The novel is divided into separate stories which are at first glance unconnected. We see the action through the eyes of the various characters in turn. Their adventures, realistic at the start, grow ever more phantasmagorical as the plot develops. The grotesque and fantastic situations in which the characters find themselves could nonetheless happen to anybody: these unexpected, unthinkable, shocking events come not from the outside but from within a person, are a product of one's internal world. It is a psychological novel of a special sort: metaphorical, making use of fantasy elements. Its design, where the real intertwines with the absurd and the rules of chronology and cause-and-effect are broken, is to make the reader forego a logical cognizance of the plot, thereby establishing direct emotional involvement with its goings-on.
An old Chinese deliveryman, who hardly understands English and is therefore forced to imagine what his American customers might be saying to him, suddenly finds himself invited to the wedding of complete strangers.
The predictable daily routine of an average middle-class working woman, Beth Wilson, starts with the usual commute to work but is abruptly interrupted. Some dark humorist kidnaps her along with her car and draws her into the gloomy labyrinths of the Bus Depot, where she observes a group of naked people casually getting off the bus. Beth flees the Depot in terror and runs into a Colonel McCone, retired FBI officer-by accident, she at first presumes.
Kate, a policewoman who patrols a subway line, is haunted by the perfume of a woman ran over by a train. Kate's personal life acquires new meaning: the scent turns her on like nothing ever has, making her huge body shudder with pleasure. When she "accidentally" finds herself at the scene of another train crash and then a third, she undergoes a psychological evaluation and is transferred to the police department of the Bus Depot.
Little Ken, a homeless victim of progressive amnesia, occupies a niche in the brick wall of a Bus Depot terminal, surviving by running errands he instantly forgets for people he can't remember. Returning to his nook one evening he finds a woman there, either sleeping or unconscious. Struck by her beauty and cleanness, Little Ken decides he'd take care of her.
Colonel McCone lives in a high-rise next to the Bus Depot together with his elderly enfeebled father, also a colonel in days long gone. Where exactly his father served remains a mystery to McCone. He has mere inklings of top-secret missions that the old colonel used to carry out all over the world. These days, the cranky old man demands attention like a small child, and McCone buys him a powerful telescope: the father, who won't brook strangers next to him, spends his dull lonely days spying on them in the street and in their homes.
Beth Wilson's husband George, a nondescript office worker, hurries to work every morning. He comes into the city by bus, which lets him off at the Depot. One morning a fellow passenger loses consciousness and falls on the Depot's dirty floor right before George's eyes. Uncertainly, George tries to help, only to find himself handcuffed to the dying man. George is at his wits' end, but it quickly becomes apparent that the stranger is not dying at all: he explains that he's an amateur psychologist, retired, and conducting an experiment. The psychologist turns out to know a thing or two about George; taking advantage of George's confused and demoralized state, he inveigles him into another strange experiment-this one starring George's wife Beth.
Kate is working at the new place. Here there are no trains to run over perfumed victims. But she does get to see an old friend, Colonel McCone. He helps Kate out of an unfortunate misunderstanding: walking her beat at the Bus Depot late one night, her senses clouded by the imaginary scent, she comes upon a homeless couple making love-and kills the woman. Kate feels obligated to the Colonel and undertakes to carry out special assignments for him. The Colonel, in turn, takes her to a secluded spot under the Bus Depot's roof-the central air exchange-and shows her an ordinary faucet spouting her beloved perfume.
For some time now, the Depot's employees have been observing a strange phenomenon, which they have dubbed the Bus Stop Ghost: ignoring everyone, a frail old man in an antiquated straw hat walks the halls and utility spaces of the Depot, passing right through the walls. This introverted old-timer had long been in the habit of taking a walk from his house to the Hudson River down the little streets that were later demolished to make way for the Bus Depot. And he obstinately continues his daily strolls, despite the fact that times have changed and the Depot's terminals are blocking his path. The old fellow lives in a building that hasn't been occupied in years, its apartments replaced by a 24-hour McDonalds's. He thrives on his memories, but alas, even the most vivid of them are flat and two-dimensional. What's worse, the past has already happened, and the present only annoys him with its bustle, its unpredictability, its contrariety, its thoughtless but palpable dimensionality. So he decides to get involved in the present, to change it, to make it accessible to himself-that is, flat and controllable.
Colonel McCone makes an unexpected discovery: his elderly father hasn't been spying on passers-by after all. With the passion and skill of a professional, the old colonel has established a watch over the Bus Depot and has sighted a mysterious group of people whose actions he finds odd and extremely suspicious. McCone doesn't quite believe that this group is real and not a figment of the old man's imagination until he gets an order to investigate the Bus Depot. Attending to the task, he discovers that the strange group operating at the Depot has for some reason reconfigured the ventilation system to pump the exhaust of the arriving buses into the Depot's terminals.
Little Ken is filled with tenderness for the beautiful woman who sleeps in his nook. Now he's got somebody to take care of. He goes in search of food for You-that is the name he gives the woman-and finds You gone when he returns. Ken runs inside the Depot and hits upon a large crowd that is watching a completely naked You floating under the ceiling. Not knowing what to think, Little Ken begs You to come down. Briefly, she does, and speaks kindly to him, but then takes to the air again. Ken tries to hold on to her, falls, hits his head and regains his memory…
Up in the Bus Depot's attic, George meets up with McCone, occupied with a peculiar task: he has a rope tied around the waist of a naked woman-whom George at first mistakes for his wife-and is preparing to lower her down into the main waiting area. From the Colonel's muddled explanations George gathers that the experiment has begun: the exhaust is entering the Depot through the ventilation system. In fact, George can smell it upstairs-a sickly-sweet scent that sends his head reeling.
Beth finally gets home and tries to calm down. She attributes ordinary causes to the day's extraordinary events: her own fear, her bad nerves, a series of coincidences. It works, but not for long. She is visited by an ancient-looking man in an old-fashioned hat who vaguely explains that, alas, things didn't work out as he planned: he's tried his best, but the situation has gotten quite out of control. On his heels, a bizarre crew led by George invades Beth's home, and a mad ritual takes place, frightening and ludicrous in its psychedelic absurdity-the wedding of George and Kate…
In the novel's last chapter, the rightful fate of its characters is realized. Kate gets a promotion; Little Ken regains his huge fortune along with his memory; Beth leaves her unbearably proper husband for the dashing Colonel McCone. And the old man in the straw hat discovers that the brave new world around him is not dimensional but multilayered, and that the uncontrollable reality is only another wrap that conceals a supremely indifferent Void. What's behind that?