'I Hotel," Karen Tei Yamashita's fourth novel, will be called many things, first of which will be brilliant, which it is. Due to its length and density, it will also be called "sprawling," which it isn't. Like James Joyce's modernist monument, "Ulysses," "I Hotel" is so elegantly constructed that it is as much a piece of architecture as a book. Unlike architecture, or "Ulysses," for that matter, it can be fully understood without taking a 30-hour course involving additional reading material.

It's actually quite a manageable book: 10 novellas and two comic strips about the Asian-American political and artistic movement. That does have to cover a lot of characters and territory, so Yamashita's book will also be called "ambitious." That will scare some readers off, which is unfortunate, because this "ambition" -- a word so often conjoined with the word "failed" -- is achieved with efficiency, showmanship and wit.

Like the International Hotel itself, Yamashita's book contains generations of Bay Area laborers, artists, activists, poets, musicians and choreographers, and she uses each one of their genres aptly. Like a wizard with a bottomless bag of tricks, she deploys an endless supply of rhetorical strategies, hurling them into her narrative like fireballs.

She knows the rat-a-tat no-time-to-play energy of pidgin English spoken by lonely men stranded on Gold Mountain, shift sleeping in S.R.O.s, worked half to death but never dying. Just as fluently, she conjures a cut-and-paste symphony out of the tracts in a class struggle study group. When Benny and Olivia, two young activists, fall in love, their every moment and movement are accompanied -- only half ironically -- by the magisterial idealism of Mao and Marx. They flirt across barriers of pride and money, using strategies outlined by Lenin and Engels. Yamashita makes her lovers dance and makes history cut in: sometimes with a Malcolm X treatise on self-defense, at others with Imelda Marcos stepping up with her Rococo, gem-encrusted spoonfuls of insane syrup. It's a surgically deft depiction of the political entwined with the personal.

In the novella about jazz musician Gerald K. Li, Yamashita continues to adapt her tone to the tale: breezy with just enough beat poetry in the verbiage to make it lush, like Li's life. Elsewhere, she employs choreographic notation, academic monographs on the birth of ethnic studies at Berkeley, and a graphic novelette as a tribute to Frank Chin and Maxine Hong Kingston, two standard bearers for Asian-American arts, whose long-running, extremely verbal feud is best described, delightfully enough, by using pictures.

Though the actual I Hotel was torn down, the artistic spirit it housed is still around, with all its passion and pretension. Berkeley did get its ethnic studies department, but, says Yamashita: "Establishment of the department came with some fanfare and a budget just substantial enough to create a sensation of power and competition, creating political fissures between black, brown and yellow, throwing into contest what had once been idealized as a rainbow of colored solidarity" -- a description that fits pretty much any idealistic endeavor engaged in by a group of living beings.

Living beings make up any movement, and living is what happens in the I Hotel. In a time where so much text blinks in and out by the nanosecond, Yamashita's book recalls what art is for: "To resist death and dementia ... To kiss ... you good-bye, leaving the indelible spit of our DNA on still moist lips. Sweet. Sour. Salty. Bitter." In other words, I Hotel's complex taste lingers and haunts, like something alive.

Emily Carter is the author of "Glory Goes and Gets Some."