Monday, August 29, 2016

Angela Carter, Wise Children (1991)

Right, so I have a shameful confession to make to you good people: in that last entry, I feel like I tried to create the impression that I liked Nights at the Circus more than I actually did. Don't get me wrong: I did like it. It's a very good novel. But my overwhelming desire for Carter's last few books to be totally brilliant masterpieces made me overstate the case for it. Did I REALLY suggest that it's arguably better than The Passion of New Eve? Tidak tidak tidak. In truth, I'd say Nights at the Circus ranks right smack in the middle of Carter's novels, qualitywise. Given the high esteem in which I hold her, that is NO SMALL THING. But at the same time, it's not the GREATEST thing. I don't know that I would've been determined to read her entire output had I started there. So mea maxima culpa.

And the reason I realized my wrongness and had to come to terms with it is that I read Carter's last novel, Wise Children, and--I will stake my honor as a random dude who writes half-assed review that no one reads on the internet on this--this is what I was hoping for from late Carter. It's just an absolutely goddamn fantastic novel in every way, with no possible reservations. Carter's best work makes me giddy with how good it is, and let me tell you, I have never been more giddy than I am now.

My goodness. What is Wise Children about? It's about a sprawling theatrical family over the course of the twentieth century. The narrator is Dora Chance, in the novel's present-day seventy-five years old and living with her sister, Nora. Both of them in their day had worked as chorus girls and minor actresses, but now they're living in rather straitened circumstances. They are the illegitimate, unacknowledged daughters of Melchior Hazard, the preeminent Shakespearean actor of his time, and today they're all set to crash his hundredth birthday party. But in the meantime, Dora narrates her family's history, and hers and her sister's particularly: they grow up, they discover the theater, their lives are brightened by the intermittent presence of their uncle Peregrine Hazard, who serves as their de facto father. They achieve some success in a comical Shakespearean-pastiche revue. They go to Hollywood along with the rest of the family and sundry hangers-on to appear in a bloated, self-important, and kitschy production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. The war comes. They age. People come and go. And then, the aforementioned birthday party.

So much for the plot, in broad strokes. Now, why is it so fucking delightful? Well, a large part of it is the narrator, certainly. Dora is really just wonderful. It would be difficult to describe her without resort to words like "bawdy" and "ribald," but hey, if the shoe fits. She's very likable and very British and her rambling story is a joy to read.

The other, related, thing is that this whole novel is very much a Shakespearean tribute, packing in loads of references to specific plays (many of which I surely missed). But specifically, it's a tribute to Shakespearean comedy. "I refuse point blank to play in tragedy," Dora says, and she sure ain't in this novel. The novel consists of five chapters (AND HOW MANY ACTS IN A SHAKESPEARE PLAY DO YOU SEE???), each of them brimming over with vital energy and zaniness. It's not a fantastical novel in the sense that some of Carter's are, but it's a very heightened reality being presented--as, indeed, in one of the comedies in question. All sorts of coincidences and people back from the dead and no fewer than FIVE different sets of twins, all of vexed parentage of some sort. It's a shitload of fun, and let it also be noted that it's by far Carter's most generous, humanistic novel. I've suggested earlier that she often comes across as perhaps more brains than heart, but that is not at all the case here. And it's not because there's any less brains, I'll tell you that much. I don't see how it would be possible to finish this novel without feeling good about life. Not that that's the sole criterion by which to judge a novel, but boy. It is a thing.

And, alas, THAT'S IT. It would be easy to spend a lot of time bemoaning how, in a just world, this should've been published at about the halfway point of a still ongoing career, but in the spirit of Wise Children, let's instead celebrate the fact that such beauty is able to exist in the world. I love you, Angela.


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