Recent Reading Roundup 7

  1. The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman and Fireworks by Angela Carter - I think it's time to accept that my relationship with Angela Carter's fiction has crossed over into AA's-definition-of-insanity territory, and I suspect that these two books--the former a novel, considered one of Carter's best, and the latter a collection of short stories--may have finally soured me on this furiously talented but frustrating writer. So, for those of you who don't know this dance already: prose gorgeous, one or two genuinely engaging scenes, but for the most part Carter concentrates on description and scene-setting, and leaves plot by the wayside. In Hoffman, her protagonist is a coldly analytical and dispassionate young man who embarks on a sensual and erotic odyssey, obviously a riff on Gulliver's Travels, to track down and destroy the brilliant but mad Doctor Hoffman, who has been assaulting reality itself with his machines of desire (his infernal machines, I should say). The novel has a strong beginning and ending, but its middle consists of a dozen or so repetitions of the same format--20 pages of description (boring and soporific for all of Carter's beautiful language and attention to detail) followed by maybe 10 pages of action (usually quite good, especially when she remembers to give her hero a bit of personality, although he quickly loses it in time for the next chapter). Carter's failure to attach us to the character means that, paradoxically enough, a novel about embracing the irrational, the passionate and the sensual becomes dull and unaffecting.

    Fireworks is made up of naturalistic stories--dealing primarily with a lonely Western woman's life in Japan--and the familiar fantastic ones, which, once again, prioritize scene-setting over plot and character. There is in these stories a slight whiff of the intriguing approach to female sexuality and its perception for which Carter became famous, but to my mind there is very little that she says on the subject that isn't either completely outdated or glaringly obvious.

  2. North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell - Gaskell is usually lumped in with the second tier of Victorian authors, and from this single foray into her oeuvre I can say that that classification is justified. North and South has a slow, weak beginning and an ending to match, and there are spots in the middle in which one can almost see Gaskell straining to make her prose do things that better authors like George Eliot or Charlotte Bronte managed almost effortlessly. Nevertheless, North and South's middle segment is engaging and at times quite excellent. Although obviously derivative of Pride and Prejudice, North and South uses that novel's template of the misunderstandings that arise when a headstrong young woman comes into contact with a proud young man to discuss industrialization and its costs and benefits to English society. Gaskell treats this subject with a level of delicacy and insight that is impressive in an author of her era, even if her final conclusion is that unions do more harm than good, and that the best solution for workers and manufacturers alike is for manufacturers to be kind and considerate. Gaskell also outdoes Austen in one respect--she recognizes that her characters, the lovers and their families and friends, have complicated lives with personal, familial, religious and professional issues, against which their romantic misfortunes often seem insignificant. The misunderstandings that keep Gaskell's lovers apart are inevitable--it is almost impossible that they ever could comprehend the complexity of another person's psyche and history--an impressively modern notion for a Victorian author. North and South's true stroke of genius is in the way that Gaskell parallels this lack of understanding between individuals with a similar lack of understanding between groups--specifically, the masters and the men, who prefer to see each other as ogres and monsters rather than thinking and feeling human beings with problems and strongly held opinions.

  3. Morality Play by Barry Unsworth - I liked Unsworth's Sacred Hunger when I read it earlier this year, but I also found it a little too clinical--too concerned with questioning the realities of human existence and not sufficiently focused on plot. Morality Play manages to avoid that pitfall, possibly because it clocks in at less than 200 pages. The plot involves a runaway 14th century priest who joins a troupe of actors and arrives at a town where a murder has recently been committed. The actors decide to reenact the murder and, in the course of doing so, become convinced that it could not have happened as the official version claims, and that the person convicted of it is innocent. Every now and then it seems that Unsworth is going to let himself be overcome by the urge to expostulate on the human condition, specifically as it relates to the theatre and to the urge to transform our lives into a narrative, but before he gets too far off track he usually returns to the demands of the plot. Because I'd already seen the movie version (which, although quite good, veers from the text in several major points), the mystery aspect of the book was lost on me, but I was still able to enjoy it as an imagination of the moment in which our understanding of fiction, the theatre, and their role in life changed forever.

