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The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman by Angela Carter

Penguin, 1982, 219 p.

The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman  cover

In a South American city possibly modelled on Manaus which at one time the “diabolical” Doctor Hoffman filled with mirages – nothing was what it seemed, “nothing at all” – in order to drive the inhabitants mad, an old man named Desiderio, too sardonic, too disaffected to be influenced by the mirages, is writing down his memories because he became a hero by surviving. The manifestations of Doctor Hoffman’s depredations included a dollop of synaesthesia and inspired the creation of the Determination Police, a seemingly fearsome body endowed with the duty of deciding whether something is real or not, though the name also implies a degree of tenacity.

Through Desiderio we are party to a conversation between Doctor Hoffman’s ambassador to the city (sent to demand surrender) and Desiderio’s employer, the Minister, where the ambassador says, “What if I told you we were engaged in uncovering the infinite potentiality of phenomena?” a get-out for describing any number of impossible things. The Minister refuses the surrender demand and sends Desiderio as a special agent to assassinate Hoffman “as inconspicuously as possible.” Complicating his mission is the fact that Desiderio is in love with Albertina, Hoffman’s daughter.

We follow Desiderio as he spends time at a peep-show, goes on a sojourn with river people, falls in with a troupe of acrobats (Carter seems to have had a thing about circuses – I suppose because they present illusions of various types,) meets a mysterious Count, and is captured by centaurs, before finally encountering the Doctor himself.

Carter indulges in various philosophical musings, “The introduction of cinematography enabled us to corral time past,” while the motion picture, “offers us nothing less than the present tense experience of time irrefutably past.” “Even if it is the dream made flesh, the real, once it becomes real, can be no more than real.” Desiderio tells us, “The habit of sardonic contemplation is the hardest habit of all to break.” She also makes an aside to the reader, “Those are the dreary ends of the plot. Shall I tie them up or leave them unravelled?” In this regard Desiderio’s encounter with the Doctor reminded me of the film of The Wizard of Oz even down to “clanking, dull stage machinery” – this is not a spoiler as a clue to this – desire machines – lies in the book’s title, though their power source eroto-energy doesn’t.

Imagine a series of surrealist paintings rendered in prose, mashed up with a picaresque adventure chronicle somewhat akin to Gulliver’s Travels – though Desiderio meets those centaurs rather than Houynhnhmns – then throw in a smidgin of James Bondery at the end and that is pretty much this novel.

Pedant’s corner:- “all they could do to make a living was to sell to the credulous charms and talismans against domestic spectres” (‘make a living was to sell the credulous charms’ makes more sense,) tetrahydron (tetrahedron?) statis, (stasis,) In ‘Dr Hoffman will make metaphysics your business’ the emphasis ought to be on ‘make’ rather than ‘your’.) “They gilded their finger and toenails” (finger- and toenails,) focussed (focused,) “teeth in a maw” (a maw is a stomach, not a mouth,) colossi (colossus is from Greek not Latin, its plural will be colossodes,) shantys (shanties,) unharmonious (I prefer inharmonious,) “the shape of tears laid on their sides” (laid what on their sides? Oh; ‘lay on their sides’,) ensorcellating (ensorcelling,) “I thought the military were roused at last” (was roused.)

Paris Adrift by E J Swift

Solaris, 2018, 379 p. Reviewed for Interzone 274, Mar-Apr 2018.

Paris Adrift cover

Time travel is one of Science Fiction’s most venerable tropes but in more recent times has taken something of a back seat to other aspects of the genre. In Paris Adrift, E J Swift has adopted an oblique approach to the topic, gaily skipping over any problems with the ethics of non-intervention and avoidance of the grandfather paradox. She does not make anything of, still less explain, the mechanics of the process (which arguably puts us in fantasy territory,) it is simply an integral part of the story she has to tell.

Hallie, an English geology student estranged from her family, is on a gap year in Paris trying to sort her life out. She takes a waiting job at Millie’s, a bar near the Moulin Rouge. Millie’s is a nexus for the strange. Fellow employee Gabriela finds she is always somehow prevented from leaving Paris while Hallie has odd encounters with birds that talk to her, an apparent doppelganger, and customers, while also experiencing odd sensations both in the keg room and in Paris’s catacombs. She still finds space for a relationship with fellow waiter Léon, and Swift charts superbly the overwhelming intensity of a burgeoning love affair.

The narration is almost exclusively from Hallie’s viewpoint, in that pressing present tense which can seem like a default in so much modern SF. Occasional mentions of geological terms underline Hallie’s background.

The incursions of the weird might perhaps have been more unexpected had we not already read a prologue chapter introducing us to the chronometrist, a person seemingly able to take control of other’s bodies at will but whose essence is fading, and to the concept of anomalies and their incumbents. Hallie soon finds out the keg room is a time portal and her future has been mapped out by the Way of Janus.

