Monday, July 3, 2017

Angel Carter gives me my come-uppance

Originally, I had wanted to title this entry "'Bums aloft!" (and other reasons not to read Angela Carter)," but, unfortunately, I'm afraid I'll have to eat goat on this one. The culprit is The Invention of Angela Carter: A Biography by Edmund Gordon, a book for which I'm currently doing a review. Alas and alack, greater knowledge of Carter has led to a greater personal appreciation for her, forcing me to revise my earlier cutting opinions. This is why you shouldn't read stuff. I often tell me students, "If a little learning is a dangerous thing, think of how dangerous a lot of learning is -- and I don't want that on my conscience." In this case, however, it's too late for me.

Anyway, here's why I didn't like Carter -- as varied as her writing is (and I never denied the talent), I just loathe most postmodern books. Things like Kurt Vonnegut and Tim O'Brien are exceptions, but I really, really, really dislike that excessively self-conscious, metafictional, wink-wink-look-at-me-subverting-reading-norms type of fiction. The Crying of Lot 49 is a canonical culprit, as is Delilo's White Noise, but so is Carter's Nights at the Circus. On the opening page of that novel, in fact, Carter has a paragraph describing the winged protagonist, Fevvers, being lifted up into the air for an acrobatics act -- hence the "bums aloft" line.*** 

Now, I perfectly understand why some people go gaga over that kind of writing, but it just irritates the heck out of me. The subsequent narrative coyness doesn't help -- the constant suggests that you can't trust the narrator, that what you're reading isn't how things really are, etc. All of it's quite clever, but as a reader I need something more. Rather than being an organic part of the fiction, such as in the case of Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby, such unreliability and metafictional cuteness just seems like mockery, making fun of the reader for wanting to enjoy a good book. Although the rest of Carter's writing often strikes a different tone, it's her sense of overly precious literariness that makes me want to throw her fiction across the room.

Sadly, though, after reading Gordon's biography, I found myself really liking Angela Carter as a person. Some of the random cool things about her:

  • She's really funny. Her letters to friends are sprinkled with gems such as the following: “I get a lot of stuff asking me to subscribe to anti-pornography groups, and others asking me to subscribe to pro-pornography groups, but very little actual pornography” (400).
  • She loves to exaggerate. Given my own sense of humor, I'm on-board with this.
  • She's not nearly as pretentious as I expected from her writing
  • She couldn't ride a bike or drive a car. Same here. Phew on you, late modernity!
  • She married a guy 15 years younger. My wife did the same -- although the current French president has us all beat.

In short, at the end of the book, I really wanted Angela Carter to be my friend. I'm never going to have any affection for her writing, but I think much better of it than I did before I finished Gordon's fantastic biography.

Gordon, Edmund. The Invention of Angela Carter: A Biography. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2016. Print.

*** Also, all that "Leda and the Swan" imagery. Fevvers combines the two because, see, she's a bird woman! But the actual myth is quite horrific -- as indicated by Yeats's poem of the same name. Of course, Carter is never one to shy away from a theme just because of a little bestiality, but it did put me off. For the sake of fairness, though, Carter also uses the Leda myth allusion in The Magic Toyshop, and I found that more effective and horrifying.

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