Post-apocalyptic gender politics: The Oryx and Crake Trilogy, Margaret Atwood

I have a real affection for Margaret Atwood but I have not always found her work easy to get into and, as such, feel relatively poorly read within her oeuvre. I have started The Blind Assassin three times without success but raced through The Handmaid’s Tale with it’s deeply disturbing excavation of sexual politics in a near future world stricken by sterility as plague. I know my reading habits well enough to recognise that science fiction plus a bit of sex/gender equals a novel that is entirely my bag so when The Year of the Flood appeared on my MA reading list as part of the ‘Twenty first century feminist fiction and the world in crisis’ module I cracked into it with gleeful reminiscence of the The Handmaid’s Tale (a text I’ve actually been teaching my Year 13s and of which there is a gut-wrenching film adaptation available here) and much expectation.

I had read Oryx and Crake some years ago and was vaguely aware that this was the sequel, the second novel in a trilogy. I remembered enjoying and being appropriately unnerved by Oryx and Crake (though finding it tricky to start) and struggled to recall salient plot details as it became apparent that The Year of the Flood was covering the same years preceding the devastating man-made plague from different, female perspectives and the final novel in the trilogy MaddAddam operates in a similar way, though it simultaneously continues the narrative from the end of Year. The effect of the trilogy taken together is prismic: it offers a multi-faceted story intricate in its drawings of world and character and the fun of seeing hitherto undiscovered connections between characters and storylines emerge.

In a family of scientists (both brother and father), Atwood’s interest in popular science is well known; she famously keeps a box of newspaper and magazine clippings that have directly informed her futurist fiction, it is perhaps on this basis that she has long rejected the label of science fiction in favour of ‘speculative fiction’. She has said repeatedly that everything in her novels is rooted in potentiality, a ‘what if’ approach to human evolution and this is especially true here. These texts are laced with tangible anxieties around a whole range of issues: genetic engineering, unbridled commercial power and of course the effects of climate change. In 2005 Robert Macfarlane lamented the absence of a literary response to climate change, comparing it in scale and presence to the nuclear menace that haunted the Cold War years. This trilogy must have been exactly the sort of thing that Macfarlane had in mind.

The environmental anxiety underpinning all three texts is, in The Year of the Flood, explicitly connected to female experience. The urban dystopia of the pleeblands that precedes ‘the waterless flood’ of Crake’s manmade plague is a world characterised by sexual violence. The female protagonist Toby is repeatedly raped and brutalised by the figure of Blanco before her rescue by God’s Gardeners and the scars of this trauma sit with her through Crake’s manmade plague and into the post-apocalyptic world it leaves behind. It is significant too, that in MaddAddam it is Toby’s voice who takes on the God-like role in telling stories to the innocent Crakers (genetically modified humans created by Crake to repopulate the earth), stories that are set down with real religious significance to the Crakers. This voice effectively replaces the sermonic voice of Adam One that runs through the narrative of Year, the suggestion being that, with the fall of the pre-apocalyptic patriarchal order in which female function is predominantly performative and sexual (encapsulated in the club scales and tails where women dance and perform sexual acts in elaborate, dehumanising costumes) so has the patriarchal voice fallen to be replaced by a feminine authority.

I happen to disagree with Margaret Atwood in her rejection of the term science fiction but this is only because I agree with the commonly held principal of SF as a ‘literature of ideas’ and the Oryx and Crake trilogy is most certainly that.

 

 

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Graphic Grief: Tangles and Fun Home

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I’d like to preface this post by pointing out that I know next to nothing about graphic novels. It’s a form I’ve come to recently, initially through Alan Moore’s Watchmen (my fiancé was reading it on holiday a while ago and I found myself reading over his shoulder) and want to learn more about. These two could not be more different from the school of superhero Watchmen sits in. Both Alison Bechdel and Sarah Leavitt use the graphic form to record memoirs that are structured, each in their own way, around the death of a parent. There are other similarities between these texts too, both explore lesbian experience and both articulate the profound impact of parents on the discovery and formation of personal identity.

