Saturday, April 16, 2016

Angela Carter, The Passion of New Eve (1977)


A one-star amazon review of this book says "unless you like really strange hard to read pointless liturature [sic], I would strongly recommend taking a beating instead of reading this book." Hey, I'm sold! How come this isn't part of the back-cover copy?

This is a really brilliant book, and one that begs for analysis. I kind of wish that I knew other people who'd read it, because it really seems like the kind of thing that would be better to mull over with like-minded cohorts. Alas, I'm afraid I don't really have any. That's the isolating part of reading.

Well...anyway, first we have a young Englishman named Evelyn, who travels to New York for work. The whole thing takes place in a kind of vaguely-defined near-future (SLIPSTREAM!) in which the country is splitting apart, and there are terrorist/resistance movements of formerly-oppressed groups (blacks and women) creating havoc (meanwhile, in the UK, the National Front gains political power). Evelyn loses his job and ends up kind of wandering around the city in a dream, taking up with a black teenage prostitute, impregnating her, and insisting she get an abortion that turns out to be botched--it's not a positive portrait, though, as ever with Carter, the tone is bewitching.

Evelyn heads out on an aimless vacation-ish trip (at least, that's the idea) and ends up in the American southwest, where he is captured by the inhabitants of a hidden underground city of women, Beulah, ruled by a giant, four-breasted prophetess. They surgically transform Evelyn to a woman (truncating his name to "Eve") with the intention of impregnating him with his own sperm. And this is where things get interesting.

The Beulahns characterize gender thus: "time is a man, space is a woman." In other words, men are diachronic and women are synchronic, and boy oh boy do THOSE words ever take me back to dissertation-writin' times. I must admit I've never really had occasion to think about gender in these terms (guess I took the wrong theory classes), but it certainly does seem to be deeply embedded in our imagination. Just look at how many creation myths involve a (female) formless void, just sitting there until it's impregnated by some sort of male principle, and BAM, out springs the universe (yeah, this doesn't work if thought of in a purely literal sense, given that children are really a co-creation, but this certainly seems to be how it's conceptualized). I am reminded of Yeats' "Leda and the Swan:" "A shudder in the loin engenders there/The broken wall, the burning roof and tower/And Agamemnon dead." Here's Leda, just doing her thing, minding her own business, and then, BAM swan-rape courtesy of Zeus, and then there's Helen and the Trojan War and ultimately all of Western civilization.

But this is an explicitly misogynistic trope, no? Well...it certainly tends in that direction. And yet, not necessarily. As the Beulahns (just spit-ballin' with that demonym) further explain: "Man lives in historicity; his phallic projectory takes him onwards and upwards--but to where? Where but to the barren sea of infertility, the craters of the moon!" You keep running and running and running--but what does it all mean? Sterility and death.

Mind you! While this is certainly food for thought, you're not supposed to wholeheartedly buy into the proposition. "Progress" is a loaded word, but that doesn't mean all change is evil. Certainly Carter herself doesn't believe it. Note that line above, "time is a man, space is a woman," and note that this is only the first of three propositions, the second being "time is a killer" and the third being "kill time and live forever." These women are taking their quite legitimate objections to patriarchal rule too far in the other direction. And that, really, is the central theme of the book: maleness and femaleness out of balance. When Eve, quite understandably not liking the idea of this forcible impregnation business, manages to escape, it is an out-of-the-frying-pan-into-the-fire situation, as she is captured by an insane, brutally violent, misogynistic "poet" named Zero, who lives on a compound with a bevy of heavily Stockholm-syndrome'd teenage "wives." Here, obviously, we see the balance shifting too far in the opposite direction (though I don't want to imply that this is a both-sides-do-it situation; Zero is clearly far worse than the Beulah women). Zero is unable to knock up (sorry, I was just sick of saying "impregnate" over and over) any of his "wives"--thus robbing him of the ideal of masculinity that both he and the Beulahns buy into. He has this insane delusion that he's been robbed of his fertility by a Golden-Age Hollywood actress, Tristessa de St. Ange, said to be living as a recluse somewhere in the desert, and that once he finds and kills her, he'll regain it, and then he and his clan will be able to reproduce and rule over an empty world (and I must admit, this business with Hollywood and the potency of images in this novel is super-interesting, and yet also super-allusive; I don't think I can even begin to opine on it--another reason it would be nice to have someone to talk about it with).

How can balance be reachieved? HOW?!? Well, clearly, by achieving some sort of synthesis, however impossible that may seem. Here--and I'm torn between my fannish inclination to avoid (gah) spoilers and my desire to analyze this thing, but in this case I'm going with the latter, so BE WARNED--we see that in a brief romance between Eve and Tristessa--the latter being, it transpires, biologically male. So, a man in a woman's body with a woman in a man's body. One pictures the yin-yang symbol: the masculine and feminine are complementary, and even when the one is at its fullest, the other always exists within it, and vice versa (hence, of course, the little dots). It's the only sex in the novel that isn't either rape or in some way exploitive. But, of course, the whole thing is of very limited duration, that being the nature of utopias.

I'm not even touching on the novel's ending, which is mysterious and mind-bending and amazing. Seriously, people, I don't have enough superlatives for Carter. The back cover copy of this edition I have describes her as "our most brilliant and ingenious of contemporary writers," and ya know...in most cases that would just be so much hyperbole, but in this instance it may be no more than a simple statement of fact. I would give The Passion of New Eve the nod over The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman on the basis that it's more focused and, in its own twisted way, more humanistic. There are the kinds of books I want to be reading.

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