Monday, May 09, 2016

Angela Carter, The Magic Toyshop (1967)

You know how sometimes you read a subpar book by an author you like and it makes you question whether you actually liked them in the first place? I had that experience reading Shadow Dance. But then I read The Magic Toyshop, and HOLY SHIT what a difference a year makes, 'cause Carter's second novel is such a quantum leap above her first it's barely credible. Crikey!

The plot has the texture and general feel of a faerie tale. Melanie is fifteen years old, and dealing with puberty and worrying about the future, in a typical sort of way. Her father is a successful writer, and she and her siblings are brought up in comfort. But when both her parents are killed during a trip to America, it turns out there was no money saved away, and they have no choice but to go live with their mother's brother, Philip, whom they don't know.

Uncle Philip is a toymaker, a genius at what he does, and obsessed with puppetry. Unfortunately, he's also a horrendous ogre, terrorizing everyone who lives with him, which includes his beaten-down wife, Margaret (who, in a bit of none-too-subtle symbolism, was struck dumb on the day she married him), and her sullen brother Finn, his reluctant apprentice. Melanie is compelled to adapt to this dramatic change of circumstances, try to fashion some kind of life out of it, and sort out whether she has feelings--and what KIND of feelings, and what that even means--for Finn.

Seriously, Uncle Philip is a hell of a character. One is reminded of the character of Zero in The Passion of New Eve. Margaret wants children, but she has no children--the reason clearly being, symbolically, that in spite of all his sound and fury, her husband has no real generative force--or, rather, it's all expended on his craft. He makes his household watch, participate in, and wildly applaud these occasional little puppet-show tableaux, but nobody actually wants to be there, and no one outside this tiny circle ever even sees them. It's all useless.  It's funny that I mentioned Yeats' "Leda and the Swan" when I was writing about The Passion of New Eve, because here, Melanie is forced to play Leda in one of these little shows.  Now, you may remember that in the original myth, Leda actually had four children: Helen and Polydeuces from Zeus, and Castor and Clytemnestra from her human husband.  Here, Philip orders Melanie to rehearse the part with Finn, with the hope--we are given to understand--that he'll have sex with her, thus taking care of the "human" part.  But, although she's willing, he doesn't, not wanting to do anything he's "supposed" to do.  So THAT part's futile.  Then, in the actual play, the swan puppet just looks ludicrous and bathetic--hardly numinous--and Melanie is hard-pressed not to laugh at it.  Later, Finn destroys it out of spite. Hardly a demiurge, and representative of Philip's essential impotence.

And as long as I'm on this subject, I should probably mention Melanie's twelve-year-old brother, Jonathan.  He gets along the best with Philip because he doesn't care about anything outside his single-minded obsession with building model ships.  Once again, creative power just going nowhere.  In an ironic reversal of the women=space/men=time dynamic, it's up to Melanie to try to maintain any kind of normal, future-oriented human existence.

Finally, I really can't stress enough what a fucking amazing stylist Carter is. Reading The Magic Toyshop, one is just constantly thinking, dammit, how can someone so young write so beautifully and make it look so effortless? Of course, it surely wasn't effortless at all, but that's how it looks. There's a section near the end of the novel where Uncle Philip is out of the house for the day and the characters stage a sort of mini-rebellion, and it's just the most lovely, utopian thing you can imagine. Of course--utopias being what they are--you know it's not going to last, but it just goes to show Carter's versatility. This is perhaps a more humane novel than the others I've read, and all the better for it. YOU GOTTA READ IT, MAN!

Carter is hardly unknown nowadays--according to this list, she's the fifty-seventh most-assigned female author in college classes (two spots ahead of Ayn fucking Rand)--but I cannot help feeling like she still doesn't get her due. She's not a household name, and she's not someone you automatically think of when you think "best authors of the twentieth century." THAT NEEDS TO CHANGE, and that's why I'm announcing my candidacy for President of the United States of America.

One last thing: there's a movie adaptation of The Magic Toyshop, with a script by Carter herself. Here's a plot summary on IMDB:

After her parents are killed, a young girl is sent to London to live with her uncle and his family. Her uncle, who is a toymaker, secretly has the power to make his toys come to life, but he also maintains dictatorial control over his family and intends to exercise the same control over the new arrival.

The question is, does Uncle Philip really bring toys to life, or was whoever submitted this summary just confused? Because while that might be interesting, it would also be a huge departure from the book. Still, I don't know that I'm curious enough to actually watch the movie; while I have no reason to question its quality--and, indeed, Carter's involvement is certainly a point it its favor--I don't feel like I want a film colonizing my understanding of the book, which is just too dang good as it is. Um, the book is good, that is. I make no guarantees about my understanding.


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