Steiner, author of previous experimental fiction (Quill, Bathers), half gestures here at old-fashioned subjects--Americans abroad, an adultery drama--while exhibiting many of the less salutary features of much avant-garde writing: deliberate disconnectedness, a tone both flat and removed, and a preference for prose surfaces and textures over plausible action and depth of character. With some friends and his wife Hildegarde, an unnamed, middle-aged psychiatrist takes a long-planned vacation to Europe. While on board a cruise ship bound for Athens, Hildegarde meets a mysterious stranger called Keller, a frail, pasty-faced fellow, multilingual, who insists on wearing a pea jacket in the blazing sun. When the ship disembarks at Athens, Hildegarde leaves her husband for this man, following him to Cairo. There, she disappears. In the second half of the novel, Steiner focuses on the character of Keller, but, frustratingly, omits any mention of his relationship to Hildegarde. We are instead told in great detail about his rather unsavory personal habits (Keller makes a point of visiting the pornographic bookshops in every city he travels to) and about some murky dealings with Vietnamese women. Steiner's style is capable of precise glimpses of things, and the prose occasionally lives up to the promise, if that's the word, of the title. (He manages to imbue the cruise ship with a weird, ghastly menace.) More often, though, he offers pseudo-profundities, flaccid portentousness, and mixed metaphors: ""What is marriage but working against the grain of erosion by dredging up original responsibilities whose symbols and songs have no meaning except to a husband and wife?"" The strained lyricism in which Steiner elsewhere indulges--he is capable of describing the moon as a ""notorious spongy fruit""--is no compensation for the lazy writing. On the first page here, the unnamed psychiatrist observes: ""I felt remote from what I was about to confront."" So, too, probably, will the reader who ventures much beyond the first page.