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Fun Home excavates the complex relationship between daughter and father in the wake of the father’s suicide. Bechdel weaves her own sexual development around the realisation and acceptance of her father’s own sexual complexity. The plot resists linearity and instead derives from the fluctuating emotional distance between father and daughter. It is variously funny and raw in its interrogation of this central relationship and the dynamic of “butch” and “sissy” with which Bechdel characterises it. It is wonderful in its frankness, not only in laying bare such a complicated and at times painful personal relationship but in the anecdotal material Bechdel shares. These details and rounded images lend warmth to her story and perhaps belie the deep affection between father and daughter that underpins the state of conflict they often appear in.

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Leavitt’s Tangles is starker. It is more intensely focused on illness and a family’s experience of Alzheimer’s. It is unforgiving in its portrayal of the condition and it is hard to read in places as a result. The pictures have less detail, are drawn in clear harsh lines and place the deterioration of Midge, Leavitt’s mother, at the centre of everything. There is less emphasis on the past except to draw harrowing comparisons with the present. Loss is a gradual erosion of person and memory and Leavitt is uncompromising in her portrayal of this most devastating disease. This book has sharp edges. It is extremely difficult to read in places and I found myself having to put it to one side at times while I stopped crying. It’s not just the bastard impact of a brain shutting down that is rendered so painfully here but also the fracturing responses of a family having to deal with it. Leavitt conveys the intensity of pain, confusion, frustration and utter bewilderment that she and her family feel in the outright cruelty of her mother’s death; mind first, body later.

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The graphic memoir is growing as a genre. There is something about a page full of images that replicates human memory and invites autobiography. The power to redraw moments of the personal past and comment on them must offer a sort of catharsis, reading them certainly does. It affords a space for self-analysis and augments the emotional intensity of experience. It lends itself especially to examinations of parental relationships: the images we hold of our parents shift and blur as we grow up and the graphic form affords the flexibility to explore and explain these images in fullness and depth. I am keeping Tangles on my bedside table at the moment and I intend to revisit it; it moved me and; a year after a comparable personal loss in my own life, I’m unwilling to put it back on the shelf just yet.

Burnt Shadows, Kamila Shamsie

First, an apology for the long dearth of posts. It has been something of a busy few months what with Christmas, getting engaged (whoop whoop!), a trip to Iceland and of course the mania that is term time all getting in the way at various points. Apologies made, I’d like to talk about this stunning novel by Kamila Shamsie. Burnt Shadows opens with the devastating words, “The one who survives…”; words all the more haunting because this story’s moment is established as “The world yet unknowing”: Nagasaki hours before the atomic bomb is dropped. Shamsie traces the life of Hiroko, the young Japanese woman whose fiancé is killed, in the aftermath of the bomb and beyond. Her life is intricately woven about political events in India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and America through partition and the emergence of a politicised fundamentalist Islam into the aftershocks of 9/11.

It is an incredibly compelling novel. The writing is crystalline: characters are drawn with a deft sharpness carried into the dialogue. Their voices are deep and whole and, whilst the narrative unfolds around Hiroko those she encounters, loves, loses are etched with just as much care and detail. The story, though, skips great chunks of Hiroko’s life, structuring the narrative around moments of political conflict. We see intensely felt segments of Hiroko’s life, patterned with violence and loss focused in her own body, in her own extraordinary scars.

At the moment the bomb drops Hiroko is wearing a dressing gown that belonged to her mother, it is white silk with three swooping black cranes on the back. In the heat and radiation of the explosion the black silk fuses into her flesh, searing the shadows of that day and her own heritage into her skin as one. She sees her father burning, his skin gone crawling towards her, she finds and buries the shadow she believes to be what’s left of the man from Berlin. She will lose more.

The scarring on Hiroko’s back runs through the novel like a thread, connecting each seemingly distinct event, the recurrence of the motif (Hiroko’s hand unconsciously drifts to her back in moments of crisis) not only expose the inherent political interconnectedness of these events. But, more than that, they identify the locus of such violence as the female body. Each of the men Hiroko loses are killed violently and it is she that remains, gathering and bearing these scars but living on nonetheless. Hiroko’s body takes on the quality of a landscape damaged by war but resilient in its continued existence. Without wanting to give anything away, Hiroko’s final loss is, perhaps, not final but it is all the more chilling in its uncertainty. Not least in the context of recent revelations regarding Guantanamo Bay and other US black sites. It seems to mark a departure from the pattern established by the rest of the novel: the male body may survive here but it will not emerge unscathed and will soon bear scars of its own.

