I read a lot of literature by women, and when I am over-tired, as I have been lately, I read little else.
Why? Because I understand it perfectly. It expresses what I feel. It explores psychological issues that interest me.
But an excess of feminine consciousness can be a burden even for us feminist readers.
Angela Carter has written exquisite masterpieces, and she has written uneven novels. Her baroque style is hypnotic; her imagery is colorful and original. In The Passion of New Eve, a surreal novel rich with symbolism and satire, she walks a fine line between feminism and tedium. In Carter’s mordant exploration of what it means to be female in a post-apocalyptic society, the ideal woman is defined by men in Hollywood, or by a cult of militant Earth-worshipping female plastic surgeons.
This novel is Carter’s homage to the myth of Tiresias, the Greek prophet who spent part of his life as a man and part as a woman. (Naturally, being a woman was best.) Well, the story is part Tiresias myth anyway: the rest is Caitlyn Jenner crossed with Charlie’s Angels.
The gender issues that dominate the text are apparent from the opening page. When we first meet the narrator, Evelyn, a selfish, sexist young Englishman who has long been obsessed with a movie star, Tristessa, he is about to move to New York City. He describes his last night in London at a Tristessa film with “some girl or other” (this is typical of his attitude) while paying a tribute “of spermatazoa” to the actress via the mediation of his companion. He adores but is also cynical bout Tristessa, who has “executed her symbolic autobiography in arabesques of kitsch and hyperbole yet transcended the rhetoric of vulgarity by exemplifying it with a heroic lack of compromise.”
This lack of compromise sums up what Evelyn looks for in the very feminine women he pursues. When he arrives in New York to peddle his scholarship at a university, the teaching job no longer exists, because the university has been seized by a group of black radicals. New York is riddled by rats, race riots, violent radical feminists, crime, and gunfire. On his first night in New York, there is either a fire or just a fire alarm at the hotel: it’s hard to tell. Even after his only friend, an alchemist neighbor, is murdered outside a store, Evelyn spends time in the streets. One night he unwisely follows home Leila, an African-American dancer with painted nipples. He says he has never met such “a slave to style.” When she isn’t combing her hair or putting on makeup, they have torrid sex, and sometimes he leaves her tied up to the bed until she defecates. After she has an abortion by a witchdoctor and almost bleeds to death, he gives her money at the hospital and says good-bye. Then he takes a road trip. His destination: the desert.
Carter’s descriptions of his adventures are psychedelic and indelibly printed on my brain because of the colorful imagery. Her prose is also threaded with flamboyant humor.
On a road that ran into an insane landscape of pale rock, honeycombed peak upon peak in unstable, erratic structures, calcified assemblages of whiteness and silence where jostling pebbles marked the paths of rivers that dried up before time began, where snakes and lizards rustled in the grey sand, where buzzards floated in the sky. I ran out of gas and so found myself entirely at the desert’s mercy.
If you like her style, you like it. If you don’t, you don’t. I admire her prose, but find the story a little lacklustre, if often very funny.
After Evelyn’s car breaks down in the desert, Evelyn is abducted by a cult of militant one-breasted women, a la Amazons, to an underground city. They surgically change him into the women of their dreams. Well, of somebody’s dreams anyway. They castrate him, build a vagina, and enhance his breasts. She looks like a perky Charlie’s Angel by the time they’re done with him. They have saved a sample of his sperm and hope to impregnate him with it.
But as you can imagine, this scene of Evelyn’s transformation is ghastly and terrifying, despite Carter’s black humor. After he recovers from the surgery, he escapes. Not for long, though. He is out only a few hours when he is abducted by yet a worse cult led a misogynist named Zero, who has seven women slaves. Zero is as obsessed with the movie star Tristessa as Evelyn is. When Zero finally finds Tristessa’s hideout, the actress is as melancholy as her name. Zero intends to kill Tristessa, but Tristessa has a side to her nature that no one was aware of… Evelyn and Tristessa almost escape.
All the American women characters are caricatures, it would seem, and when Leila turns up again, she is no longer a dancer but a militant. (It’s a long story.) Leila helps Evelyn accept being the new Eve. Still, Eve isn’t going to be a passive object for one of the cults. She has her own idea of what to do with her life.
But what is Carter getting at? In this satire, men are the perfect male-identified women. Are men better women than women are? Militant women are just as bad as men in Hollywood about pursuing their myths. In the end, only Evelyn is sympathetic. Is that the joke?
Carter knew what she was doing, and I’d have to read it twice to comprehend her meaning entirely. It is good in its way, but unfortunately I don’t like it enough to reread it.
Sounds utterly bizarre, and not entirely in a good way. Maybe I’ll get curious enough to read it one day, but not right now.
It’s possibly more bizarre than usual! I love Carter, though I didn’t love this book.
Gosh! There are elements there that sound utterly bizarre and rather brutal. The only Angela Carter I have read is The Bloody Chamber collection of short stories.
Usually I love Carter, but this one was not for me.
Carter can be very dark and brutal, and I have to be in the right mood for her. Like Ali, I know I’ve read The Bloody Chamber but probably not much else…
I very much enjoyed The Bloody Chamber and her later novels, but must confess I put aside a couple of the earlier books. I am glad I read this, because there is so much there, but I didn’t enjoy it so…
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I keep trying to read Carter and find myself getting nowhere. I think I am one of those who doesn’t appreciate her style. This, I know, I would lose patience with before I’d got a couple of chapters in, but to be truthful, I felt that way about everything I’ve tried. She clearly isbn’t writing for me.
I do like her later work, but The Passion of New Eve certainly was not an enjoyable read, and if I hadn’t found a cheap Virago, I would never had read it!
That cover looks like it is from the Seventies. Somehow, I don’t think they would do that today.
It’s 1992! The moustaches on the women do go with the content of the book! I actually have the other edition, with the star-studded woman’s head. It’s such a contradictory almost-anti-feminist book. I need to know more about Carter’s politics to know what the hell she was doing.
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