The Passion of New Eve by Angela Carter

Virago, 2002, 189 p. First published 1977.

The Passion of New Eve cover

Please note. This book is almost impossible to review without revealing possible spoilers. It would be ludicrous to try.

Evelyn is the sort of unreconstructed male who I suppose was prevalent at the time this book was written. We are introduced to him, his offhand attitude to women and attraction for now faded film star Tristessa de St Ange, the quintessential woman (who of course on the screen remains as she was in her prime) via an incident in a cinema. The next day he sets off for NewYork where he takes up with a girl called Leilah, whom he treats in the expected uncaring manner. He arrives there at a time of strife and civil unrest, though in the book this only occurs in the background. Evelyn seeks to escape New York, the unrest, and his responsibilities to Leilah, by making a trip to the desert. He runs out of fuel and is perhaps about to die when he is taken prisoner and transported to Beulah, a place ruled over by a multi-nippled Mother Goddess who has a facility for plastic surgery. Evelyn is soon transformed into Eve, with a vagina, maidenhead and all. Escaping from Beulah s(he) is again marooned in the desert only to be kidnapped by the seven female acolytes of Zero (I don’t think his name was by any means accidentally conjured) and is immediately brutally raped by him. His is a menage where the seven acolytes provide a wife for every day of the week. Zero’s decision to replace one of them as prime mistress with Eve – without, of course, Eve’s agreement – doesn’t go down well even if as Zero says, “a godhead, however shabby, needs believers to maintain his credibility.”

I did start to wonder here whether this was going to be some sort of Swiftian satire but Carter’s vision turns out to be more focused. Zero is a monomaniac and blames his infertility on that same Tristessa about whom Eve is so besotted. He is determined to find her and wreak his revenge. Zero’s gang accordingly descends on Tristessa’s isolated house where we get to the core of things. Tristessa, this archetype of womanhood, is in fact a man, the best cross dresser imaginable, the very image of constructed femininity. Zero has Tristessa and Eve marry, an outcome Evelyn would once have delighted in, but in a role that is now reversed. The story is reading here like a kind of Oedipus in reverse. The attempt to consummate the union isn’t entirely successful but Eve still contrives to thwart Zero’s intentions and, with the house spinning like a top, spirits Tristessa away.

The narrative is pervaded with an air of detachment. The characters are perhaps too divorced from “normal”, too outlandish, to engender empathy, the scenes too stark to convince fully. In some accord with this the action sequences seem perfunctory. You can sense this is not where Carter’s interest lies. For this is allegory. In her elaboration on the nature of woman we are twice treated to Tristessa’s philosophy, “‘Solitude and reverie. That is a woman’s life,’” followed later by, “‘Solitude and melancholy. That is a woman’s life.’”

Even at this late point, though, Eve’s troubles are not over. She and Tristessa fall into the hands of a gang of boy soldiers – the background impinging on the narrative at last – poor, lost creatures needing direction and guidance. Yet again Eve escapes and once more meets Leilah who reveals she is in fact, Lilith. “I called myself Leilah in the city in order to conceal the nature of my symbolism.” Quite.

I saw a television programme on Carter just after I read this in which The Passion of New Eve was described as a modern classic. An important feminist work no doubt, but also laced with oddness – run through with it even. Hyper-reality utilised in the aid of enlightenment.

Even so one thing I couldn’t get my head round was that the copy I have was a reprint of a reprint – yet still it is littered with misspellings (see Pedant’s corner.) Surely in all the previous editions someone else has noticed these. By the time of this edition they ought to have been corrected.

Pedant’s corner:- mold (mould,) crucifiction (crucifixion, unless it was meant to be a portmanteau word ,) lead (led, x 4,) aquiescently (acquiescently,) aquainted (acquainted,) etherial (ethereal,) “INTROITE ET HIC DII SUNT” (DEI SUNT,) projectory (trajectory made more sense to me, I’ve since found projectory is a term exclusive to basketball,) spuriosity (spuriousness,) Marx’ head (Marx’s,) span (several times, though, to make it worse, the correct form – spun – was used later,) “I loose my nerve” (lose,) “her hot, close breath basts me” (bastes,) pathenogenesis (parthenogenesis,) staunched, staunching (stanched, stanching,) delinquescence (deliquescence,) concensus agreement (consensus,) elegaic (elegiac,) impotent (is used in the sense of infertile rather than the more common meaning of incapable,) “then all would all vanish” (remove one of those “all”s,) négligé (is a state of undress; not a garment, which is a negligee,) cacophany (cacophony,) degredation (degradation,) Savonorola (Savonarola,) orizens (orisons.)

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