It is also refreshing to read an account of the twentieth century that resists and in fact critiques some of the received wisdoms intrinsic to an Anglo-American perspective. Especially in the early pages: Shamsie’s brutal imagining of the moments in the aftermath of the bomb are juxtaposed with the brutal selfishness of the American nurse who claims its necessity “to save American lives.” I’m sure there are plenty of alternative narratives out there (even calling them alternative feels like I’m doing them a disservice) and I feel remiss for not having sought them out proactively but this is now a pressing task on my to do list.

To conclude: thoroughly recommend – in spite of the really quite appalling front cover – get past it and let the story take over.

‘Bliss’, Katherine Mansfield (1920)

Although Berth Young was thirty she still had moments like this when she wanted to run instead of walk, to take dancing steps on and off the pavement, to bowl a hoop, to throw something up in the air and catch it again, or to stand still and laugh at – nothing – at nothing, simply. What can you do if you are thirty and, turning the corner of your own street, you are overcome, suddenly, by a feeling of bliss – absolute bliss!

Bertha Young is childlike from the outset, apart from the obvious connotations of her surname, she is connected with her daughter ‘Little B’ whom she displays a curious “fondness” for (“you’re nice – you’re very nice!… I like you.”) and is even explicitly figured “like the poor little girl in front of the rich little girl with the doll” in her relationship with Nurse. This childlike character is throwing a dinner party for her “thrilling friends” and brimming with, “bliss”. This “perfect” happiness is felt as an almost obliterative, manic, sexual energy, “as though you’d suddenly swallowed a bright piece of the late afternoon sun and it burned in your bosom, sending out a little shower of sparks into every particle, into every finger and toe?…” And the source of this “bliss”? Not the “extravagantly cool” Harry, Bertha’s husband, but the ethereal Pearl Fulton, her latest “find” whom she has “fallen in love with… as she always did fall in love with beautiful young women who had something strange about them.”

The evening progresses and the comically named Norman Knights (or “Mug” and “Face as they refer to each other) become increasingly grotesque; even on arrival Face looks “like a very intelligent monkey – who had even made that yellow silk dress out of scraped banana skins.” The dreadfully affected Eddie Warren who speaks in italics and recites poems about Tomato Soup arrives “(as usual) in a state of acute distress”. Only Miss Fulton whose very touch “could fan – fan – start blazing – blazing – the fire of bliss that Bertha did not know what to do with” remains exempt from the absurdity of the party. Bertha feels sure that they share something, that “Miss Fulton, ‘gave the sign.'” and as the two women look on “slender flowering [pear] tree” in the moonlit garden the narrative reaches a climactic moment of connection between them, orgasmic in the imagining:

Although it was so still it seemed, like the flame of the candle, to stretch up, to point, to quiver in the bright air, to grow taller and taller as they gazed – almost to touch the rim of the round silver moon. How long did they stand there? Both, as it were, caught in the circle of unearthly light, understanding each other perfectly, creatures of another world, and wondering what they were to do in this one with all this blissful treasure that burned in their bosoms and dropped, in silver flowers, from their hair and hands?

Bertha experiences a sexual awakening in her communion with Miss Fulton and with it she feels finally able to transcend the realm of “such good pals” in which her marital relationship has languished as “for the first time, she desired her husband”, only to have her revelations shattered in a moment of supreme bathos which, for fear of spoilers, I won’t reveal here.

