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Infernal Desire Machines.jpgAngela Carter's The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman is a ferociously intellectual novel, and I'm frankly not sure I'm fully up to the task of analyzing it. The story concerns an assault on reality by Doctor Hoffman and his infernal desire machines, which cause imaginary things to appear real. The protagonist, Desiderio, is a government functionary who is more or less impervious to this assault, and he is sent by the uber-rationalist Minister of Determination to assassinate Hoffman. Complicating matters is that Desiderio is hot for Hoffman's unattainable and shape-shifting daughter, Albertine. He embarks on what even the novel itself calls a picaresque journey through a fantastic realm in which his goals are constantly transformed, but in the end (as he tells you in the beginning) he gets his man and restores the world to unmagical realism.

So much for the plot, and I have to say that for a ferociously intellectual novel it really does tell a story -- even an adventure story, an old-time romance of sorts. There's plenty of sex, quite a bit of death, gunshots, narrow escapes, river boats, exotic tribes, pirates, landslides, cannibals, centaurs, you name it. There's a bit of Gulliver's Travels to it (and at least one direct reference to the same), a bit of Heart of Darkness (probably including the racism), and more than a bit of the quest for the Holy Grail. It's a Romance, but it's very anti-Romantic too. It's about desire and how it mediates our perception of what is real, and about how the object of our desire is always out of reach. It's about love and death, and the love of death.

Jeff Vandermeer has called it "the finest surrealist novel of the past 30 years" (which dates the comment, since the novel is now over 40 years old), and it does seem Surrealist in a pretty direct sense, not just the common sense of surrealist as something weird or dreamlike. It is about irrationality and the human predisposition to it, about the fragility or artifice of meaning and causality, about the bestial impulses that we try to paper over with morality, decorum, and reason. It flaunts taboos and any sense of the obscene, and it features a character in the Count who seems clearly modeled on the Marquis de Sade -- a self-aggrandizing champion of the overthrow of all civilized hypocrisy. In fact, it feels very French to me in the way it embraces critical theory and uses it to tear down consensual understandings of reality through proclamations of the self-annihilating nature of ideas. Characters speak in manifestos, thrusting their theories into the soft underbelly of common sense.

As a bravura performance, it's impressive, but at times I found it exhausting in the same way I find Samuel R. Delany's exploration of critical theory and French philosophy exhausting. As I've said before, Carter's last two novels, Nights at the Circus and Wise Children, have a warmer, more humanistic feel to them, and perhaps I'm showing my age in preferring their more accepting view to the testier feel of The Infernal Desire Machines and The Passion of New Eve. That said, I was completely fascinated by Carter's wild imagination in this one, and her ability to shift not only from one remarkably strange setting to another but also to shift literary modes as she did so. Science fiction, romance, surrealism, fable, myth, magical realism, erotic daydream, philosophical treatise, swashbuckling adventure -- all are grist for her literary mill, and she seems to handle all these modes, and the blending of them, with ease. She has a real genius for synthesizing her different obsessions, and the flipside of the uncomfortably challenging nature of this work (as with Delany's) is that the lack of easy answers is invigorating. Once again she pries open the contradictions of desire, and while she folds it into a melancholy that feels comfortably familiar, she never settles for a nostalgic sense of loss or separation. Desire for Carter is uncontainable, unfathomable, disruptive. It makes monkeys of us all, and there's something magical in that transformation.

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