My first Angela Carter read was The Magic Toyshop. Somewhere I’d gotten the idea that I would like this novel without any real understanding of its author, so I was surprised by just how magical that toyshop really was, but I recognized something about Angela Carter that led me to collect her work steadily, even though I’ve only, since, read a few short stories from The Bloody Chamber.
Over time I’ve collected enough of them to have toyed with the idea of having an Angela Carter year (like I’m having an Ethel Wilson year now, reading at least one of her books each month) but felt intimidated somehow, because even my limited experience with her work left me feeling a little out-of-my-depth. Enter Paperback Reader’s Angela Carter month, which was all the incentive I needed to grab hold of a bibliography and start at the beginning.
It seems normal to me, this urge to start at the beginning of a writer’s career and read-along, but then it also seems normal to me to track my progress on such projects on a spreadsheet. I realize that not everybody, not even everyreader, is this kind of normal. And I was actually starting to consider other kinds of normal pretty seriously (for instance, the kind of normal that picks a book off the shelf because the summary sounds interesting) after I’d read the first page of Shadow Dance (1966) a dozen times and set it aside as many times.
I was about to say that I reached for something more engaging, but that’s not true: Shadow Dance is immediately engaging. It starts in a bar with bullfighting posters of bulging bulls’ testicles and young men’s buttocks and it ends in a pool of vomit. And in between, there are a lot of things that might not be to every reader’s taste. Not every reader will want to be engaged with this kind of story and, yet, one cannot say it’s a dull tale. It’s also not a dry tale; the prose is often poetic and the metaphors are vivid.
I can see a lot of intersections between this novel and The Magic Toyshop so I am every bit as intrigued by Angela Carter, and I’m also glad that my reading of Shadow Dance intersected with my reading of M.J. Hyland’s This is How. I was too close to finishing the Hyland novel to take it with me to work and have it last through both commutes, so I left it at home and took Shadow Dance instead (also increasing the likelihood that I would finally read beyond the first page if I had nothing else to read).
Neither plot-wise nor stylistically are there similarities in these two novels but thematically both works consider people on the fringes of society (for one reason or another, whether a small-town setting or marginalized individuals) and both writers are skillful, but their books demand something of a reader that not all readers are prepared to invest. I’d found the Hyland novel so rewarding that I was encouraged to keep reading the Carter novel despite its immediate and disorienting weirdness.
In the right mood, this kind of thing might arouse curiosity in character. For instance, you might find Morris more interesting for having had this glimpse into his thoughts:
“He felt the bottle shattering against his face and, raising his hand, was bemusedly surprised to find no traces of blood from a gashed forehead on his fingertips. Why not? In a metaphysical hinterland between intention and execution, someone had thrown a bottle in his face, a casual piece of violence; there was a dimension, surely, in the outer nebulae, maybe, where intentions were always executed, where even now he stumbled, bleeding, blinded…” (11-12)
Or you might just rather not spend anymore time in Morris’ thoughts at all. Or you might be willing to overlook the mind-bending bits and distract yourself with the lyrical language. Carter has a way with similes. “New chairs were introduced, covered with lemon yellow simulation leather that adhered to arse and thighs in warm weather, so when you rose you carried the chair with you, like a dog clinging with is teeth to the seat of your trousers.” Here’s another. “Emily’s mind was like a large, clean, well-lit room in which there was little furniture but that little of the most solid, bulky and hand-crafted kind.” (That one still makes me giggle.)
Admittedly, if I had started my Carter reading with her first novel, I’m not sure if I would have moved down the column in my spreadsheet, but once I took the plunge past the the first page, the characters (as bizarre and unlikeable as many of them are) pulled me along and I found the pages turning quickly (as grim and distasteful as many of the plot elements are). It’s constructed deliberately and I’m looking forward to seeing more intersections between this early work and more of Angela Carter’s writings as I read ahead.
Next in line (which I shan’t get to this month, only because I’m concentrating on Orange Prize reading) would be Several Perceptions, but I’m wondering if I shouldn’t jump ahead to Wise Children or Nights at the Circus before tackling another early work. Any thoughts on that possibility?
Note: Shadow Dance is also Virago Modern Classic No. 442, for those other readers who also obsess about reading their collection.