The narrative is undulating and elliptical, Mansfield’s use of free indirect discourse creates a space between Bertha’s perceptions and her realities and it’s a space to be identified in the dashes and ellipses of her voice. There are moments of direct expression that jar against the very mannered style of Bertha’s own speech and here, the reader suspects, is a more reliable source only glimpsed as Bertha pauses for breath. This flexibility of perspective and voice renders the final realisation all the more effective. It also elucidates the disparity between Bertha’s perceptions and the truth: the first word of the story, ‘Although’, flags that all is not as it seems. These flags continue to pop with Bertha’s frustration at having “a body shut up like a rare, rare fiddle” and “how idiotic civilisation” is; indeed the change in tone with the arrival of the dinner guests serves to further discomfit the reader, especially as Bertha becomes increasingly assured in her perceived connection with Miss Fulton culminating in their mutual gaze on the “lovely pear tree”.

The same pear tree that earlier Bertha has replicated in her “scheme” of “a white dress, a string of jade beads, green shoes and stockings” and where she saw, “a grey cat , dragging its belly… across the lawn, and a black one, its shadow, trailed after it.” The same sight that elicits “a curious shiver” and causes her to exclaim: “What creepy things cats are!”. Even the pear tree that Bertha identifies both herself and Miss Fulton with as a symbol of perfection is shadowed by an unsettling sexuality Mansfield later recalls using the same image of feline motion. The variety of meanings that have been attributed to the pear tree itself range from the phallocentric hardness of Harry (whose only interest in his daughter appears in the context of sexuality – “I shan’t feel the slightest interest in her until she takes a lover” – and who so relishes dismembering Miss Fulton as if he is almost running his hands over her body, “liver frozen…pure flatulence..kidney disease”); the langorous sexuality of Pearl with her “heavy eyelids” and “moonbeam fingers” or Bertha’s own sexual potentiality. The pear tree, then, is a composite symbol drawing these spectral sexualities together in the same uncertain, enigmatic way that the story itself characterises sexual possibility as fundamentally unknowable and uncertain.

The Ladies’ Paradise, Émile Zola: ‘a poem to modern activity’

This was not my first encounter with Zola but it was certainly my first successful one. When I was seventeen I tried to read L’Assomoir in French and, perhaps unsurprisingly, did not get very far. I’ve always been a bit wary of texts in translation for the simple reason that a bad translation can ruin a wonderful book; a wariness much exacerbated by some rather dry, dense translations of Sartre which put me off him for a good while. Brian Nelson’s translation of Au Bonheur des Dames suffers no such impediments and unfamiliar with the story (in spite of the BBCs recent adaptation) I thoroughly enjoyed it, cracking through all 432 pages at speed. It was especially fun to read during a road trip across the south of France which encompassed Zola’s hometown of Aix-en-Provence.

The reader is drawn into the compelling and colourful world of the grand department store, The Paradise, with the same force that it entrances and fascinates our heroine: the young and innocent Denise Baudu. In the opening pages, Denise and her brothers Jean and Pépé arrive in Paris in search of their Uncle and stumble across The Ladies’ Paradise. The effect is immediate and emotional: ‘this building which seemed so enormous, brought a lump to her throat and held her rooted to the spot, excited, fascinated, oblivious to everything else.’ The shop windows are an orgy of energy and colour where the…

…umbrellas, placed obliquely, seemed to form the roof of some rustic hut, beneath which, suspended from rods and displaying the rounded outline of calves, were silk stockings, some strewn with bunches of roses, others of every hue – black net, red with embroidered clocks, flesh-coloured ones with a satiny texture which had the softness of a blonde woman’s skin…

Throughout the novel we are treated to these sensuous, vibrant descriptions of the shop and its wares. Consumption is sexualised to the point of fetishism, the calculating owner Octave Mouret sees his customers – the ladies of Paris ‘pale with desire’ – as objects for seduction: ‘His sole passion was the conquest of Woman.’ The act of selling becomes one of erotic manipulation and the great sales that structure the novel constitute moments of collective abandon, exemplified in the final climactic sale, ‘In the trousseau department’, where:

…all discretion was abandoned: women were turned round and viewed from below, from the ordinary housewife with her common calicoes to the rich lady smothered in lace; it was an alcove open to the public, whose hidden luxury, its platings and embroideries and Valenciennes lace, deprived the senses as it overflowed in costly fantasies.

