The novel is set in Germany. Karl, the main character, who just completed forty years of workplace «servitude», is free at last to pursue his intellectual redemption; so he disconnects the landline, turns off his mobile phone, throws his laptop in a drawer, settles in an armchair ‒ purposely uncomfortable, lest he be distracted ‒ and sets about studying all those topics which life forced him to put aside.
One month into it, though, Karl must come to terms with reality: despite strenuous efforts, his brain is no different than it ever was. «Torpid, slow at understanding, always lumbering and labouring, never blessed with a spark enlighting a network of concepts». So, he digs his laptop out of the drawer and takes aimlessly to Facebook. Here is when the real story begins: not in the form of a first person account but, according to De Marchi’s preferred mode, as an endless free indirect speech bordering at times on a stream of consciousness.
It’s a love story, at first glance. On Facebook Karl meets the much younger Gabi, and the two unexpectedly engage in an intense relationship. At first wary of the girl, who he’s afraid might make a fool of him, little by little Karl must acknowledge the authenticity of her feelings for him. Gabi leads a life all her own, and holds a job at an important albeit unspecified ministry. She frequently disappears, making herself unreachable, only to reappear all of a sudden: bubbly, ironic, affectionate, always attentive to Karl’s every emotional need. Then, one day, she seems to be gone for good. Once again Karl finds himself alone. The lack of social life and human connections, which used to be, so to say, his chosen way of life, strikes him now with an unbearable sense of void.
A partial rescue comes from Carlo, an old Italian friend that Karl casually runs into. A physician by trade, Carlo is an outgoing and, if we are to believe him, sexually exuberant guy. Before they fell out of touch many years before, Carlo had been close to Karl when the latter’s marriage was collapsing. Karl and Carlo start taking long walks together in the city’s parks and dining at the Italian restaurant where Carlo is a longtime patron. They talk, they laugh, they even quarrel once. One time they compare each other’s life stories, and these stories are like two little novels inside the main one. The same could be said of the «miniature honeymoon» that Gabi, once back, finally grants Karl, three consecutive trips in as many beautiful places around Stuttgart. It isn’t but a parenthesis: Gabi goes back to her busy, fulfilling and (to Karl) impenetrable life.
Gabi is about to be transferred in another town, or maybe abroad; at the same time, Carlo becomes ill. Karl’s loneliness is now perfect. Nearing the denouement, the novel’s tone gets more solemn, veering towards a disillusioned contemplation of time and of how personal identity fades into death. Death, «impossibility of thought», «insurmontable limit to the imagination», imagination incapable of figuring «the cutting of the thread which connects us to our consciousness: the thread will break anyway, and that’s all is given us to know».