"A STORY," HERBERT GOLD wrote 20 years ago, "is first of all what follows when someone holds us near the fire by saying, 'Here is what happened and it's important.'" This is a shrewd definition. Nothing here about a plot or an adventure, just "what happened." He/She is a brilliant novel about what happened to a marriage in these wrenching times of female awakening. It is a wonderful story, though the plot is as thin as a homely bridesmaid's smile.

Herbert Gold is a master of time-capsule fiction. His stories and novels are nearly all good candidates for burying away in a lead-plated container meant to be opened 100 or 1000 years from now.He is a gifted reporter, a writer whose characters' dilemmas are rooted in a precise cultural moment that Gold evokes supremely well. He/She , for example, could someday provide historians with a vivid explanation of what happened to the institution of marriage in college-educated America in the 1970s.

Gold is one of my favorite writers, an admission that should come only early on. I discovered his work 20 years ago as a college freshman busily avoiding courses by reading through the library's collection of contemporary American fiction. Then Gold's wrote about the relations between men and women with the wisdom of a hip, sensitive 35-year-old, an irresistible pose to an 18-year-old dreaming of writing hip and wise stories himself.

Gold wrote richly complex stories, disguised as episodic trifles, that were published in magazines, the best of them in The Hudson Review , and later in books. I remember vividly what Gold wrote in those days about a writer's ambition. It was to create an impression with words so strong that a reader would sit up and say, "Ahh, now I see what you see."

At his best Gold has been able to evoke that "ahh" from a huge audience. Fathers , his most successful book, published in 1977, was a big best seller that made him famous at the time. Four subsequent novels have all failed to make a comparable impression.

In He/She Gold has reverted to his early preoccupation with men, women and the love between them. After two marriages and five children of his own, Gold has 56 takes on the subject with clearer vision and a wiser voice. He/She is meant to be a universal tale -- Gold gives no names to the husband and wife whose story he tells, they remain throughout just he and she. It is a risky approach, but I think Gold has pulled it off. There are universal characters, or at least they evoke universal feelings. I thought of a dozen failed marriages among my own friends as I read Gold's painfully true description of this man and woman who could not stay married, but could not stop loving each other either.

Their marriage collapses after the wife unilaterally withdraws from it. He isn't interested in seeing it end -- indeed, he is devastated by the spectacle of its ending. Gold can't help making him -- a vice principal of a junior high school -- a sympathetic figure. Like Gold, after all, he is the man; but he wins sympathy by being vulnerable, by hurting before our eyes, and not because he is the wronged party.

In fact he is a male chauvinist of the kind women must find the most distressing; he thinks he is fair-minded, and in his thoughtful moments he is fair-minded, but his instincts and assumptions are not fair to his wife. "He knew, of course, that his passion for his wife was an attachment to an idea about himself," as Gold puts it. Her loving him reinforced -- perhaps it created -- the image of himself that he liked to live with. But she was also supposed to iron his shirts, be the good vice principal's wife and stand aside for him. For a time -- through the birth of a daughter -- she could do all this. Then, like so many young and middle-aged American women in the 1970s, she stopped being able to do it: "She had fallen in love; she had climbed out of love."

Gold writes from a position that is much closer to him than to her. The book is narrated in the third person, but the narrator is always beside him, never beside her if he is absent. Nevertheless a strong, clear picture of her emerges.

"'Oh God,' he said, 'are you crazy?'

"'No, she said very seriously. 'You think I'm playing.

You think I'm nuts. You think I'm wild. You're wrong. I think of you all the time. I can't seem to feel anything but anger, and then I just can't stand your sadness, and I don't want to, can't bear, how could anyone? to be married so tight.'"

So tight -- an inelegant formulation for the usually elegant Gold, but the perfect phrase to describe the stultifying arrangements against which so many modern women have rebelled.

Gold's novel has the pacing and the feel of a good Bunuel movie, and it is just as much fun. The twists the story takes have the bizarre, unpredictable quality of real life. This is a document of our time, as well as a lovely piece of writing.