Thursday, June 02, 2016

Angela Carter, Heroes and Villains (1969)

Heroes and Villains. A vague title that sounds like it ought to be a short-story collection, dunnit? Well, its not; it's Carter's fourth novel, and it has the distinction of being her only straight-up science fiction novel. Sure, The Passion of New Eve is science-fiction-ish, but it embraces surrealism to such an extent that the "slipstream" label seems to work better. Whereas this one is just up-and-up sci-fi, although, naturally, with Carter's inimitable touch.

It's a post-apocalyptic future, where little outposts attempt to mimic something resembling the old civilization, led by "professors," who preserve ancient knowledge that may or may not continue to have any meaning. They are constantly harassed by hordes of roving barbarians, who kill them and take their stuff. In this particular town here, our protagonist is one Marianne, the teenage daughter of a professor. Her family being killed in various ways, on an impulse, she saves a young barbarian who would otherwise be killed and runs away with him to his tribe, which is ruled by a sort of renegade professor who's trying to use his knowledge to maintain/create a kind of personal fiefdom in the wild (she seems to like these frightening, dominant male figures: Uncle Philip in The Magic Toyshop, Donally here, Doctor Hoffman in The Infernal Desire Machines,, Zero in The Passion of New Eve).

Marianne has a sort-of romance with this barbarian kid (yes, it's a "romance" that starts with a rape, and you may think therefore "romance" is not really the word, and you may be right, but Carter being Carter, it's sometimes difficult to find words for what she's doing). There are discussions of the differences between barbarians and city-folk, and semiotics stuff of the sort that Carter likes: whether signifiers that have become anachronisms continue to signify in any way and like that.  The title refers--somewhat predictably--to slippage within the two terms, and the difficulty of pinpointing whom they refer to and what they mean.

Carter really never ceases to amaze; this is unpredictable and fascinating stuff, even if it wasn't always one hundred percent obvious to me what she was driving at (there's an introduction in the edition I read by no less a writer than Robert Coover, which I kind of wish were more insightful than it is). If there's anything to criticize it may be that in this particular novel, she really lets her brain overwhelm her heart. Marianne herself is a solid character, but it's pretty clear that her somewhat abstruse ideas are what comes first, and as a result, the characters' conversations aren't at all naturalistic, and sometimes they come across as faintly inhuman. It is, I suppose, debatable whether that actually counts as a "flaw;" surely one's mileage may vary. But it's definitely something that I noticed here far more than in of her other novels.

In any event, it remains a vital part of her amazing oeuvre. Look, you can read English, can't you? So why wouldn't you read her books?


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