Children's Ward

TITLE: OPERATION WANDERING SOUL

AUTHOR: RICHARD POWERS

PUBLISHER: MORROW; 352 PAGES; $23

THE BOTTOM LINE: A brilliant, flawed book, more stage set than novel, portrays doomed children in a dying society.

Novelist Richard Powers is a prodigiously talented manufacturer of literary astonishments, which is not exactly the same as being a good writer, though he is that too. His novel The Gold Bug Variations was widely praised as one of the best books of 1991. But whenever one of his narratives loses its forward motion, as happens early in this big, messy, off-and-on brilliant novel, Powers tends to go for flash....

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