It is easy to dislike every single character in Cynthia Ozick's new collection of stories, Dictation. Her knack for drawing unprepossessing portraits extends even to two of her literary heroes - Henry James and Joseph Conrad - whose secretaries put their negligible heads together to become the pathetically unheroic heroines of the title story.

The truth about how art gets made is forcefully unbeautiful throughout this quartet of mordant tales. As far as Ozick's own vocation goes, it becomes painfully clear in "Dictation" that an ardent, lifelong devotion to writing (or to the writer) can cramp more than the hand muscles.

Why, then, would a reader want to persevere through Ozick's galaxy of graceless characters, for whom the only advantageous consequence of their folly is a miserable self-awareness? Must psychological realism really exact such a terrible spiritual cost? These questions are also constants in the worlds of Conrad and James.

But as with Heart of Darkness or The Turn of the Screw, to treat Ozick's stories as merely "realistic" would be missing the point. An uncanny malaise redolent of those two masterpieces permeates Dictation, with a new, sharp comic edge. Like her great literary models, Ozick's stories arefantasies (a point made clear by Ozick in a footnote at the end of the title story). They could almost be called ghost stories, except that in all four cases the poor ghosts still walk the earth, as fatally obscure amanuensis, ancient Yiddish actor, cunningly naive Italian chambermaid and lunatic linguist. The predicament in each tale is nothing more or less than a haunting, or a demonic possession, or a mischievous manipulation of events by unseen forces.

In Dictation, Cynthia Ozick literally (read the title story!) takes a page out of James' and Conrad's books when it comes to shedding light - a steady beam of finely wrought prose - on the dark inner lives of seemingly ordinary human beings. To hell with realism: Ozick's wicked fancy offers a far richer reality.

Michael Alec Rose is a professor at Vanderbilt's Blair School of Music.

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