Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Angela Carter, Black Venus (1985)

I gather that, in spite of having written nine novels, Carter may be better known for her short fiction, which makes a certain amount of sense when you consider that a lot of the segments in Desire Machines could, with minimal editing, have been self-contained stories. So, I dipped into her short-story oeuvre with this collection.

Broadly, the stories here are concerned with what we might call a postmodern thematization of history. Or, we might not. It all depends how pretentious we're feeling, I suppose. But what I mean is, they address the ways in which history is unknowable and how our histories become myths. For instance, the title story is about Charles Baudelaire's mistress Jeanne Duval, said to have been his muse and the love of his life. The story paints an ambiguous portrait of their relationship while also stressing that, really, no one's quite sure of anything about her, including where exactly she came from (though wikipedia seems pretty sure she was Haitian, so I dunno); she died of syphilis either shortly before or after Baudelaire himself, but, while acknowledging this, Carter also suggests another future, that she didn't actually have in this reality. It's all very striking, and it really sticks with you in the way of poetry--it won't quite resolve itself in your mind. There are somewhat similar stories about Poe ("The Cabinet of Edgar Allan Poe") and Lizzie Borden ("The Fall River Axe Murders"). However, my favorite may be "Overture and Incidental Music for A Midsummer Night's Dream," a story from the perspective, more or less, of the "Indian boy" whom Titania has adopted. Carter really explodes the explicit and implicit mythology of the play, connecting it to other cultures and bringing out the gnarled, primal sexuality lurking under the surface. It is damned cool, is what it is.

There are a few stories here that don't quite work for me. "Our Lady of the Massacre" is about a poor girl in the seventeenth century who moves from a life of prostitution in England to the New World after she's condemned to exile for theft and indentured servitude in the new world. She escapes and is accepted into a Native American tribe, and you can probably guess from the title and just generally knowing about history that this isn't going to end well. It seemed to me to lack the resonance that most of these stories have; maybe I'm missing something, but it mostly left me indifferent, in spite of a somewhat haunting ending. And I don't even know what to say about "The Kitchen Child," which I definitely have pegged as the weakest thing here.

BUT NEVER MIND THAT. When Carter's good, which she is most of the time, she's better'n almost anyone. I'm so glad to have discovered her.


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