Wednesday, July 07, 2004

NOSTALGIA--OLD REVIEWS

In compiling my nonfiction collection (Why Should I Cut Your Throat?) for Monkey Brain Books, a fair amount of material has had to be left out--for reasons of space, but also just because some stuff doesn't fit. I'm going to post some of it here from time to time over the next few months, if it still seems relevant. For example, this review of a Carter collection couldn't be included because there's a long, 10K-word essay on Carter in Why Should I Cut Your Throat? already.

Jeff

AMERICAN GHOSTS & OLD WORLD WONDERS
by Angela Carter

With this posthumous collection Angela Carter - that bawdy, irreverent witch of fantastic (and fantastical) literature - gives up the ghost, relinquishes her mastery, and, still balling the muse, allows us to observe, as if in the harsh, glacial light of the morning after the carnival has left town, the bare but incredibly beautiful bones of her work.

For bones there are aplenty in American Ghosts & Old World Wonders - and tricks, too, even with the carnival loaded up, pulled out, left for another town. In previous collections - Fireworks, The Bloody Chamber, Saints and Strangers (Black Venus in the U.K.) - Carter delighted in revealing the gears, wheels, cogs, and wires behind her illusions and in American Ghosts this does not change, except that here some of the illusions are incomplete, the tricks revealed while in progress. To Carter's credit, the collection rises above the flotsam and jetsam of minor stories and fragments; even the worst stories show flashes of brilliance.

Most of the nine stories in American Ghosts mirror or expand on Carter's interest in her penultimate collection Saints and Strangers, in which she plotted the loci at which Old and New Worlds intersect by cataloguing the secret motivations of such historical characters as Edgar Allen Poe, Baudelaire, and Lizzie Borden.

Whereas Saints began with the taut psychodrama "The Fall River Axe Murders," a clinical examination of the twenty-four hours before Borden killed her parents, American Ghosts begins with a story of Borden's childhood entitled "Lizzie's Tiger." The story hinges on Lizzie's adventures after wandering off during a circus performance; eventually, she meets a dirty old man who makes her touch his privates. Unfortunately, despite dazzling language and insightful character studies, "Lizzie's Tiger" has neither the precision nor the narrative pull of the earlier "Fall River Axe Murders." Most damaging, the story's denouement has no sense of closure; the reader, like Lizzie, waits for something more to happen and it never does. Carter planned to write a novel about Borden and perhaps, as Susannah Clapp suggests in her introduction, "Taken together [the two stories] show what a fine, fierce book we might have had."

If "Lizzie's Tiger" reads like a character sketch, "John Ford's `Tis Pity She's A Whore" reveals Carter at the top of her form. Carter imagines an incestuous western love affair between Johnny (Giovanni) and Annie-Belle (Annabella) as if written by John Ford the English dramatist of the Jacobean period and filmed by John Ford the American director. Beneath the tragic surface lies undeniable wit, the story occupying territory somewhere between Shakespeare and Cormac McCarthy. Carter adds her own touches by commenting directly to the reader, a technique coupled with startling but effective juxtapositions of dialogue:

ANNIE-BELLE: I count myself fortunate to have found forgiveness.
JOHNNY: What are you going to tell Daddy?
ANNIE-BELLE: I'm going out west.
GIOVANNI: What, chang'd so soon! hath your new sprightly lord
Found out a trick in night-games more than we
Could have known in our simplicity? Ha! is't so?



Self-conscious devices have always been Carter's forte and in "John Ford's `Tis Pity She's A Whore" these devices enhance the tragic implications while, on another level, lending the story a mischievously operatic feel.

Between "John Ford's..." and the wonderful "Alice in Prague, or The Curious Room" the reader will find several colorful shards and baubles of stories and ideas that magpies like myself will carry away with delight but which anyone besides a Carter completist will, at best, consider once-used costume jewelry. The lone exception, "The Merchant of Shadows," serves as a fun footnote to her 1977 novel The Passion of New Eve. The story's exploration of Hollywood and film roles is marred mostly by its traditional structure. Also worth noting is "Ashputtle or The Mother's Ghost" which, with its alternate versions of the Cinderella fairy tale, reads like an addendum to The Bloody Chamber.

Neither tale breaks any new ground for Carter, unlike the best story in American Ghosts, "Alice in Prague, or The Curious Room." What is the curious room?


There is a theory, one I find persuasive, that the quest for knowledge is, at bottom, the search for the answer to the question: "Where was I before I was born?"

In the beginning was . . . what?

Perhaps, in the beginning there was a curious room, a room like this one, crammed with wonders; and now the room and all it contains are forbidden you, although it was made just for you, had been prepared for you since time began, and you will spend all your life trying to remember it.


What can I say about this story except that it defiantly breaks every rule of the conventional short story - zero dialogue; didactic lecturing; no plot - and yet, such a beautiful and self-contained fiction about the crosshatching, the conflict, between science/logic and non-sense, Carter defining the word much as Lewis Carroll might have: ". . . the world of non-sense . . . is constructed by logical deduction and is created by language, although language shivers into abstractions within it." To summarize the story is to tell it over again; suffice it to report that Alice, Tycho Brahe, and Carmen Miranda make important cameos in one guise or another. The fructi-fornicating Archduke Randolph with his lively edible loves is a particular treat for those readers who possess both high and low senses of humor. How can Carter juggle so many apposites? Answer: easily.

Perhaps American Ghosts & Old World Wonders should share the title of her first collection, Fireworks. For, like that first collection, this last collection flares and fizzles and, every so often, explodes into such a profusion of light and magic that the images are still imprinted on your retinas the day after, even in the glare of morning, the carnival gone and never to return. At the end, Carter has come back to the beginning precisely because then, as now, she could never resist going farther than she should, certain that if her reach should exceed her grasp the only thing for it was to reach even farther.

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