Review of Burning Your Boats: The Collected Short Stories, by Angela Carter

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 9/30/06


  Reading Burning Your Boats: The Collected Short Stories of Angela Carter (1940-1993) brought to my mind two things. The first came while reading the book’s Introduction by Salman Rushdie. Some years ago, a good friend of mine excitedly handed me a copy of The Satanic Verses, with several pages marked off especially. We were at a function, but he insisted that I read them. I did, and asked him what was so urgent in the text that I needed to read them. It was a passage describing a character who was manifestly the Ayatollah Khomeini. It describes him stewing in his apartment in France, plotting his overthrow of the Shah of Iran. It was a rather banal, long-winded passage, and even though Khomeini was never mentioned by name only a person of limited means could not see who was being critiqued and evaluated. My friend excitedly asked me, ‘Well, do you know who that was about?’ I explained that I did, just as I have related, and my friend was disappointed that I was not swept up in airies over the straightforward prose and barely veiled caricature.

  I stated how the writing was not that good, and that the passage certainly had not excited my interest in reading the rest of the book. This all returned to me with Rushdie’s Introduction, and his descriptions of how wondrous and marvelous a short story writer Carter was. This sort of fulsome praise, by someone of such limited means themselves, always sets off an alarum, so my skepticism meter was on alert. Then I read the book, and a second thing popped into my mind. A few years earlier, before my friend’s near climaxing over Rushdie’s banal prose, I had written a letter and sent some poems to American poet Amy Clampitt. Clampitt had spent decades in the American publishing game before releasing her first book of poems, in the early 1980s, when she was in her late fifties. She was not a particularly good poet, but not a bad one either. She got praised to the hilt, but her poems are almost all the rote, relentless, and often unmusicked, piling on of description of description on description by description. If you’ve read modern poetry of the last few decades, you know the sort of verse I mean- the kind where a word like spindrift is used in every stanza and meant to elicit an ooh or ah, to show how deliquescently and deliciously precious a vocabulary the poet has. Of course, the cliché ‘much ado about nothing’ also applies, but reading Angela Carter’s prose reminded me the most of reading that other AC’s poetry. Both women deploy clichés and pointless modifiers at almost every opportunity, and to little or no avail. Clampitt’s poetry is like a brief whirlwind, and leaves nothing memorable in the mind, while Carter’s stories- especially those based in fables, remind me of fourth or fifth rate fairy tales by an Isaac Bashevis Singer or Zora Neale Hurston, save, they are not as piquant, and Carter tries to masque that fact in a flood of adverbs and adjectives. That the points of her tales are as blatantly obvious as Rushdies’s attempted satire on religious nuts does nothing to further the cause that he champions- that of Carter as some major writer of the last century, at least in her short stories, if not in novels like Wise Children. In two words- ‘tain’t true!

  The book of forty-two tales is divided into six sections. The first, Early Work, 1962-6, shows little promise, but highlights the modifier-mania that would seize her career. The Man Who Loved A Double Bass follows the title’s theme and ends weakly. A Very, Very Great Lady And Her Son At Home is both banal and dull. The third and final tale, A Victorian Fable (With Glossary), is a classic gimmick tale, in the vein of some of the list stories that a Donald Barthelme would indulge and that Rick Moody would orgasm over. It’s told in Cockney rhyming slang, and is less than a page long- the glossary goes on much longer. It’s sort of a Jabberwocky about a misogynist. One read, though, is enough to sate. There’s nothing needed to learn in a reread, and the actual glossary hangs like a useless appendage- almost like T.S. Eliot’s notes for The Waste Land.

