Sunday, April 10, 2016

Angela Carter, The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman (1972)

Speaking of books that fall into the "slipstream" category: here's this. To be clear, it's not that I'm doing an exploration of the genre; this was just another book I wanted to read. It's Carter (1940-1992)'s sixth novel, but it seemed like the most interesting place to start--and not just because of that title. Okay, mainly because of that title. Whatever, dude!

The protagonist is Desiderio, part-Indian, a government worker in an unnamed city in an unnamed South American country. For unclear reasons, the nefarious Doctor Hoffman has declared a war on the reality of the city, which means things like this:

And it was blinding, humid, foetid summer, a summer that smelled of shit, blood and roses, for there had never been such roses as those that bloomed that summer. They clambered everywhere and dripped as if perspiring the heaviest, most intoxicating perfume, which seemed to make the very masonry drunk. The senses fused; sometimes these roses emitted low but intolerably piercing pentatonic melodies which were the sound of their deep crimson colour and yet we heard them inside our nostrils. The citronade of the pale morning sun shimmered like a multitude of violins and I tasted unripe apples in the rare, green, midnight rain.

Desiderio is assigned to do something about this, but he gets sidetracked, and the novel becomes a picaresque: now he's taken in by a group of wandering, river-dwelling Indians; now he's traveling with a bizarre circus and its various freaks; now he meets up with a sadistic, dissipated Lithuanian count; now he's the prisoner of a tribe of centaurs. And all this time, the specter of Hoffman's daughter, Albertina, whom he loves from having met in visions and dreams (and, later, in a more concrete way) haunts the proceedings. And if you think the name "Albertina" wasn't chosen for associations with Proust's Albertine, I think you are sadly misshapen.

Carter has a truly explosive imagination, which would be enough in itself to recommend the book. However, it's not JUST a compendium of weird stuff happening; it's also a splendidly gnarled conversation about semiotics. The idea is that the doctor's machines work by wedging themselves into the space between signifier and signified, and there's a lot about the nature of the novel's strange realities: do they simply exist, or do they only exist by active belief? The "desire machines" of the title are extremely suggestive. Possibly the most memorable scene in the novel takes place in a bizarre brothel (seriously, I'm trying hard to avoid overusing the word "bizarre," but it's not easy) populated by furniture made from animals that are nonetheless still alive and conscious, with girls in cages reduced to "the undifferentiated essence of the idea of the female"--meanwhile, the customers wear costumes that similarly reduce them to disconnected sex organs. Desire has become completely detached from actual people and the signifier just slides the hell all over the place. It is some heady fucking writing, I will tell you that much, sometimes abstruse but always--as Updike said about Nabokov--written ecstatically.

I suppose if there's any criticism to make here it's that the novel can sometimes feel like too much. Carter's vision is always cranked up to ten, and it can be hard keeping up with it; it maybe possibly doesn't help that the book is extremely R-rated, if not NC-17. It's not that my sensibilities are offended, exactly, but it is worth noting that this is a novel featuring scenes of both gay AND straight gang rape (though they're so idiosyncratic that words like "gay" and "straight" may not mean much). I wouldn't swear that I'd previously read any novels featuring even one gang rape, let alone two, so all at once, BAM, it's a little hard to take. And this is maybe representative of the novel as a whole, which can wear you the heck out.

This is quibbling, however. I thought The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman was fucking fantastic, easily the best book I've read this year, and I am definitely going to read more of Carter.


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