Byatt's genie - the wonder of survival

November 02, 1997|By Ben Neihart | Ben Neihart,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye," by A.S. Byatt. Random House. 270 pages. $19.

Gillian Perholt, the star of A.S. Byatt's opulent new book of fairy tales, "The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye," is on the down-slope of middle age, an academic working the conference circuit, naked and alone in a luxury hotel room. Regarding herself in the mirror, she sees "her death advancing towards her, its hair streaming dark and liquid, its eyeholes dark smudges, its mouth open in its liquescent face in fear."

Oh drats, you may be saying to yourself - is this yet another occasion for hard-won wisdom about aging, the crushing disappointments and wistful, muted victories. Happily, no. Byatt's got a big, generous imagination and she's not afraid to use it. Heck, she's not afraid to spice up a story with some healthy, vulgar human lust.

In the title story, by far the longest, and most devastating, of the collection's five, Gillian Perholt finds a bottle, rubs it, and sets a genie, a "djinn," free. He's an enormous green fellow who hasn't been out of his bottle in centuries, and he'll grant her three wishes.

First off, however, this djinn sprawls across her hotel bed, comically virile, and works a bit of magic on the tennis match that Gillian has been watching - and swooning over - on television. Suddenly, "a small Boris Becker, sandy-browed, every gold hair on his golden body gleaming sweat, was standing on the chest of drawers, perhaps twice the size of his television image, which was frozen in mid-stroke on the screen. He blinked bTC his sandy lashes over his blue eyes and looked around, obviously unable to see more than a blur around him."

After Gillian convinces the djinn to return Becker to his set, she makes her first wish: She asks him to return her body to the shape it had when she was in her thirties. Second, she asks him to love her, and he does. He makes love to her, so expertly that she "seemed to swim across his body forever like a dolphin in an endless green sea," but, more than that, his exuberance infects her, and rather than simply grow wise with age - a dreary, cold prospect - Gillian recovers her child-like joy in "things made with hands and beings not made with hands that live a life different from ours, that live longer than we do, and cross our lives in stories, in dreams, at certain times when we are floating redundant." Gillian's final wish is a heartbreaker; it rings with the clanging power of classic literary romance, and in the space of a few pages sucks the breath from your lungs.

Of the remaining four short tales, "Dragon's Breath" is by far the ++ best; its depiction of a village destroyed by otherworldly beasts - giant worms - has the feel of a newly uncovered myth. You read with awe as the worms advance "in smoke and spitting sparks, regularly and slowly, side by side, without hesitation or deviation, down the mountainside." Byatt's sly asides on the nature of storytelling itself don't lessen the story's impact. In fact, each tale in the collection works best when Byatt the academic disappears, and we are left with the awesome spectacle of "tales made from people's wonder at their own survival, riddling hints of the true relations between peace and beauty and terror."

Ben Neihart's first novel, "Hey, Joe," was published last year. He contributes to literary magazines, including the New Yorker.

Pub Date: 11/02/97

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