A DIFFERENCE OF DESIGN is an exceedingly elegant and exceedingly short third novel by a writer whose reputation lately has been burgeoning in certain sectors of the literay intelligentsia. Quite deservedly so. Mr. W. M. Spackman is a phenomenon, all right. His art will prosper. For one thing, his delicious short sketches of the loves of the sublimely rich really are amusing. For another, Spackman is irresistible--catnip, as he might say--to critics, who are drawn to his prose very much as Spackman's Fascinating Women are drawn to the Marvelous Men who stroll so confidently into the three-star restaurants of his world. In truth, every Spackman page is an ideal example of some much-argued critical point about The Novel, and for all their elaborate languor, these novels occupy a self-conscious position on the critical chessboard. In A Difference of Design Spackman has made that position explicit by proclaiming his book a forthright steal from his literary ancestor, Henry James. The Ambassadors, to be precise. With a difference of design.

Not that this novel is in any way theory-laden or academic. On the contrary, A Difference of Design is a fluffy and extremely easy read. Henry James, T.S. Eliot remarked, "had a mind so fine that no idea could violate it." That is exactly the spirit of Spackman's prose. What this means in practice is that from first to last a Spackman novel is dominated not by ideas or observation or conflict or even passion, but by an elaborately relaxed, elaborately lightweight style.

Unlike Henry James, however, Spackman is a romantic. That is, he is absorbed in the power of language and the romantic reverie to conjure another realm. A somewhere else ruled by beauty, with roughly the same relation to your and my world as a high-fashion photograph has to your and my clothes: i.e., Zip. To be sure, Spackman is no fantasist: no Borges, or Calvino, or Burroughs. His cities are not invisible, but dreamy variants on the real New York and Paris and their very richest suburbs. In truth, his romantic somewhere else is wealth, which he doubtless sees as one of his links to James. This is a realm of the rich: rich men, rich women, rich love, where people forever are having a perfectly lovely luncheon on the terrace, and citing Ovid and musing on Madame R,ecamier and adoring each other.

Because Spackman's romantic feet just barely graze the ground of the actual as he wafts through his prose, what we are left to notice first, last, and always is, precisely, the prose. It is often beautiful, and I predict it will one day by parodied and imitated and become a touchstone: People will hold their breath on a golden terrace and think of a Spackman moment.

"--And dazzling in fact she was, in half-naked summer black, and they had dinner, late, out on the rose garden terrasse in the soft June evening, the myriad of candles from table to table so barely luminous a dusk there were aisles of outer darkness between, each table might have been a little tent of light pitched secret and apart . . ."

Actually, the Style is a sophisticated confection of the table talk and bedroom sights and, to be blunt, more affected pretensions of the American upper classes, a m,elange of fractured French and lots, just heaps and heaps, of darlings and sweets and perfectly awful moments, simply heavenly people, and damned annoyances.

Now, I have no objection to Mr. Spackman finding his poetry in the lightweight language of the upper crust, but as his reputation grows, I think the shallowness of his sources is worth noting. Spackman may indeed be an heir to James (though not in his romanticism); he may indeed use the much-abused high modern method of the stream-of-consciousness with great skill. But finally this gossamer has been spun from little more than the asinine lockjaw drawls of Muffy and Wingate III. If it is high style, it is also High Prep. Very high. "But at lunch at the Rue de Bac (this restaurant had she said been gutted and completely refitted and tarted up a couple of years ago, but was now would he believe it as classically what the French called 'loyal' as if it still had it dotty old painted tin ceiling)--at lunch she said simply what he should do was open why not a branch in Paris." And so on.

Spackman's subject is always the same: Love. Triangular love, to be precise, which in Spackman always has much the same design. A man, usually of a certain age, is simply irresistible to (at least) two women. He thus is obliged to, sort of, choose. In Spackman's first novel, An Armful of Warm Girl, a richissime banker sort of chooses between an old flame, more or less his own age, and a young friend of his daughter, who is, naturally, simply gaga over him. Indeed, the Spackman pattern might be described as The Man's choice between the Woman and the Girl. Sort of.

In A Difference of Design, The Man is named Sather (based, most improbably, on James' Lambert Strether). The Woman is the beautiful countess who, until Sather's arrival, has been playing with the playboy Sather has been dispatched to bring home. The Girl (well, not quite a girl) is the young woman who has been hired as Sather's guide. (Oh, come on, now. Guide?). Both of these women, I need not add, adore, but hopelessly adore, The Man.

More than a little garden-variety masculine wish-fulfillment runs through these pages. Well, why not? In Spackman's world it is wishing and love, sweet love, that rule. Life is a dream, and money has made it come true. It is not reality, and it is not, contrary to claims, Nabokovian artifice either. It is not ironic enough, not sufficently attuned to disaster, for that. In Nabokov, the power of artifice kills. People die in Nabokov. In Spackman, all adored, they drift. We drift with them, and as the pillow talk of the love and sex murmur on, it seems not to matter whether we believe. It is all so . . . harmless. Yet to my mind it lacks passion, and lacking passion, truth. Even the sex, so lovely and discreetly handled, strikes me, frankly, as sexless sex. In a review of An Armful of Warm Girl, John Leonard called it "sex without tears."

Well, fair enough. CAPTION: Picture, W.M. Spackman. Copyright (c) By Chrisopher Cox