Mouret’s personal seductions are as numerous and successful as those of his shop, until of course, he meets the steadfast and ‘gentle’ Denise who will not be so easily overwhelmed. Indeed, through Denise ‘the women’ will ‘have their revenge’ as predicted to Mouret himself early in the novel.

Accompanying this strain of eroticism runs a parallel current of violence; the above description of the ‘calves’ is one of many in which the body is distorted and dismembered into fragments: ‘the mirrors made the departments recede further into the distance, reflecting the displays together with patches of the public – faces in reverse, bits of shoulders and arms’. The disturbing image of the mannequins, figures of the female body, decapitated ‘each one had a little wooden handle, like the handle of a dagger, stuck in the red flannel which seemed to be bleeding where the neck had been severed’ is emblematic of the violent commodification of the female body Mouret deals in.

The Paradise itself is figured as a machine, albeit a machine that is ‘based on the flesh and blood of Woman’ and as such it is rendered a symbol of a nascent modernity driven by capital and technology. Zola set out his intentions in his notes; he wanted to write, ‘the poem of modern activity. Hence a complete shift of philosophy: ‘no more pessimism, first of all. Don’t conclude with the stupidity and sadness of life. Instead, conclude with its continual labour, the power and gaiety that comes from its productivity. In a word, go along with the century, express the century, which is a century of action and conquest, of effort in every direction.’ This ‘effort in every direction’ is captured in the relentless expansion of the physical building even at the expense of the old, family shops in the vicinity and of course, at the expense of those families themselves. The new, specifically urban space of the department store is characterised by ‘the crush’ of the crowd and the ‘madness in the air’ that brings with it.

The productivity of Mouret’s machine is inextricable from a Darwinian brutality that sustains both the structure and the dominance of the shop. It is destructive and frequently figured as ‘monstrous’ in its mechanisation and power. Even Denise whose ‘coming was to be a revenge’ is shocked ‘by its brutal operation’. Indeed Denise who is characterised throughout as ‘gentle’ and acts as a humanising influence on both man and monster cannot stem the ‘force which was carrying everything before it.’

Inexorable progress and forward propulsion beat through the novel like the shop itself, ‘regulated and organized with the remorselessness of a machine: the vast horde of women were as if caught in the wheels of an inevitable force.’ It surges forward, driven by Mouret’s speculative approach, attention fixed firmly on the future as the present dissipates into money already made and the next sale holds promises of greater profits; The Paradise remains a machine clothed in luxurious silks – and all for a reasonable price.

The Rachel Papers, Martin Amis (1973)

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I’ve read quite a bit of Amis and The Rachel Papers has been on my list/ever-increasing pile of ‘to-reads’ since I picked up this copy in an Oxfam Bookshop last summer. Finally managing to crack into the reading you’ve been dreaming of intermittently during the mania of term time is like a sigh of relief and, knowing absolutely nothing about the story (save that it clearly involved someone called Rachel) I was looking forward to digging into my reading list with this slim volume.

Amis’ debut novel is narrated by the objectionable soon-to-be-twenty-year-old Charles Highway. On the eve of his twentieth birthday he is getting his affairs (as it were, forgive the pun…) in order. In going over his journals and records of sexual encounters he guides the reader through his transition from adolescence to adulthood. At the centre of this comic and very physical coming of age is Highway’s pursuit of and subsequent relationship with Rachel the (not very much) older woman that he has fantasised about sleeping with before he turns twenty. Highway is fascinated by his own body and holds his “secret bathroom hours” in almost religious reverence, he is hypochondrial and revels in those aspects of bodily existence that might leave others revolted. I think this is what makes the text feel a bit dated: the graphically
explicit sexual and physical descriptions may have proved more shocking in the early Seventies (?) or at least more outlandish but now, with the power of Youtube and television programmes like Embarrassing Bodies this sort of demystification is commonplace.

The narrative voice is engaging and distinctive; Highway is not a pleasant or particularly sympathetic character but he is at least a convincing one. The trouble is that so much energy is drawn into framing him that the others feel two dimensional and under-developed as if they were Highway’s own creations and exist only on the pages he is sifting through. This is problematic not only in and of itself but because it leaves the reader with no-one to care about and adds to the unavoidable feeling of, ‘Meh…. So what?’ at the end of the book.

