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"The Celestine Prophecy" (Warner, $17.95) resides comfortably in the fiction category of the best-seller lists. Actually, it's not a novel at all, it's a New Age tract couched in prose just flat and one-dimensional enough to make it a success.

Any book heralded by its publishers as "A BOOK THAT COMES ALONG ONCE IN A LIFETIME TO CHANGE LIVES FOREVER" can't be any good at all, and "The Celestine Prophecy" doesn't disappoint. Or, rather, it disappoints so fully, so continually, that it achieves a dotty, camp splendor.It's all about an ancient Peruvian manuscript evidently written by someone who was a cross between Marianne Williamson and Nostradamus. He foretells that at the end of the 20th century, enlightenment will descend as mankind works its way through Nine Insights.

"We shook off our feelings of being lost," explains one character all too earnestly about the aftermath of the Renaissance, "by taking matters into our own hands, by focusing on conquering the Earth and using its resources to better our situation, and only now, as we approach the end of the millennium, can we see what happened. Our focus gradually became a preoccupation. We totally lost ourselves in creating a secular security, an economic security, to replace the spiritual one we had lost. The question of why we were alive, of what was actually going on here spiritually, was slowly pushed aside and repressed altogether."

"The Celestine Prophecy" is structured as a classic quest, with the protagonist learning to see auras, and conveniently running into someone to explain the next Insight every 25 pages or so. The insights themselves are cosmic signposts on the road to a blissful apotheosis. Along the way we learn to experience not only the secret of the universe, a kind of cosmic Vulcan mind-meld, but some truly dire prose worthy of the Robert James Waller Famous Writers School ("A rush of nervousness filled my stomach . . . I observed the hydrogen atoms begin to gravitate together. . . .").

Imagine Close Encounters of the Third Kind written by someone without flair for character or humor - all the characters are painfully serious in books like these, because they all have an essentially hortatory, propagandistic function - and you'll have it. One is hard-pressed to guess which is scarier; the book's success, or the intellectual and emotional lives of people who could take it seriously.

- Quote Unquote . . . "If you have to write you will, and if you don't have to, you won't, because everything in life is going to conspire for you not to; and if you can live without doing it, you should, you really should. I don't really recommend it. To anyone."

- novelist Stephen Wright