CLOSE QUARTERS By William Golding Farrar Straus Giroux. 281 pp. $16.95

SINCE WILLIAM GOLDING'S Close Quarters is the center volume of a yet-unfinished trilogy, the loose and referential weave of its exposition will make little sense by itself. This is not to suggest that you avoid the book. Quite the contrary -- read in its proper sequence, the narrative enjoins participation in a strangely compelling voyage.

The new novel's predecessor, the Booker Prize-winning Rites of Passage (1980), purported to be the journal kept by one Edmund Fitzhenry Talbot, a young man of breeding and ambition, for the edification of his influential godfather. Bound from England for an administrative post in Australia -- it is the period of the Napoleonic Wars -- Talbot experiences the pleasures and vexations of ship life. He reports, in an idiom at first stylized but later more unbuttoned, on his fellow passengers and the incidents that befall them during the first leg of their passage. We meet the surly captain, the sly and mysterious steward, a licentiously lash-fluttering Miss Zenobia, assorted officers and crew members, and so on.

But as the journal gathers momentum, Talbot devotes more and more space to the complicated circumstances surrounding a tormented country clergyman named Mr. Colley. Colley plans, against the expressed wishes of the captain, to bring the word to the benighted crowd of emigrants in steerage. Chaos transpires, the man is made drunk and then gets sexually violated. He retreats to his cabin and successfully wills himself to die. The matter is investigated, then covered up. But Talbot discovers an extraordinary letter that Colley was writing to his sister -- he transcribes the whole of it into his journal. Colley's words reveal to him the hitherto unknown reaches of human anguish.

Near the end of Rites of Passage, Talbot says to a crew member who has become his friend: "Life is a formless business, Summers. Literature is much amiss in forcing a form on it!" But his protestation is belied by the words he has put to the page -- the drama of Colley has given the journal a gratifying artistic cohesiveness.

THE EPISODIC structure of Close Quarters is not quite as satisfying. Talbot is no longer writing for his godfather but for himself and posterity. The events that occur mid-journey don't move to the same kind of resolution. The ship (never named) gets badly damaged during a squall. Soon after, it encounters the Alcyone, another British vessel; they hook up for a night of celebration. Talbot falls overwhelmingly -- and not quite believably -- in love with a young woman named Marion Chumley. The two are parted when the ships weigh anchor the next day.

As the Alcyone speeds off, Talbot's ship begins to founder. The masts are broken, the hull is covered with weeds -- elaborate cleaning operations are undertaken -- and she seems to be taking on water. But neither captain nor officers will divulge the true state of things to the passengers. The second half of the book builds a steadily escalating sense of foreboding. But when Talbot ends this installment of the journal, we have no clues as to what might happen next.

What is lacking in plot cohesiveness, though, is amply compensated for in other ways. Cumulative resonance, for one thing. Talbot's scrupulous records of activities and interchanges and his generous speculations on character and motivation bring us right to the quick core of shipboard life. His fellow voyagers, noted at first with bemused detachment, step forward into roundedness. In part this is a function of time and exposure, but it also has to do with Talbot's process of self-realization. By the end of Close Quarters, the priggish young man has shown himself to be a vulnerable and thoroughly sympathetic individual. Love, death, and disaster have worked their rough magic on him.

The journal format is wonderfully suited to rendering the sensations of time passing. Living in an age of instant transport, we forget what it used to take to get from place to place. Golding makes the slow movement down through the latitudes unfold like some languid dream of the past.

Finally, there is the triumph of the prose itself. The author, through Talbot, commands the large perspective as well as the fugitive details of human commerce with energy and decisiveness. We feel the ship toiling, absorb every creak of timbers or slosh of bilge-water. The eye misses nothing: "I was working my careful way round the men at the wheel when the captain noticed me. He smiled! It was a dreadful sight, a momentary glimpse of a few teeth, as if someone had thrown a yellow pebble into his glumness."

We await Golding's concluding volume, its narrative and thematic resolutions. In this waiting we are not altogether unlike his becalmed, bewildered, and resolutely hopeful passengers. When the trilogy is complete, it may prove to be one of the signal prose epics of our time. ::

Sven Birkerts' "An Artificial Wilderness: Essays on 20th Century Literature" will be published this fall.