  The next section is from Carter’s first actual book, Fireworks: Nine Profane Pieces, 1974. The only tales with anything memorable are the first, A Souvenir Of Japan, which details a failed relationship, is far too obvious in its political railing against macho Japanese culture: ‘I used to turn over in my mind from time to time the question: how far does a pretense of feeling, maintained with absolute conviction, become authentic? This country has elevated hypocrisy to the level of the highest style. To look at a samurai, you would not know him for a murderer, or a geisha for a whore,’ and ends horribly with triteness and saccharinity; and the last, Elegy For A Freelance, which is so bad, that to detail it would be to reward it. Suffice to say that a woman who takes up with anarchists hagiographizes her murderous companions’ lives ala Ché Guevara. The rest of the tales are fairly forgettable, or derivative of greater writers. For example, in The Executioner’s Beautiful Daughter, time stops at an execution, ala Ambrose Bierce’s far superior An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge. Yet, whereas Bierce could craft poetry from simple phrasings, Carter must rely on tongue-twisting passages like, ‘the air choked all day with diffuse moisture tremulously, endlessly on the point of becoming rain.’ Note, how the modifiers and verbs are all melodramatic, and how a more simple lyricism could invoke the same effect, only more effectively. I’ll return to points like that later on. The third section is from the book Rushdie considers Carter’s masterpiece- including her novels. It’s from The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories, 1979. These reworkings of old fairy tales only highlight Carter’s worst flaws as a writer. They are precious, obvious, filled with bad puns, and so suffused with modifiers that each one of them sinks. The title story is tenth rate Poe or maybe even Oscar Wilde. A new bride has to explore the one room in the manse forbidden to her by her husband, and gets a ‘shocking’ surprise- he’s a Bluebeard. The Courtship Of Mr. Lyon reworks The Beauty And The Beast tale, with little purpose.

  The next section, Black Venus, 1985, sets the Poevian tales in the new World, and includes such titles as The Cabinet Of Edgar Allen Poe, and The Fall River Axe Murders, yet another trite retelling of the Lizzie Borden murders. Perhaps Lizzie Boredom would better describe this tale. The last two sections are American Ghosts & Old World Wonders, 1993, and Uncollected Stories, 1970-81. The only tales worth commenting on are John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, which, like the worst of Rick Moody, has lists and dramatic dialogue in play form- as the Jacobean dramatist’s play is redone by his Twentieth century namesake in film; The Ghost Ships, A Christmas Story, which also plays with form, but is very short; Ashputtle or The Mother's Ghost, Three Versions Of One Story, which plays with form- as all these later tales try to; and the three uncollected stories which should have stayed out of print. They’re that bad.

  The problem is that Carter simply did not have a good imagination. This is because almost all her tales are derived from others’ works- obviously, blatantly, or indirectly, and they almost all go over the top in their efforts to make them different from their source material. Never does Carter explore inner motivation, nor real internal psychodrama. There’s a puerile streak in her writing that simply cannot be denied- and by this I do not mean that she was ‘immoral’ nor a ‘defiler’, as some critics with political axes against her have claimed. No, she’s simply a childish writer with no real depth to her work. Were that puerility contained in just the narrative, and were she a master craftsman of words, it would not be so bad. But, she’s simply not a good writer, in that her sentences and paragraphs are very ill wrought. Often, far too much time critically is spent on debates between a writer’s critics and apologists over things that have little to do with the crafting of words. The meaning of the tale- often the political or religious meaning, dominates plain old craft. Frankly, that’s the coward’s way out, and a critic should also, and primarily, look at the construction of words that the writer uses, for that is the best way toward objectivity, putting aside whether or not one ‘likes’ reworked fairy tales’ or ‘Feminist writing’.

  Here is a piece from The Company Of Wolves, from The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories, which highlights Carter’s flaws:


  ….a wolf's eyes reflect only moonlight, then they gleam a cold and unnatural green, a mineral, a piercing color. If the benighted traveller spies those luminous, terrible sequins stitched suddenly on the black thickets, then he knows he must run, if fear has not struck him stock-still.


  Now, let’s rewrite that, shorn of the unneeded modifiers and cloying precious descriptive jargon:


  ….a wolf's eyes reflect only unnatural green. If the traveller spies them he knows he must run, if fear has not struck.


  Given that the idea of a wolf, as portrayed not only in this tale and throughout literature, comes with its own associations, terms like moonlight, gleam, cold, and piercing, are rendered triter than trite. By dropping them, and their ancillary nouns, the phrase heightens, becomes less specific, and more a general horror. That it is less trite is even only an added bonus. While the rest of the snippet is not as trite, Carter again indulges us with unneeded modifiers, because we know we are speaking of nighttime. Thus, benighted (in both senses), and black, are not needed. And ‘luminous, terrible sequins stitched suddenly’ is an awfully phrased and melodramatically childish description of the eyes, not to mention anatomically wrong, since canine eyes do not glow like feline eyes do. The anatomical incorrectness issue is not nearly as important as the juvenile form of the writing, though. ‘Stock-still; is also far too melodramatic, and I, personally, would rework the whole sentence, to invoke fear sideways, rather than blatantly head-on, but, while my rewrite is not great prose, in and of itself, it’s heaps better than the original, so larded down with puerility and clichés.

