SAILORS ON THE INWARD SEA

By Lawrence Thornton. Free Press. 268 pp. $24

There's a long tradition of novelists rewriting great books -- Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea, for example, tells the story of the first Mrs. Rochester from Jane Eyre -- but lately some novelists have gone a step further, bypassing the books and re-imagining the lives of their authors. Michael Cunningham's The Hours depicts the inner life of Virginia Woolf, and, more recently, Colm Toibin has evoked the repressed erotic life of Henry James in The Master. Both are serious novels, but there's no denying that they share some of the dodgy appeal of reality television. We get to watch Virginia Woolf bicker with her husband the way we watch Victoria Gotti scream at her kids, and we see Henry James's closet emptied in public, so to speak -- "Queer Eye for the Canonical Author." To be fair, the appeal of all fiction is part sheer prurience and part a legitimate hunger to know what it's like to be somebody else. There's even an element of fair play, as authors who based characters on real people (as Woolf did) turn up as characters in somebody else's book. Even so, such books depend in part on a little frisson of guilty pleasure.

What makes Sailors on the Inward Sea, Lawrence Thornton's ingeniously crafted new novel about Joseph Conrad, simultaneously so intriguing and frustrating is that it addresses this moral conundrum head on and then clouds the issue. The conceit of the novel is that Conrad's famous character Marlow, the narrator of Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim (among others), is based on a "real" friend of Conrad's, a sea captain named Malone, and that much of the substance of those two books comes from Malone's experience, which Conrad borrowed and adapted without Malone's knowledge. When Malone finds out after the fact, mainly he's impressed by the masterpieces written in "his" voice, but he's still a little hurt that Conrad didn't ask his permission first. The resulting confrontation, the best scene in the book, rings true, given what we know of Conrad's mandarin temperament -- his first response is a defensive anger, followed the morning after by a heartfelt, if awkward, apology. Still, the friendship survives, and many years later Conrad visits Malone and tells him a harrowing story: As a sort of celebrity observer on a British minesweeper during World War I, Conrad witnesses an act of spectacular moral dereliction on the part of the captain (an act Thornton rather too insistently equates with the title character's more psychologically complex dereliction in Lord Jim). Conrad's response to this affair (which I won't reveal here) is the troubled heart of this novel; suffice it to say that it's informed by what Conrad calls "the old thing" between him and Malone.

The main pitfall of a novel like this is that it inevitably and unavoidably invites comparison with its model, which could lead to a sort of Dan Quayle moment -- "I've read Lord Jim, Lord Jim is a favorite of mine, and this book, sir, is no Lord Jim." Yet the book is a very clever pastiche of Conrad's structural technique. Like much of Conrad's work, it has several layers of narration; it shifts effortlessly backward and forward in time; and it travels to a number of exotic locations, from a minesweeper in the North Sea to Bali to the same yacht in the same Thames estuary where Heart of Darkness begins. Ruthless honesty compels me to report that the prose isn't up to the standard of Conrad's best work -- whose is? -- but Thornton sidesteps that problem as well, by providing a narrator who is quite self-consciously not a writer.

Yet for anyone who loves Conrad's work and knows a bit about his life, it's an uneasy and finally unconvincing read. The problem isn't so much that Thornton plays fast and loose with the facts; indeed, he cleverly constructs his story around Conrad's real chronology (he really was on a minesweeper for a day during World War I). The problem is that Conrad's behavior doesn't seem to jibe with what is known of his character and his working methods. For one thing, the origins of Conrad's characters are more complex than this novel gives him credit for -- Lord Jim, for example, is a subtle blending of the stories of two different men, not one story that he simply lifted whole. And even if he had, I'm not sure that even Joseph Conrad, with his Polish aristocrat's sense of honor, would have gotten that bent out of shape about it. You can quibble over details, but Cunningham's Virginia Woolf in The Hours is recognizably the Virginia Woolf who wrote the famous diaries, and Henry James's strangled sexuality in The Master is pretty much conventional wisdom by now. But this book asks us to believe that Conrad would feel so ashamed at having to own up to borrowing Malone's experiences that he would do something extraordinary. All novelists borrow freely from friends, acquaintances and total strangers, and if confronted by it, we lie, flatter, feign ignorance or -- most likely -- simply shrug and quote Joan Didion: "Writers are always selling someone out." In this respect, Conrad was probably, in his own famous phrase, "one of us."

Still, I realize how feeble these reservations may sound to a reader who isn't invested in the reality of Conrad's character; who cares that the real Lawrence of Arabia wasn't anything like Peter O'Toole? As a complicated and resonant examination of the shadow line between artistic inspiration and artistic responsibility, Sailors on the Inward Sea is provocative and entertaining. But as a credible account of a psychologically complex man, who just happens to have been one of the world's great writers, well, sir, it's no Lord Jim. *

James Hynes's most recent novel is "Kings of Infinite Space."