CASEBOOK, by Mona Simpson. Alfred A. Knopf, 317 pp., $25.95.
Set in California in the first decade of the 21st century, Mona Simpson's sixth novel, "Casebook," studies the relationship between young Miles Adler-Rich and his mother, Irene, whom he refers to as "the Mims." He also has a divorced dad, twin sisters he calls Boop One and Boop Two, a best friend named Hector and a supporting cast of parents and kids in his community.
Though Miles is the narrator, the book opens with a preface written by the owner of a comic book store explaining that the manuscript is a prequel to a popular comic book the two boys collaborated on when they were younger, a level of complication that didn't really add much.
"Casebook" begins the year the Mims and Miles' dad split up, an event Miles foresees due to his inveterate spying. Starting at age 9 with a walkie-talkie under the bed, he moves on to a secret telephone extension and "Mission: Impossible"-style eavesdropping. His drive to know everything comes out of a sense of powerlessness over the seismic changes in his life.
"In Cottonwoods Elementary ... where we'd never been allowed to keep score," Miles notes. "Then all of a sudden, this year counted. Grades that would go on our permanent records. Divorce. Moving. Everything was ending."
The spying is also an expression of his attachment to the Mims, a fragile woman who is, by her own description, "pretty for a mathematician." The Mims posts relevant quotes and slogans on a blackboard in the kitchen. For example, on the day the kids are assigned to clean the house, she chalks up "SOME FRENCH SOCIALIST SAID THAT PRIVATE PROPERTY WAS THEFT. I SAY THAT PRIVATE PROPERTY IS A NUISANCE. -- ERDOS." Her insecurity makes her susceptible to the dubious charms of her first suitor, Eli Lee. Miles and Hector become suspicious of Eli's background and intentions, prompting even more advanced intelligence techniques.
The plot unfolds slowly to a pretty obvious climax, with many tacked-on elements along the way. There's the thing about the comic book, including some cute illustrations from it, there's a subplot about Miles selling soup at school to make extra money, and another about animal rescue. There's a gay and lesbian support group at school, though none of the young characters is gay. In the end, it fast-forwards to Miles' college years for a not-very-happy denouement.
Simpson, author of the prizewinning first novel-turned-movie, "Anywhere but Here," has the chops to make this crowd of characters and plots appealing. Unfortunately, to put it in blackboardese, SOMETIMES THE WHOLE IS LESS THAN THE SUM OF ITS PARTS.