Little Black Book of Stories by A. S. Byatt
(Knopf) $21

The idea of the story is never far from A. S. Byatt's stories, and sometimes it is the subject of the story itself. But if the stories in Little Black Book of Stories are informed by structures as prescribed and limited as the fairy tale, they are also aware of those limitations, and work beautifully within them. Sometimes limits make amazing things bloom.

This was the case in the somehow both postmodern and traditional and also thrilling "Story of the Eldest Princess" in Byatt's 1994 collection The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye. There, the eldest princess sets out on a quest she knows is useless, because she is a reader of stories herself and knows that the eldest princess is never the one who breaks the spell, or makes the discovery, or brings back the gilded feather (that fate is reserved for the youngest, and generally prettiest, princess).

Similarly, the tone of Little Black Book of Stories is entirely set by "The Thing in the Forest," in which two little girls, removed with a group of children from wartime London and billeted in a mansion near a wood, find themselves in a rather gruesome tale shot through with all the harsh unthinkable injustice of a Brothers Grimm story. The Thing, which bears some resemblance to the dragons of "Dragon's Breath" in Djinn, is a slow-moving stinking entity, part dragon, part worm, part something only Byatt could imagine and describe in such disgusting but fascinated (and surgical) detail, observing that "it was made of raw meat, and decaying vegetation, but it also trailed veils and prostheses of man-made materials, bits of wire-netting, foul dishcloths, wire-wool full of pan-scrubbings, rusty nuts and bolts."

The little girls escape with their lives, but they don't escape the ineluctable forward march of the story. Both are transformed, as adults, into British spinsters of entirely predictable types, one dry and passionless, one blowzy and muddled and sweet, but they have turned out this way because of their encounter with the Thing, which has a resonance both real and symbolic, the perfect embodiment of different kinds of fear--of war, of puberty, of everything unknowable. Byatt has taken all the usual elements--the woods, the monster, the children--and transformed them into a story that tells us something about both imagination and inevitability.

All of the long stories in Little Black Book, each of which takes you someplace precisely beyond where you think you're going, feature characters moving within (or struggling against, or giving in to) unforgiving structures: Catholicism, aging, Alzheimer's. In "Raw Material," a has-been writer finds himself at odds with his students' notions about what makes good literature, although they are all of them, students and teacher alike, constrained by different kinds of cliché. (And when an unexpectedly fine writer meets an unexpected fate, it's the well-adapted students who manage to tidy up the horror, using their safe, time-tested methods.)

The only story that disappoints even as it dazzles is "The Stone Woman," which allows Byatt to revel in the specifics of a woman turning to stone ("She saw dikes of dolerites, in graduated sills, now invading her inner arms. But it took weeks of patient watching before, by dint of glancing in rapid saccades, she surprised a bubble of rosy barite crystals, breaking through a vein of fluorspar, and opening into the form known as a desert rose, bunched with the ore flowers of blue john") without ever really allowing those specifics to be a story. The action of the story--woman grieves, is ill, turns to stone, heads to Iceland to meet her final fate--seems, as it almost never seems, secondary to turns of language; the stone woman is incomprehensible from beginning to end.

But most of these stories unspool according to the reasonable but also sublime rationale of Byatt's eldest princess: "You had the sense to see that you were caught in a story," says an old woman who eventually grants the eldest princess her release, "and the sense to see that you could change it to another one. And the special wisdom to recognize that you are under a curse--which is also a blessing--which makes the story more interesting to you than the things that make it up." Byatt is our eldest princess, showing us the way out of stories we think we know.

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