"Angela Carter was a thumber of noses, a defiler of sacred cows. She loved nothing so much as cussed – but also blithe – nonconformity. Her books unshackle us, toppling the statues of the pompous, demolishing the temples and commissariats of righteousness. They draw their strength, their vitality, from all that is unrighteous, illegitimate, low." - Salman Rushdie
Claire of Paperback Reader hosted an Angela Carter Month last year, and I was fascinated by the posts. I had never read anything by Carter. And then I won a copy of the short story collection Fireworks from Claire. Very excited. But then somehow it kept getting pushed down the list of things to be read. But now thanks to the TBR Dare, it has found its way into my hands. And blown my mind. And this is often considered a lesser work by Carter. Uneven. If that is the case, I cannot wait to read more. Because this "thumber of noses" writes some of the most original and electric prose I have read. Currently beside myself with joy after just putting the finished book down. And not the sort of joy that comes with a sweet, cozy read. The kind of joy that comes from material that uncomfortably wrenches something inside you. The joy of feeling unexpectedly unsettled.
I realized after reading this that I had in fact read a Carter short story before - "The Loves of Lady Purple." A handout in a contemporary literature class some moons ago about a puppeteer who manipulates the movements of his vixen puppet for many years, sleeping with her even. As the puppeteer ages and becomes more physically fragile, the wooden lady's movements become more fluid as if she is gaining a strength all her own. Her final assertion of self is a little campy and predictable but also powerful in its greater message of how a woman might free herself from the restrictions of gender-based societal expectations. In an extreme way.
The stories in the collection that really captured my attention are more subtle but no less powerful. "A Souvenir of Japan" sketches a story of an English woman in Japan who takes a young Japanese lover, and experiences feelings of estrangement between both their respective cultures and genders. Her lover is equated with the feminine - "... his face seemed somehow both too flat and too large for his elegant body which had such curious, androgynous grace with its svelte, elongated spine, wide shoulders and unusually well developed pectorals, almost like the breasts of a girl approaching puberty." She feels like a "female impersonator," feeling the enormity of her size compared to his, afraid of smashing him as he tells her "that when he was in bed with me, he felt like a small boat upon a wide, stormy sea." The gender switch is a reflection of the political positions of their countries but also serves as a constructed appreciation or fixation with the exotic, with the inevitable failure of "otherness."
Another favorite is "The Smile of Winter" where the narrator is alone and offers a self-conscious description of the desolate setting that mirrors her desolate emotional state. Her hyper-awareness of self makes the story more sharp than poignant.
"Do not think I do not realize what I am doing. I am making a composition using the following elements: the winter beach; the winter moon; the ocean; the women; the pine trees; the riders; the driftwood; the shells; the shapes of darkness and the shapes of water; and the refuse. These are all inimical to my loneliness because of their indifference to it. Out of these pieces of inimical indifference, I intend to represent the desolate smile of winter which, as you must have gathered, is the smile I wear."
And now the problem with posting about a collection of short stories. Much must go missing. Nine stories that traverse a wide swath of the bizarre, of magical realism not of the type with which most are familiar but the type where an androgynous cripple caresses her own breasts while her niece and protector holds her aunt's manhood. And autobiographical pieces such as described here, the artistic reaction to the author's own divorce and extended stay in Japan. And most stories full of images of mirrors and other devices and characters that reflect various images of self. Too much to describe well. So I am done. And seeking more titles by Angela Carter. Tell me your favorites?