And that is the key issue here: the plot lacks any kind of intensity and any real action. I was left thinking: OK, that obnoxious little bastard turned twenty, got his own way on every possible front and learnt absolutely nothing in the process. There is no life-changing moment, no comeuppance and indeed no sense that Highway has in any way come of age. The young Amis is technically excellent though here and the structure of the novel acts as a counterpoint to lack of movement in the narrative: the countdown to midnight drives the reader and in combination with the long, pacy speeches that become characteristic of the narrative voice the reader is almost tricked into believing that the plot is really developing. It feels like a debut novel: flawed in construction but with elements that are brilliantly executed. Perhaps a coming of age for the novelist himself. What do you lovely people think? Would be very interested to hear thoughts below…

NB You’ll notice that I linked to a site called hive rather than to Amazon – this is because it sources at local independent bookshops for delivery and we love our independent bookshops don’t we?

A note on contemporary literary fiction

Contemporary literary fiction is a problematic term. It is extremely difficult to define and as a result, any discussion risks devolving into either an exercise in exclusion and inflexibility, or, an augmentation of the nebulous that becomes so vague as to be entirely diffuse. These issues have been well-documented and well-bemoaned in recent years, as have countless debates on the quality of writing that is being produced in the name of contemporary literary fiction; or rather more frequently, the lack thereof. I wouldn’t pretend to have any answers (should such things exist…) to these central problems and I certainly would not dare to make any such sweeping judgments about ‘the state of literature today’; rather, I thought I’d lay out a few points, which to me, feel most pertinent to the discussion.

As I have said already, literary fiction is incredibly tricky to define; I suspect though, that most would agree it is a label implying a sense of seriousness and technical ambition. It is certainly distinct from ‘genre fiction’ (crime, fantasy, romance) and is by and large perceived as superior, perhaps wielding a bit more intellectual clout than its genre siblings. The ‘contemporary’ element is an interesting one: whilst in this context, we may safely assume ‘contemporary’ to mean current, the majority of academic courses that cover ‘contemporary’ literature reach back into the late seventies or early eighties, further complicating any judgments or statements we may wish to make about contemporary literary fiction.

Putting aside these complexities of definition for a moment, it may be more helpful to consider the ways in which both reading and writing have changed since the early eighties. To my mind there have been two significant influences on the mechanics of writing and publishing, the first being the proliferation of creative writing courses at academic institutions; the second being, of course, the internet.

In The Salon article I linked to above, creative writing courses were being held responsible for raising some terrible writers to a level of competence and thus further abetting the corruption of contemporary literary fiction. Whilst I am sure that this is to some extent true, I think these courses have also had a wonderfully clarifying effect for writers. They offer a real sense of a craft, of an apprenticeship and encourage a critical, self-appraising approach to writing, formalising aspects of the creative process and helping writers to hone a style. There are the inevitable arguments that these courses are factory-like and become criteria-centric, churning out little replica Raymond Carvers whilst stifling originality. That is to say, graduates of these courses come out able to write in a very disciplined, carefully constructed but totally unimaginative way. To this, I am inclined to say: rubbish. I’m sure that it can be and is true of some writers but what does a truly creative mind respond to more fervently than an establishment, or ‘old school’ to react against?

Further to this, I cannot see how learning the basics in a formal context can do any writer any harm. Art is a useful point of reference here, consider Picasso’s early work: he learnt to draw under his father and mastered academic classicism, a far more realistic (is that fair to say?) mode of representation before developing the Cubism of his masterpieces (NB massive over-simplification for sake of brevity). Surely, it is far easier to break and reinvent the rules if you have developed a proficient, working knowledge of them?

