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The Passion of New Eve by Angela Carter

Passion of New Eve.jpgI should mention up front that before I read this novel, I bounced off of Carter's earlier novel, Love. It was published the year after Heroes and Villains, but it consisted pretty much entirely of the aspect of Heroes and Villains that I found least interesting: the depiction of a fraught, mutually-mutilating relationship between a thoroughly messed up young couple of bohemians. As lovely and weird as her descriptions were, without the fantastical setting of H&V there wasn't much for me to enjoy in this joyless vision.

So onward to a later novel, The Passion of New Eve. This is decidedly the weirdest of the four Carter novels I've read so far, which is saying something, since they have all been pretty weird. It's actually a bit hard for me to describe what this one is about. It concerns the American adventures of a Briton named Evelyn. He starts out in New York, and she ends up in California. Yes, there is a gender switch in between. The America that Evelyn travels across is a dystopian nightmare of clashing factions, with black militants taking over New York City, the feminist-separatist cult of a self-made fertility goddess doing battle with evangelical teenage male militarists in the Southwest desert, and California torn asunder by civil war between Bay Area revolutionaries and Orange County reactionaries. Evelyn is more or less handed from one cult to another as she flees across the country, and he/she suffers imprisonment, forced surgery, indoctrination, multiple rapes, lost love, and war. It's a savage book full of barbaric acts, and one way it's different from the two novels that followed (Nights at the Circus and Wise Children) is that it lacks their warm-hearted sense of humor. This is more of a satire, with a suitably gimlet-eyed view of the world.

The best description I've seen of how The Passion of New Eve works is as an exploration of the paradoxes of duality. Evelyn starts out as a man and ends up as a woman, but his/her gender is never really settled. He/she is both/neither. Likewise Tristessa, who is an actress worshipped by Evelyn and various other characters in the novel and who ends up having a dual sexual identity as well, although Tristessa's duality is virtual rather than real, if there's any difference in this mythological world. Beyond sexual identify, all the characters share a kind of moral duality, in which all are innocent and guilty, liberating and enslaving, selfish and selfless. The book is feminist, but the women are just as violent, domineering, self-destructive, and wrong-headed as the men. Carter's feminism seems to be centered on allowing women to be as fully human as men, and her view of humanity isn't an idealistic one. Power corrupts, and girl power is no different.

In The Infernal Desire Machines of Angela Carter Jeff VanderMeer says that Carter had fallen under the sway of the surrealists at this point in her career. I think you can see it in the way she plays on paradoxes and, well, passion. This is a novel about the mythological, the irrational, the illogical, the unreasonable, the unreasoning. It's about violence, suffering, and death. However, it largely treats these things in symbolic, exaggerated, imaginary forms without any pretense to realism. Indeed it is anti-realistic. It's not particularly funny, but it feels like a comedy or parody in the way it flaunts and capers. VanderMeer also says that Carter later left surrealism behind, and that may explain why her last two novels feel more humanistic and warm. This is a fierce novel full of dark energy, and with all its mythological metamorphoses it begs to be reread.

Comments

( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
history_monk
Aug. 28th, 2015 06:40 pm (UTC)
Time for The Infernal Desire Machines of Dr Hoffman. That has always seemed to me to be her best work of this period.
randy_byers
Aug. 28th, 2015 06:59 pm (UTC)
Great minds think alike. I just ordered it earlier this morning.
history_monk
Aug. 28th, 2015 09:25 pm (UTC)
Good show. I look forward to your review.
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )

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