A Nuclear Eden: Return to Angela Carter’s “Heroes & Villains”

Man, remember how I said Anna Karenina was the most heterosexual novel I’d ever read? I must have forgotten this bristly little gem.

Heroes and Villains is relatively early Carter, from 1969 (see here for some notes on her first and last novels). It tells the story of Marianne, a Professor’s daughter who lives in a literal ivory(-colored) tower, and Jewel, the Barbarian she first encounters as he’s killing her brother. It’s a fairy tale and a piece of Bible fanfiction, set in a postapocalyptic England where mutant Out People wander the ruined cities and you might die from a swim in the lion-colored sea. All the contrasts are heightened: citizen vs. outcast, savage vs. scientist, sheltered vs. desperate; and man against woman.

Ah, this is such a great, ferocious novel. Marianne and Jewel need each other without wanting each other. Their days are spent in marital bitterness and their nights are a river of fire beneath the blankets. Their union is a power struggle in which every victory leaves the winner confused and hurting. He rapes her–he rapes her and hits her, you might want to know that going in. And yet when she sees and responds to his vulnerability it doesn’t come across like a cheap authorial plea for pity. Nor is she exercising heroic forgiveness. She’s capitulating to her own extremely heterosexual empathy, and to the fact that she and Jewel find in each other, against their will, “some clue to survival in this inimical world.”

They are both hard and exposed, frightening and threatened; and alone, and unsure if it’s better to be alone together or if it’s just inevitable. They are defined by their headlong plunge toward one another, they are each the arrow for the other’s target and vice versa, just like in the Theology of the Body, if it were written by Catholic artist John Darnielle. They live in a time when all the animals are losing their names, and yet they can’t seem to lose theirs, they are always, inescapably, together He and She. Together one animal.

“Who do you see when you see me?” she asked him, burying her own face in his bosom.

“Do you want the truth?”

She nodded.

“The firing squad.”

“That’s not the whole truth. Try again.”

“Insatiability,” he said with some bitterness.

“That’s oblique but altogether too simple. Once more,” she insisted. “One more time.”


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