It is impossible to overestimate the impact of the internet on literally anything, let alone the way we write and the way we read. Apart from anything else, the sheer volume of material available through the internet is staggering and this in itself requires a more discerning approach to both reading and writing; the reader must filter through the rubbish and make judgments on quality that we were previously not empowered to make. The writer must decide where and how their work should be distributed; they in turn have to filter through the extraordinary levels of chatter to find their audience and speak to it. We are exposed to an awful lot of stuff and some of it is, of course, dreadful, the dreadful has outlets that it did not have before and so more is required of us. We have to work out what we don’t like and why we don’t like it, which is – as both writer and reader – a really useful exercise; and just as YouTube gives a stage to some terrible singing, it has also brought to prominence some very talented musicians (and cats). New voices have any number of ways to speak, the difficulty of course is making yourself heard above the noise.

Writers, as we all do, now have far greater access to information than ever before. This sounds incredibly obvious but just as information is now available second hand so is experience. This has real implications for both the scope and authenticity of contemporary writing: if I want to write about the war in Afghanistan there are plenty of first hand accounts, videos, news-reports, blogs, poems, photos all available to click on and immerse myself in. On the one hand, research has never been easier and the experience of others more accessible; on the other, exposure becomes increasingly removed from experience. I can expose myself to all number of materials and build a narrative around them without feeling the heat of the desert. Now this is not to suggest that first-hand experience is a prerequisite for effective storytelling but it is to say that as our knowledge of the world and its affairs is increasing, our experiential understanding of it is shrinking.

This evaluative obsession with quality does appear though to be a very contemporary preoccupation and I do wonder whether it is in itself indicative of our culture of self-reflection and introspection. It seems to me that the ongoing dissection of literary fiction might be considered as much a symptom of this culture as that infamous emblem of social media, the selfie.

The Passion of New Eve, Angela Carter (1977)

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The Passion of New Eve follows the transformative punishment of Evelyn (who begins the story as a young Englishman) that sees him surgically re-sculpted into Eve. Evelyn impregnates and abandons the inchoate Leilah who once danced “a dance called the End of the World, to lead the unwary into temptation –“ and is left bleeding and sterile by the Haitian abortionist. Evelyn flees the streets of a nightmarish, dissolute imagining of New York for the unforgiving sterility of the desert. There he is captured and cast before Mother, an absurd rendering of a fertility goddess who:

…had reconstructed her flesh painfully, with knives and needles into a transcendental form as an emblem, as an example, and flung a patchwork quilt stitched from her daughters’ breasts over the cathedral of her interior, the cave within the cave.

Mother exacts vengeance on Evelyn for his crimes against women and intends the re-enactment of the Immaculate Conception until she flees. In her flight, Eve soon comes under the power of Zero the poet, with one eye and seven (soon to be eight) wives whom he rapes and beats, raging against the moviestar and “dyke” Tristessa, object of Eve’s obsession, who he believes has stolen his fertility. The revelation of Tristessa’s own secret follows before the third and final phase of Eve’s journey begins: she is captured once again and finds herself a maternal comfort to the Colonel of the boy soldiers who weeps at her breast. Ultimately the apocalyptic vision of the novel comes to fruition in the multi-factioned civil war; the skies burst with flames and Eve must move forward, at once towards her past and future.

Carter’s prose is described as “pyrotechnic” in a quotation from The Observer on the front cover and that it certainly is. Graphic, colourful and lurid Carter crafts a surreal dystopia structured around mythologies and iconographies of the sexed body. It is through these mythic re-imaginings that Carter exposes the inherent inadequacy of the binarism that underpins them: a matriarchy founded on motherhood is a matriarchy defined by phallocentric conceptions of femininity as evidenced by the symbol of the “truncated phallus” by which those women define themselves. The images that Evelyn is shown during his metamorphosis in order to feminise him psychologically reinforce a phallocentric conception of a femininity that is passive, malleable and receptive: “…sea-anemones opening and closing; caves, with streams issuing from them; roses opening to admit a bee; the sea, the moon…”

The body in this world is amorphous and through Eve/lyn’s transformation and indeed through the absurd Tiresian figure of Tristessa, Carter excavates the connections and disparities between “the essence and appearance”. The opening passages detail Leilah’s ritualised robing in which the reflection of her body in the cracked mirror (an image that recurs throughout the novel) acts a blank canvas for her to decorate and costume as if for some grotesque carnival:

…applying rouge to her nether lips and the purple or peony of scarlet grease around her mouth and nipples; powders and unguents all the colours of the rainbow went on to the skin in the sockets of her eyes…

