you see how this is going? One of them dies of prostate cancer and his widow runs off to Paris, where she goes off the rails. She had taken with her a student, who latches on to some other people and eventually turns up in Vienna posing as an operative who can arrange to have the prisoners of Iraqi terrorists released. Etc.
The idea, you see, is that every story starts new ones, each of which twigs off more stories. So you ask me, what is it about? Well, I’m not sure. There’s this historian, you see, who is nearing retirement, and a student of his who is a third-generation ethnic Pakistani from Fresno, who is doing research on the workings of communities of artists, who shares a cubicle with a man who is recruiting people to kill illegal aliens crossing the border, one of whom, who wasn’t very good at that, decides to branch out into random shootings, and there is all this stuff about frustrated love. There’s this woman, you see, whose nebbishy husband wants to be a screenwriter, and she decides to take the baby and decamp to San Francisco, who is trying to get Roger to teach her something about Heidegger…
How do I know what it’s about? You’re asking the wrong man.