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the pathetic caverns - books by author - A.S. Byatt

eclectic reviews and opinions

A.S. Byatt,

Little Black Book of Stories

In fantasy stories, magical or supernatural events frequently occur, and the consequences of those events are examined — fantasies are traditionally plot-driven. In literature, magical or supernatural events tend to have a symbolic meaning. When Gregor Samsa awakens as a huge insect, the point isn't for him to find a way to restore his human form or to become the scourge of insecto-phobe criminals in the role of The Black Beetle. Although Kafka details Samsa's humiliating struggle to flip himself upright, his fundamental mission is simply to realize the ultimate import of what's befallen him.

Since the late twentieth century, there's been an increase of fiction that drinks from both cups, in which allegorical elements are obvious but the question "What happens next?" is still important. Most of the tales in Byatt's Little Black Book of Stories fall into this category. After Kafka (bug), Ionesco (rhinoceros), and Roth (enormous breast), among others, I had a lot of skepticism that a story in which a human turned into something else could offer anything new. But in fact, "A Stone Woman" goes beyond the obvious interpretation (literally hard-hearted) and into surprising turns. That's a pleasant hallmark of Byatt's stories: if you're pretty sure you know where they're headed, you're probably wrong.

Byatt's prose has an unusual quality — it's very pretty, occasionally ornate, careful, but not labored. There's also a sort of chilliness to it, an almost nineteenth-century reserve. I think of handfuls of gravel polished into gems by tumbling (if I may stretch a metaphor), or perhaps a collaboration of Fay Weldon, Angela Carter, and Jonathan Carroll.


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