Leilah’s performance and manipulation of the body in a way foreshadows the blankness and potentiality of Eve’s rebirth. Once Evelyn’s emasculation is complete she exists as “a tabula erasa, a blank sheet of paper, an unhatched egg. I hae not yet become a woman, although I possess a woman’s shape. Not a woman, no: both more and less than a real woman.” Eve learns to perform her new sex whether in the role of Zero’s eighth wife, Tristessa’s lover or as comfort to the boy soldier who weeps. However, “to become” a woman in this novel is to be defined by phallocentric expectation of womanhood as symbolised in the rapist Zero, the murderous boy soldier and the “mythic and monstrous” Mother. The body exists as an instrument of performance but the performance is of a gender defined by sex: even Tristessa, whose “name has all the poignancy of hopelessness in its whispering sibilants” is forced to embrace the gender expectations intrinsic to his biology.

The ideas Carter dramatizes here are articulated explicitly in her work The Sadeian Woman and the Ideology of Pornography, published the year after this novel in 1978. It is heavily informed by a variety of feminist writings, not least of all Julia Kristeva and Hélène Cixous, and if these questions of gender and performance interest you I would also recommend digging into some Judith Butler. Next up for me… am I finally going to crack into The Luminaries?

Crome Yellow, Aldous Huxley

Crome Yellow, 1921
Crome Yellow, 1921

The country house of Crome welcomes “a painter, a poet, a spiritual journalist and ladies of assorted morals” to a house-party. The plot follows our weak, frustrated hero Denis in his ill-fated endeavours in love and literature alike. The other members of the party as absurd as they are unlikeable and some of the most compelling moments of narrative in the book are derived from the history of the home itself as retold by its now mast, Henry Wimbush. The novel is biting, almost spitting, in its satire on early twentieth century social interaction, I was reminded of Eliot’s earlier poetry particularly, “The women” who “come and go/ Talking of Michaelangelo” in ‘The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock’. In fact Denis himself seems trapped in an almost Prufockian state of inaction as he laments actions he should have taken and moments that pass ungrasped. The cover picture displayed above captures this sense of futility, the men and women pictured as uniform figures on a carousel by Mark Gettler in ‘The Merry Go Round’ (c.1916), mouths open as if in infinite, uncommunicative conversation.

The story itself is hard work, and whilst I’m sure some of that could be happily attributed to brain-bleeding tiredness, it lacks pace and direction. The most interesting aspects are the ideas that the characters give voice to, indeed, poor Denis, indecisive and suggestible, at the best of times is left utterly bewildered by the range and ferocity of opinions that batter him during his stay at Crome. Perhaps the most sinister character Huxley creates here is Mr Scogan and it is through him that we see a prefiguring of the ideas that were to shape Brave New World. He asserts that “men of intelligence must combine, must conspire, and seize power…They must found the Rational State” assigning people roles in society to which they are best suited (though sees no place for Denis, our poet). He envisages the replacement of “Nature’s hideous system” with “vast state incubators, rows upon rows of gravid bottles will supply the world with the population it requires. The family system will disappear; society, sapped at its very base, will have to find new foundations; and Eros, beautifully and irresponsibly free, will flit like a gay butterfly from flower to flower through a sunlit world.”

These ideas, nascent here, come to fruition in Brave New World, arguably the most influential works of science fiction of the last century. Images of human hatcheries and World Controllers are at their most powerful when shaping that narrative; they are terrifying when imagined as an actual future rather than proffered as one possible direction the future might take as they are in the set piece speeches of Crome Yellow. In a way, the whole novel feels like a musing, a writer who is flexing and stretching, toying with ideas still in their formative stages. It’s impossible to come to Crome Yellow without a sense that Brave New World is hovering nearby (even though it wasn’t published until 1932, a full 11 years after Huxley’s first full length work). Whilst I didn’t particularly enjoy Crome Yellow in its own right, the two novels held alongside each other show the genesis of a mind grappling uneasily with a past fast-slipping away and a fascination, perhaps a fearful one, with what the world that replaces it will look like.