Her first experience of timefaring takes her to 1875 where she seems to adapt to her new situation remarkably quickly and is befriended by the Millie who will one day found the bar. She also meets the architect designing the Sacré-Coeur. Partly due to Hallie’s interference that building will no longer be erected. In its stead will arise the Moulin Vert which becomes a significant location in the rest of the book (plus inspiration for a political movement) and technically makes the novel an alternative history. However, other aspects of our modern world and its history are unaffected, there are mentions of Whatsapp, plus the Bataclan, Stade de France and Nice attacks.

The anomaly’s next flare sends Hallie to 1942 and a suitably claustrophobic encounter with would-be cellist Rachel Clouarte. Hallie dodges German soldiers and the curfew to reunite Cluarte with her cello and aid her escape in order to ensure her career in music will prevail, so that she will not marry and produce (eventually) the descendant who will contribute to a catastrophic war in the future. This 1942 Paris is lightly affected by the occupation, street life continuing gaily as normal, though of course the deportations from which Clouarte is to be saved proceed apace. I did wonder why Hallie’s intervention in the Clouarte family tree had to be quite so early but of course it does give Swift the opportunity to depict Paris in wartime and up the danger quotient.

Another flare takes Hallie to 2042 and a terribly plausible fascist Paris (complete with Metro station called LePen) and the seeds of the situation which the Way of Janus seeks to avert. Other timefaring trips are mentioned but not gone into in detail.

The 1942 and 2042 excursions lend the novel aspects of a thriller yet there are other scenes which bring to mind Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus and the work of Tim Powers. Throughout, Swift’s portrayal of her characters is assured. These are people we can believe in even if one of them is prey to the logical fallacy that because the Earth is remarkably suited to humans it is a sign of something miraculous rather than the unfolding of impersonal forces which merely allowed us to arise.

Paris Adrift deals with the heavy theme of totalitarianism and the threat of the far right but never loses sight of the smaller people who live through interesting times. While Léon and Hallie are pivotal to the resolution of the plot (and History itself) its emotional focus, though sometimes sidelined, is on their relationship.

Like a lot of SF this suggests life is hard and pain impossible to avoid but unlike most recent SF it proffers hope along with the sacrifice. Never mind it being good SF/Fantasy, this is a good novel.

The following did not appear in the published review.
Pedant’s corner:- “the night team begin to trickle in” (the night team begins to trickle in,) “the group want shots” (wants,) “a stream of people flow inside,” (a stream flows,) “the confines of the locker room lends an air” (the confines lend an air,) “a travelling company were performing” (a company was performing,) “the shape of the walls change, become smooth and rounded” (the shape changes, becomes smooth,) “Her age and appearance has altered once again” (have altered,) “the floor team are doing the rounds” (the team is doing the rounds.) “None of these people have an anomaly. None are bound to this place” (none has, none is.) “Only a small proportion of the catacombs are maintained for visitors.” (Only a small proportion is maintained,) “as the assault team go through their final checks” (as the team goes through its final checks.) Yet despite all these examples of such failures of agreement of subject and verb Swift obviously knows what’s what as we had the correct “a rickety set of steps leads up to”,) “till I am stood right next to him” (it wasn’t a passive activity, so standing”,) “sat on the gravestones” (sitting,) gotten (in a narrative otherwise so British in tone this USianism jars,) “since she bid me farewell” (bade me farewell,) “preempting the touch that will follow” (the context implied savouring rather than pre-empting,) Dušanka calls Hallie “‘my petit chou.’” She responds, “‘And I’m not a pastry.’” (That response would be to “my petit choux” – chou is a cabbage and “petit chou” a term of endearment. Hallie’s French isn’t supposed to be good but surely she would not confuse the two?) “is sat” (is sitting,) “another woman is stood at the window” (is standing,) dove (USian; the British past tense of dive is dived,) “sat sipping” (sitting sipping,) “glasses pile up on either side” (context implies both sides,) inside of (USian, it’s just inside, no “of”,) descendent (descendant,) focusses (focuses,) syllabi (I prefer syllabuses, though I concede syllabi is a correct Latin plural,) “you’ll be never be happy” (that first “be” is redundant, “‘How can I do that.’” (That is a question so requires a question mark, not a full stop.)

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.)

The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter

Virago, 1998, 202 p.

The Magic Toyshop cover

Fifteen year-old Melanie feels on the cusp of womanhood and wonders to herself how having sex or being married will feel. Her cosy middle-class existence is disrupted the night after she tries on her mother’s wedding dress – damaging it in the process – as in what she interprets as a piece of (un)sympathetic magic she receives news her parents have both died on the trip they had been on. Along with brother Jonathon and much younger sister Victoria she is packed off to live with Uncle Philip, their mother’s brother, who is married to Margaret Jowle, in turn rendered dumb ever since her wedding, communicating by means of chalk and blackboard. This new home is a constrained environment, ruled by Philip with a frugal rod of iron, Margaret and her brothers Finn and Francis (whom she brought with her to the marital home) living in fear. Philip is a toy/puppetmaker and they live over the toyshop which gives the novel its title.

