Hazard and Dance: Revisiting Two Angela Carter Novels

Back in high school I’m not sure I read any author as obsessively as I read Angela Carter. I gobbled everything I could get my hands on. I loved her ferocity, her voracity, that hedonistic prose, reading her is like eating cake with too much frosting, it smears all over your face. (She overworked comma splices the way I abuse semicolons. The comma splice is the grammatical form of rush and ecstasy, headlong and greedy, each phrase spilling out of its blouse; the semicolon is for the wry undercutting contrast.) I recently re-read her first and last novels, 1966’s Shadow Dance (published in the US as Honeybuzzard) and 1991’s Wise Children. They were still great pleasures. Some scattered notes:

* Shadow Dance has already so many of her characteristic images and situations: the inexplicably-attractive monster; the girl who likes violence; the sinister toymaker. I think of her as an intensely heterosexual writer, but here, she lets the friendship of two men be a site of violent neediness and bad love.

It’s about a sad-sack married man whose best friend, the volatile Honeybuzzard, probably carved up his ex-girlfriend and sent her to the hospital. Here she is back, and here he is back, and our sad-sack chooses Honeybuzzard but finds both he and she pretty vampiric. The mutual vampirism in his friendship with Honeybuzzard is threatened by the mutual vampirism Honeybuzzard practiced with the carved-up Ghislaine.

* It’s also, on a different level, about the Sixties and the transition into the post-Sexual Revolution world, “Sexual intercourse began/In nineteen sixty-three…” etc. I definitely did not notice this the first time. The old world is stultifying and marital, or celibate and abandoned; the new world is androgynous and violent. This easy opposition is somewhat complicated by the arrival of a new girl, Honeybuzzard’s latest flame, a lapsed Catholic who possibly offers a fertile (if somewhat self-absorbed) heterosexuality in opposition to the blurring of sexualities and sexes which Honeybuzzard provokes. Hot stuff though as always nobody nowadays seems capable of even imagining a living form of monasticism.

* I liked Shadow Dance okay, but Wise Children was a real treat. It’s the story of Nora and Dora Chance, illegitimate daughters of a lion of the legitimate theater. Dora’s refrain is, “What a joy it is to dance and sing!”, and she keeps saying she’ll draw a veil over the harder parts of her eighty years of life as chorine and gamine and soubrette but those painful realities keep poking through her garrulous, confiding prose. Even though Dora and Nora aren’t the Shakespeareans in the family, their lives are full of bed tricks (they are one of FIVE count ’em FIVE pairs of twins in this novel), revivals from the dead, long-lost siblings, scheming, poison, incest, silent reconciliations and spectacular refusals to forgive, two disastrous plays-within-the-play, a coronation–everything but “Exit, pursued by a bear.”

It took me a while to warm to our Dora. Her narrative voice is confident and harshly judgmental, and I wasn’t as impressed by her contempts as the book seems to think I’ll be. Still, we definitely get enough to see the ways in which her own hurts and interests have made her an unreliable narrator, especially concerning the semivillainous TV presenter Tristram. And sometimes she’s pretending to more contempt than she really feels, as with the aging ex-wife of her biological father, whom she’s nicknamed “Wheelchair.” I don’t know that that makes the book more pleasurable to read (bravura performance of contempt is very much a mask that sinks into the face, I think), but it does make her character more complex.

But Wise Children does so many things well. It uses the “legitimate theater/cheap pantos and nudie shows” dichotomy so poignantly as both real consequence of and metaphorical parallel to the girls’ out-of-wedlock birth. It’s utterly in love with Shakespeare, and captures the galloping, out-of-control quality of his work, the whirligig of time. It honors the beauty and decency of love given outside the bonds of marriage and biological parenthood–but it also insists, again and again, that your real father matters, that the biological bond creates duties for the father and longings in the children which can’t be wished away or bought off. (Or okay, Dora insists on this. There are hints that her sister Nora is less of a paternal absolutist. But Dora’s heart is more challenging to contemporary ideas.) There are the usual contemporary lacunae–are sex and motherhood really the only languages we know for love? is celibacy really nothing but a 4-F in the great draft lottery of life?–and I do note that there’s an almost ideological insistence that men are unreliable whereas Females Are Strong as Hell. But there’s also a brief, haunting passage about how Shakespeare’s works would change if his characters learned that their mother’s husband wasn’t their father: a passage which captures the novel’s complexity, its willingness to love several things at once.

“There was a house we all had in common and it was called, the past, even though we’d lived in different rooms.”


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