The dark afterlight of accomplished tragedy


The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman
by Angela Carter

I have wanted to read more Angela Carter since I fell completely in love with Nights at the Circus a couple of years ago. So I enthusiastically added my vote when this was suggested for book club. It didn’t win me over quite in the same way but I still think it’s an amazing piece of writing.

This book can be pretty disorienting. It begins with a set-up so completely strange that it takes a while to understand what is happening. And throughout the book there are themes and incidents that are so shocking they disorient you all over again.

“I think I must have been one of the first people in the city to notice how the shadows began to fall subtly awry and a curious sense of strangeness invaded everything…Sugar tasted a little salty, sometimes. A door one had always seen to be blue modulated by scarcely perceptible stages until, suddenly, it was a green door.”

The story is narrated by Desiderio, a civil servant in the great unnamed capital city, and he describes the ongoing war with Doctor Hoffman, a physicist/magician who has declared a reality attack on the city. Apparitions and mirages fill the city, often with terrible consequences. Desiderio’s minister tries to stand up to this attack by becoming the Minister of Determination, his department responsible for figuring out what is real and what isn’t. But the real story begins when Desiderio leaves the city on a quest to find someone the minister believes will lead them to Doctor Hoffman.

So begins a journey with more than a touch of Gulliver’s Travels about it (in fact, Gulliver’s Travels is referenced multiple times) – in each chapter a new distinct territory is travelled to, with distinct people, always ending in near-misadventure for Desiderio, and of course for the reader there’s some serious political points being made.

“I must admit that all my guests enchanted me and I, in turn, enchanted them for, here, I had the unique allure of the norm. I was exotic precisely to the extent of my mundanity…They wondered at the masterpiece of sterility I remembered for them.”

The recurring theme, as the title suggests, is sex/desire. But sex in this book is never sexy, it is extreme, varied and frequently shocking in how matter-of-factly it is described, covering all manner of proclivites including paedophilia, rape, bestiality, violent sex, pornography and voyeurism. The sex, like the rest of the story, gets more fantastical as the book goes on, so although shocking things still happen, it gets less shocking because it’s less “real”.

“I see them all haloed in the dark afterlight of accomplished tragedy, moving with the inexorability of the doomed towards a violent death.”

Tied up with but some extent separate from the sex/desire theme is that of gender. This is definitely a feminist book but it makes its point in an odd way. Gender differences are made much of in every group of people/beasts encountered and women are always subjugated in some way. The satire is so stylised that some sections could be construed as hideously racist or sexist if you didn’t see the point being made (for instance, the “river people”, natives of this unnamed South American country, are eager to marry off their nine-year-old daughter and also suffer from the effects of in-breeding).

The 19th century travelogue style means that there is a certain distance maintained from all the characters, even the narrator, so that there is little psychological insight into the characters, but conversely there is plenty of psychological insight into human nature in general, albeit mostly about the nature of desire.

“None of these gobbets and scraps issuing from a mind blunted by age and misfortune made much sense to me. Sometimes a whole hour of discourse plashed down on me like rain and I would jot down from it only a single phrase that struck me. Perhaps: ‘Things cannot be exhausted’; or ‘In the imagination, nothing is past, nothing can be forgotten’.”

I know some at book group didn’t take to the florid language (which I’ll admit I love) but also pointed out what I hadn’t really noticed – the text is crammed full of references and could be analysed endlessly. It’s a cracking good adventure, but not a fast read thanks to all that detail in the language. It also describes itself as a love story, but I must admit I struggled to see the love buried under all the lust. Perhaps that was, after all, the point.

“We pursued one another across the barriers of time and space; we dared every vicissitude of fortune for a single kiss before we were torn apart again and we saw the events of the war in which we were enlisted on opposite sides only by the light of one another’s faces.”

There is so much more that could be discussed – the treatment of different languages and cultures; foreshadowing and even outright stating how things will turn out (on reflection the opening chapter tells the whole story, but it all seems so strange at that point that I had completely forgotten by the end of the book). I am definitely enthused to read more Carter but I’ll admit the disturbing nature of much of this one means I didn’t love it.

First published 1972 by Rupert Hart-Davis.

Source: I bought this from Foyles Bristol.

What might have happened

The Uses of Enchantment
by Heidi Julavits

Once again this is a book I read about on a book blog and liked the sound of but can no longer where it was I read about it. I must come up with a better system! But more to the point, was I right that it was my sort of book? Well, yes and no.