The book has an odd sensibility, tonally and atmospherically redolent of Dickens, with some relationship dynamics reminiscent of Joan Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase but also containing faint echoes of The L-Shaped Room. The occasional references to such things as radios and other manifestations of (relative) modernity feel quite strange in comparison with the Victorian atmosphere which pervades the book even in the earlier chapters where Melanie is untroubled by straitened circumstances. This disjunction verges on magic realism as there is an aura of weirdness hanging over things throughout yet which never declares itself openly.

As the novel progresses Melanie’s revulsion to Finn’s lack of cleanliness and his interest in her is countered by her burgeoning awareness of sexuality. The twist near the end is one which I suspect neither Dickens nor Aiken would have dared essay though it might not have troubled Lynne Reid Banks.

Pedant’s corner:- “Scarborough-is-so-bracing” (in the posters it was Skegness that was so bracing,) focussed (focused.) “There were a number of shops” “There were a number of cake tins” (there was a number,) “some armless, some legless, same naked, some clothed,” (some naked,) “in two hundreds beds” (hundred,) “greasy Orientals” Vyella dress (Viyella,) tremulo (tremolo.) “The first of Jonathan’s wooden ships were up for sale” (the first was up for sale,) “in the butchers” (the butcher’s,) “open eyes of pure of colour” (has an “of” too many.) “She spread out her skirts and put shells into it” (skirts is plural; so, ‘put shells into them’,) pigmy (pygmy,) “who had laid in bed” (lain,) Aunt Margaret must have fried up everything friable in the larder” (fryable; “friable” means crumbly,) hiccoughing (hiccupping, the supposed resemblance to a cough is a misattribution,) “and she not sure” (and she was not sure,) a missing end quotation mark.

Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter

Windsor/Paragon, 2013, 423 p. First published 1984.

 Nights at the Circus cover

In fin-de-siècle London, Fevvers – so-called because of the downy nubs on her back when she was born – has fledged into a stage act, the leading aerialiste of her time. Among others she fascinates the Prince of Wales. It is through American journalist Jack Walser, also besotted with her, that we make her introduction. The book begins as he interviews her backstage after a performance. To Walser the evening is made more peculiar as midnight seems to strike several times while Fevvers and her companion Lizzie (who may be her mother) relate her life story up to that point – a fabular tale of a foundling and brothels of varying degrees of harshness. The mixture here of mundane detail of discarded, more or less grubby stage clothing and the removal of tawdry theatrical make-up with the fantastical unfolding of the story of Fevvers’s wings and hesitant attempts at flight – her life as a whole – adds verisimilitude to the narrative while not undermining its fantastical elements. It may even emphasise them.

Fevvers is engaged by US circus owner Colonel Kearney – guided in his actions by his pet pig, Sybil, who picks out lettered cards to spell the relevant decision – as one of the acts he will take on his tour to St Petersburg then across Russia to Siberia, with Yokohama the eventual destination. Walser persuades his editor to give him time off to follow his fascination with Fevvers. He joins the project as a member of the Clown circle. Wandering the circus Walser finds apes with their own school (complete with blackboard) which they break up as soon as they realise it is being observed, tigers enchanted by music and a Strongman with a cowardly streak – an interesting echo of The Wizard of Oz.

In the text it isn’t really seriously questioned if Fevvers’s wings are real or a stage fabrication. Only at the end, in an unrelated matter, is her reliability as a witness undermined, by which time there have been enough fantastical happenings to make this seem a misstep. Carter’s intention seems to be to interrogate the boundary between the real and the imagined. Magic realist touches flavour the narrative but the everyday degradations inflicted on some of her female characters (highlighting sexism, a feminism slipped in to the tale but unremarked on save in the case of the unlikeliness of a prostitute to undertake her work for pleasure, or to find any in it) are all too believable. Her prose flows and bounces, occasionally soars. Her characters are well-drawn. In the end, though, I found the flights of fancy a bit overblown. Are the South Americans just better at this sort of thing or is my cultural bias blinding me to its merits in this case?

Those thirty or so years ago when this was first published the descriptions of Carter’s work which I read failed to enthuse me sufficiently. For anyone so minded now I would say she is definitely worth reading and I’ll look for more.

Pedant’s corner:- Fevvers’ (Fevvers’s,) Prince of Wales’ (Prince of Wales’s,) ripost (usually riposte; ripostes was used as a verb later,) ballock/s (Carter consistently uses this as a demotic word for testicle and reserves bollocks for the expletive = balls,) maw (it’s a stomach, not a mouth,) exort (exhort,) cartilege (cartilage,) orizens (orisons?) tealeaves (tea leaves as a single word?) he lirruped and chirruped (lirruped?) “to whit” (to wit,) Lyons (in English now more often spelled Lyon,) pects (more often pecs,) liquifying (liquefying,) wrapt (the sense is rapt but it was describing two lovers so most likely a pun,) “identified the figure of that of Father Time” (it makes sense but “as that of Father Time” is more natural,) lassoo (lasso,) “when the sun temporarily laid low” (lay low,) oblivious of (oblivious to.)

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