By Michael Frayn

Metropolitan. 342 pp. $26

Enjoyable and intelligent -- no writer wants to hear that sort of mild, lukewarm praise. Especially if his new novel is being touted as his masterpiece. Far better to have the thing called bloody awful or something equally excessive. At the very least, strong opinions suggest a book with power to it, if only to offend. But Michael Frayn's Headlong falls short in two ways: The book's comedy isn't quite uproarious enough, even in its moments of intended farce, and throughout the narrative the reader feels slightly disoriented, uncertain about the novel's tone. Are we meant to laugh or cry? Should we sympathize with the self-deluding hero or feel an ironic what-fools-these-mortals-be sense of superiority? There's certainly no want of artistry in these pages, but none of the effects seem quite right.

In England Frayn is a fairly well-known literary figure, a former newspaper columnist, comic novelist (The Tin Men and Sweet Dreams should rank high in any pantheon of modern humorous fiction), successful playwright (the ingenious "Noises Off" -- about a provincial theater group's backstage goings-on -- was even made into a film), and translator of Chekhov. He's gotten good notices in this country for his more recent novels; eight or nine years back, I even reviewed, with enthusiasm, The Trick of It, an unnervingly funny and shrewd look at the relationship between a famous writer and a worshipful academic.

So as readers of his earlier work know, the man's a deft and accomplished professional, incapable of writing a bad sentence, let alone a dull one. In fact, Headlong fails to convince mainly because of its ambition: Frayn sets himself a series of narrative challenges that distract as much as they dazzle.

Martin and his wife, Kate, are both scholars, he a philosopher of art, she an art historian specializing in Christian iconography. Parents of a baby daughter, this intellectual couple own a small house in the country where they hope to work quietly on their respective academic projects. But Martin, who's supposed to be writing a study of medieval nominalism, is somewhat flighty, an enthusiast easily caught up in sudden fancies. Just after their arrival at the cottage, the little family encounters a bluff, vulgar and mud-spattered local grandee named Tony Churts, who invites them to dinner. They accept, wondering about the true motives behind this anomalous hospitality. Later, at the once-elegant, now decaying estate, Upwood, the Londoners duly meet wife Laura, who is young, a little blowsy but very sexy, and unhappy; Martin fantasizes momentarily about a possible affair. Then just as a dreadful evening is winding down, Tony suddenly asks his guests to just give a glance at some pictures he wants to sell -- the obvious reason behind his neighborly invitation. Three of the four oils are quite ordinary Old Master paintings. The fourth, however, is nothing less than a lost Bruegel, a world-class masterpiece worth millions of pounds.

The Churts obviously don't know what they have, but Martin does. Or does he? Kate is out of the room, and he has only a moment with the canvas. But Martin soon convinces himself that here lies the missing sixth view in Bruegel's series devoted to the seasons of the year (others include the famous "Hunters in the Snow" and "Haymaking"). Casting caution and ethics aside, Martin decides that he simply must acquire this painting, even if he has to trick the repellent Tony out of it. And so the plot shifts into high gear.

Normally, such a premise would make for a fine, even engrossing storyline -- a kind of art equivalent to, say, Henry James's ironic masterpiece about the collecting instinct, "The Aspern Papers." But from the beginning Frayn makes matters a little too tricksy. The novel opens with a prologue in which Martin confesses that everything is going to end disastrously -- "The circumstances of the discovery are such that I shall emerge not only as a fool but as an object of outrage and horror." The very first page, then, narrows readerly expectations: We know that, however boisterous and confident our narrator may seem at various moments, there will be tears before bedtime. Much of the suspense, therefore, can arise only from watching just how Martin will turn his carefully planned triumph into an across-the-board debacle. The actual debacle is never in doubt.

Like many a contemporary writing school graduate, Frayn also decides to have Martin relate his story in the present tense -- even though all the events took place a year previous. The result feels a little too much like a virtuoso's clever flourish. Added to this, a confusing dissonance clangs throughout this abject "memoir." How, in particular, should one respond to Martin? From the first, it's clear the young husband's a bit of a dolt, prey to self-deception, clearly out of his depth as a con artist. But if we dismiss him as pathetic and comical, then do we also dismiss the historical research he presents to us on Bruegel? For Headlong speculates at length about the painter's life and career. Martin regularly cites all the great Northern Baroque authorities, from Max Friedlander to Wolfgang Stechow, and over the course of his narrative delineates 17th-century politics in the Netherlands, Bruegel's possibly Manichean religious convictions and the iconography of the master's paintings. Where does the fantasy start and the scholarship leave off?

In the end, Headlong simply doesn't surprise enough, either through its plot, quietly deliberate style, or frenetic climax. I did break a thin, Voltaire-like smile at one or two moments but never laughed out loud at all, even when events veered toward bedroom farce or Keystone comedy. Frayn actually overplays some jokes: In London Martin fails to check the prices commanded for a certain artist's work day after day after day, despite a solemn promise to Kate. That's at least one day too many: One feels the yoke of narrative necessity for this otherwise incomprehensible delinquency. In a similarly egregious way, the modern landscape is periodically likened to or contrasted with that in Bruegel. There is, in short, a straining for effect, as well as an uncertainty of tone, throughout the book. Is this a comedy or a tragedy?

Ultimately, I suppose that the intended humor of Headlong might be regarded as bittersweet or ironic, perhaps even Chekhovian. But I would have welcomed less subtlety and greater satiric savagery or more successful over-the-top antics. For Martin seems too clownish to carry any great consequence as a man, let alone as a representative of the human condition and our common proclivity for self-delusion. He's just a foolish young scholar who should have stayed home with his pretty wife and child. Oh well. Even as it stands, Headlong remains an agreeable, civilized book, an intelligent evening's entertainment. Perhaps it's churlish to have wanted more.

Michael Dirda's e-mail address is dirdam@washpost.com.