I have never studied psychology or psychoanalysis, nor have I any strong interest in it, but it seems to crop up so often in my reading that I’m beginning to think I should take a course or something. This book picks apart the psyche so thoroughly there is no clear line between the “real” of the story and the imagined. Which is the whole point. I think. That and something about teenage girls and sexuality.

Mary disappeared for a few weeks when she was 16 years old. At first she said she could not remember what happened, though she thinks that she had been kidnapped and sexually abused. Months later, following analysis, she agreed with her psychologist that she had made it all up, and subsequently became a minor local celebrity. Years later she returns to the family home in a Boston suburb for her mother’s funeral and finally faces up to the family tensions that she has been hiding from. But which version of the past is true? Does she even know herself?

If her psychologist is right, Mary is precociously bright, though she has managed to hide it from everyone else. Woven into her changing stories are details from Freud’s Dora, from the case of Bettina Spencer – another girl from her prep school who disappeared under similar circumstances years earlier – and witches condemned to death in nearby Salem. She certainly has issues related to her distant, Puritanical mother and her own sexual urges, but is she in control of what she is doing in response to those issues? Is this all, as she claims at one point, a highly original method of completing a school assignment on Dora?

The story is told in three threads – the present day, starting with Mary’s mother’s funeral, the notes of her first psychologist, Dr Hammer, and a series of chapters titled “What might have happened”. Details from one thread crop up again in another in a way that doesn’t make sense unless at least one of these threads isn’t the whole truth.

It’s a fascinating premise and told well enough to keep me reading hungrily, but there was something awry. The language made me disengage at times. Julavits is one of those writers who use a lot of unusual words. Perhaps they are the most precisely correct word but using a word that is not in common usage will make most readers stumble, I think. There was also a slightly troubling treatment of teenage girls who claim sexual abuse and psychologists who help them – not exactly mockery or disbelief, but a definite hint that teenage girls will lie about such things given the chance and adults should know better than to believe them. But perhaps I have misinterpreted on that point. Perhaps it is more of a statement about uptight New England rich white people and their attitudes to sex. Certainly Mary says more than once that her mother wants desperately for her to be proved a liar because she would rather have a liar for a daughter than a rape victim.

I think maybe my difficulty with truly enjoying this book is that it touches on some big issues but, for all its deep knowledge of psychoanalysis, it doesn’t feel like it really truly explored those issues. All I feel I have explored is the human (and in particular the teenage girl’s) capacity to imagine.

There were some touches that I loved. Speech marks were only used in the present day sections of the book, and not in all of those. Was that a clue to what was real? There are some objects discovered early on in the present day narrative that seem significant but do not get their reveal until near the end of the book, and it took me a moment to notice the key difference between the two versions of the objects. If trustworthy, this difference is a clue to the truth. Or to part of the truth.

First published 2006 by Anchor Books.

The wrong side of quirky

No one belongs here more than you
by Miranda July

This collection of short stories is probably best described as…odd. July is a filmmaker, writer and performance artist and I remember liking her film Me and You and Everyone We Know. The stories in this book have a similar sense of humour, offbeat and candid, but they also put me on edge.

July’s characters tend to be loners, sometimes for good reason. They are the socially awkward, the fantasy dwellers, the perpetual outsiders. And some writers do a fantastic job of making characters like these sympathetic, of making the reader inhabit them and their view of the world. July somehow does the opposite. She shows the world from their perspective but makes it jagged, difficult and largely unsympathetic. The humour is that awkward, “isn’t real life odd” humour of films such as Napoleon Dynamite or The Squid and the Whale, which for me is a bit of a hit and miss style.

The stories are interesting and explore quite different situations (generally awkward ones) but my main criticism would be that the narrators all tended to sound the same. They considered themselves more observant then others, felt they were making sacrifices for others without ever trying to see a situation from someone else’s perspective, and they were lonely. The other recurring theme (than being an outsider/lonely) was sexual taboos, by which I don’t mean the homosexuality that does indeed crop up several times, but rather themes such as sexual obsession, sex and old people, masturbation; even crossing the line into incest and paedophilia. The former I am fine with reading about but the last two do unnerve me.

July definitely has an original voice and perspective, and some of her observations were beautiful, while others were frankly disturbing. I suppose you might call this the darker side of quirky. Interesting, but not entirely comfortable reading.

Published 2007 by Canongate Books.