The Polymorph

Over the last three decades Fred Chappell has been steadily accumulating both an enviable publishing record—he has some twenty novels and collections of poems and stories to his credit—and a well-deserved reputation as one of the South's foremost men of letters. His latest book of short fictions, the aptly tided More Shapes Than One, may make the second designation less important; for Chappell, it is increasingly apparent, is a universalist whose imagination ranges over the globe. His native North Carolina informs his work and often provides its settings, but he is not to be automatically enlisted on any regional roll call.

Chappell's work is characterized by an exquisite attention to language and mood; his fiction is less concerned with action than with ideas, the more elevated the better. (In this Chappell resembles Borges and especially Poe, both of whom he obviously admires.) The stories in More Shapes Than One do not break any new ground—they are unmistakably Chappell's, told in voices we have come to recognize—but neither do they give up any.

The book does contain a few surprises. One is Chappell's turn to Europe for several of his tales, involving historical figures like French composer Jacques Offenbach, German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach, and Swedish taxonomist Karl von Linne, who Chappell, in a neat dissection of the European passion for order, depicts...

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