  4. A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka - I'm not entirely certain why I picked up a copy of Lewycka's novel, which describes the efforts of two estranged sisters to save their dreamy, impractical father from marrying a beautiful Ukrainian émigrée less than half his age in order to give her a work permit, when I had my book-shopping spree in the UK a few months back (I've found that thoughtless impulse-buying of books that I would normally not even look twice at is an unavoidable side effect of these buying binges--it's just so intoxicating to be in a real bookstore after such a long drought that I get a little carried away), but it turned out to be a quick and pleasant (surprisingly so, given its often grim subject matter) read which left me, only a few hours after turning the last page, with almost no residue. Lewycka has a gift for description - of the narrator's mother's garden, of her father's idiosyncrasies, of their life and their parents' lives in early 20th century Eastern Europe--that draws the reader in, and I was interested in the characters, but throughout the novel there was a very palpable sense of Lewycka holding herself back, writing a pleasant but mediocre novel instead of even trying to write a very good one. It's not often that I encounter a novel whose author aspires to so little.

  5. Saturday by Ian McEwan - I can't say that I disagree with any of the complaints levelled against McEwan's latest novel. It is, unquestionably, an apologia for wishy-washy liberals unwilling to commit to a genuine political outlook and happy to ensconce themselves in the luxurious trappings of a Western lifestyle while half the world starves or burns. It, without a doubt, glorifies its rich, white, professional protagonist, turning him into a moral hero. It is also one of the most beautifully written novels I have read in a long time, a modern-day Mrs. Dalloway that replicates that earlier novel's ability to place us inside its protagonist's head while still dealing with issues of its own era (Michael Cunningham, this is how it's done). I had quite frankly forgotten how good a writer McEwan can be when he puts his mind to it. His ability to switch back and forth between middle-aged, middle-class ennui and the worst horrors that the human race is capable of, with no slackening of tension or loss of insight into his characters, amazes me anew every time I pick up one of his books (possibly that's why I disliked The Cement Garden and Amsterdam--because they didn't counteract their sensational premises with a grounding normalcy). The novel's climax, in which the hero's family is threatened, was one of the most uncomfortable reading experiences I've ever had, in all the best ways--I couldn't wait for the scene to be over, for the family to be released from its peril, but at the same time I couldn't look away. And ultimately, too good to be true or not, I genuinely liked McEwan's hero, Henry Perowne, a decent man who recognizes his good fortune, and perhaps does less than he could to make up for it. This one definitely goes in the 'good' McEwan pile.


Anonymous said…
I realize you're describing Carter's limitations and your frustrations with them, but you actually kind of make me want to read some of her stuff.

Have you ever read The Etched City by KJ Bishop? I loved the book despite it having essentially no plot. It's bits of travelogue, conversations, seductions, descents into madness, poetry, filth, occasional action, it doesn't go particularly anywhere but I loved it anyway.
I liked The Etched City, in spite of the plotlessness you so accurately describe (although I thought that at its core, the novel did have something resembling a plot - it was just so encrusted with other stuff that it became hard to see). But it had characters who were people in their own right, and in Carter's novels the characters are usually representatives of concepts or archetypes, with very little in the way of personality.

Her later novels are truly fantastic, though - why do you think I've been sticking with her earlier stuff for so long? I'd give Wise Children and Nights at the Circus a look if you're truly intrigued - they combine a facility with words and psychedelic worldbuilding with actual characters and plots. The Bloody Chamber, a collection of darkly retold fairy tales, is also worth a look, although again I think it's dated rather badly - most of the readings that were rather revolutionary when Carter first put them forward in 1979 have by now superseded the traditional interpretations of most of these tales (the wolf in "Little Red Riding-Hood" as a sexual predator, for instance).
JeffV said…
Infernal Desire Machines is a great book--a satire, a sly parody, a funny and dark novel that is deliberately episodic. I think you may simply be the wrong reader for it. It's a wonderful read.

Fireworks is an uneven collection with some really stand-out pieces.

Anonymous said…
great Saturday review :)..
Anonymous said…
I think I liked your review of Saturday more than I liked the book. I didn't find the conflict at the end particularly intense. Bells started going off when the son warned Henry about bruising egos. From that point on I felt like I was waiting for some sort of confrontation that would bring all the characters together … but then again, I liked the second season of BSG.

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