  And, for those who think that I am only playing to my own biases, I offer Carter’s own writing to bolster my opinion. Here is the end of The Tiger’s Bride:


  Each stroke of his tongue ripped off skin after successive skin, all the skins of a life in the world, and left behind a nascent patina of shiny hairs. My earrings turned back to water and trickled down my shoulders; I shrugged the drops off my beautiful fur.


  Yes, I would still trim modifiers like nascent and beautiful, but look at how much more powerful and evocative this piece is versus the earlier one. Same writer, a bit more mature and less addicted to relentless description. Gone are the cutesy mannerisms, overwought mania, and cloying puerility. Ironically, at the end of another of her tales, Flesh And The Mirror, Carter unwittingly perfectly diagnoses her writing ills: 


  The most difficult performance in the world is acting naturally, isn’t it? Everything else is artful.


  This is the basic problem with Carter. One senses this was someone not at ease with words. That they were like Tinker Toys and not a natural extension of her person nor persona that she could command at will. Instead, she wrought odd looking childish constructions that, while occasionally beautiful, are mostly odd and grotesque- the sort of things parents hate, but say nothing ill against, lest be accused of stunting a child’s maturity. Yet, critics are not an artist’s parents. They have a duty to define and identify bad art, and point it out when it occurs.

  Here are two examples, from her story Reflections. The first is the opening:


  I was walking in a wood one late spring day of skimming cloud and shower-tarnished sunshine, the sky a lucid if intermittent blue- cool, bright, tremulous weather. A coloratura blackbird perched on a bough curded with a green may-blossom let fall a flawed chain of audible pearl; I was alone in the spring-enchanted wood.


  Note how hard Carter is trying to be poetic. Aside from the fact that it’s simply too much, the relentless description will sidetrack most readers into trying to reason out what is actually being said, therefore the narrative thrust is weakened. Plus, what is actually described has no real heft for the rest of the tale, and just distracts. Here is how it could be rewritten more concisely:


  I was walking in a wood one late spring day of clouded sunshine. A trilling blackbird let fall audible pearls; and I was alone.


  The phrase ‘clouded sunshine’ is far more potent than the original, and a fraction of the length. ‘Coloratura’ is a dreadful word choice here because it’s far too precious a choice to describe bird at song. And the excess descriptions of the bough and blossom distract from the act of song. Not in the rewrite, though.

  Even worse, later in the same tale, comes this single sentence:


  A visible silence, yes; for the dense fluidity of the atmosphere did not transmit sound to me as sound, but, instead, as irregular kinetic abstractions etched upon its interior, so that, once in the new wood, a sinister material realm of undistinguishable darkness, to listen to the blackbird was to watch a moving point inside a block of deliquescent glass.


  From the nasty synaesthetic cliché of ‘visible silence’ to the wretched use of ‘deliquescent’, which, along with ‘numinous’, is almost always a buzzword signifier of bad writing, just look at the horrible misapplication of modifiers- most of which are simply too long and manifestly chosen to show off her ‘great vocabulary’, as well as being simply bad metaphors. How, for example, can a point move inside melting glass?

  Simply put, Angela Carter’s writing is far too often gimmicky, and plain old bad. Density of language, as in the above examples, does not equate with depth, and any depth that does occur is incidental and accidental. The writing is banal and unoriginal, as the fairy tales are neither undermined nor seriously recast, and what many apologists see as her strengths, such the incessant need to try to be new, are, in fact, he biggest weaknesses- things which will eventually consign her writing to obscurity, for bad writing is simply bad writing, not quirkiness, and to recognize the difference is to naturally be. Anything else is just acting.

  Exeunt Carter and Rushdie.


[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Yet Another Book Review website.]


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