By Megan Harlan
Updated April 17, 1998 at 04:00 AM EDT

Kalimantaan, a dazzling, elliptical debut, tells the bizarre, fact-based story of Gideon Barr, a Victorian-era explorer who founded his own private kingdom on Borneo (then called Kalimantaan). Godshalk accretes a chilling portrait of Barr’s megalomania: his systematic execution of the native Dyaks and his acceptance of their gruesome currency, human heads. But it’s through the confessional perspective of Barr’s sensitive young wife, Melie, that the defiantly normal, chintz-and-lawn-party microcosm of English society comes to life — and suffers a bloody conclusion. In prose as lush and febrile as the rain-forest setting, Godshalk evinces the ”violent dichotomy” between colonialism and civilization, and more mysteriously, between hubris and love. A