[written January 2014]
The Times described Heroes and Villains as ‘an unashamed fantasist, a fabulist of daemonic energy’ – and it really is. This is an incredibly loaded book and every time I’ve tried to review this I’ve ended up word-vomiting a bad fragment of one or one hundred failed essays that could be written about it. This time will be no different (but I’ve hit the ‘well, let’s just get it done’ try). I think the difficulty is down to the fact that rereading the novella I was more aware of what was trying to be achieved here, and I possibly ended up thinking TOO much about it (to the tune of 9 sides worth of unreadable notes) rather than feeling as much this time around. Regardless of all that, this is weird Angela Carter all over: worlds, characters and experiences that are rendered in narrative brutal, dreamy, a door hard to open for some of the prose written as much as it’s an open field of beautiful synesthetic imagery in other places.
‘Sometimes I dream I am an invention […] On the nights I have these dreams, I have been known to wake the entire camp with my screams.’
To me Heroes and Villains is a loose companion piece to The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman and The Passion of the New Eve because of the renegade Doctor Frankenstein figures in each novel who all create a kind of invention that they envisage will bring the world to rights as they see fit. Carter underpins each work with overt symbolism and ideology that is questioned by the protagonists, subtly de-clothed in narrative and also critiqued in how connotations of traditional symbols/thought beliefs are sometimes misguidedly reinforced by the Doctors in their attempts to subvert the order. In Heroes and Villains where there is the possibility in a post-apocalyptic world to start afresh without names, rituals or beliefs of old, it just seems impossible. The people are still so informed by signs and symbols of a destroyed civilisation to escape the ‘crumbling anachronisms’ which still endure (whether understood as they are by Marianne, or not in the case of some Barbarian members) and are carried on.
The world presented in this particular novella relies on dichotomies: the Professors cannot live without the Barbarians ‘the other’, needing these tribe to define themselves as upholders of reason and progress; an argument between Donally and Jewel regarding Marianne only serves to reinforce the matriarchal myth of Eve or her foil, the demonic Lilith. I read this great essay (‘Deconstructing the Womb’) which from what I remember said that Carter is wary of using myths to celebrate one’s identity or an experience – she sees it as a potential trap. For example, Marianne as ‘Eve at the end of the world’: using matriarchal myths to elevate the status of womanhood – it doesn’t subvert far more than what it serves to reinforce the view of women as vehicles for future descendants. She uses Marianne’s character, a History Professor’s daughter who “broke things to see what they were like inside” to expose the cracked veneer of the academic world she comes from which assesses and studies the environment around (to the point of madness), as well as mocking the sham superstitious beliefs of the Barbarian tribe when she becomes involved with them. Nevertheless there’s the overwhelming sense of fatality felt by Marianne who is seen by the makeshift-shaman Donally as the tribe’s ‘little holy image’ alongside his protégé Jewel (who is more than compelling whilst he struggles in his role as a social experiment). It’s hard to tell if Marianne jokes about becoming the Tiger Lady of the tribe, because surely she would see it’s kind of the same tyranny Donally imposed: the status quo will essentially remain the same, all there is changed is the face and flavour.
If Marianne is made to feel like Miranda, Donally as Prospero, his son taking the surface role of Caliban (but a good fool underneath), then Jewel is a ‘furious invention’ indeed. Too educated for the tribe, yet educated in the wrong way to ever cross worlds like Marianne and Donally to live amongst the professors. He is the only one to survive Donally’s manipulations and teachings, the previous girl and boy died in the progress of being tattooed with stripes. It is because of this that Donally sees Jewel as a son, more of a son than “the half-wit” he has biologically; Jewel is a masterpiece of an invention which he brands and continues to define, limit (for one he refuses to teach Jewel how to read) and destroy in fear of a rebellion, and in turn, as an usurper son, Jewel tries his luck at destroying Donally too.
There’s a part early on in the novella where Marianne asks Jewel if barbarians die of madness, because there is a number of cases where madness has led to suicide and homicide in the towns of the Professors. Jewel answers with a list of physical diseases that the Barbarians die of instead. In some ways that hit me most this time, because I remember in my house that my parents and those around in the neighbourhood at that time didn’t recognise depression as an illness, they just saw it as a middle-class triviality – I guess they saw it as when you’re busy surviving, there’s no time for luxuries like living, I don’t know (because there was a lot of madness there as well). Anyway, the first time you read a book you forget these little lines, but reading the ending with the above conversation in mind, it made it very poignant and depressing. Here’s this boy: ‘everywhere I go I’m doomed to be nothing but an exhibit’ who can’t really find a place in either world, so he falls back on what Donally has made of him whilst fighting Marianne in how she ‘converts him’ by looking at him. There is a lot more you could say regarding orientalism in terms of Barbaric tribe/Jewel, and nothing that Carter romanticises stupidly either in my opinion. Any ‘exotic’ description is immediately pulled down by Jewel or made so overt it becomes a parody. I’d like to see some essays written on that actually.
The ties between Donally, Jewel and Marianne become ludicrous at points: all detest the other to the point of wounding each other in some way (whether branding, rape and forced marriage, infidelity and the possible betrayal of tribe), but are magnetically attracted for one reason or a complete lack of reason. The relationships between all three is best described as such:
‘They arrived at the green road and stood looking at one another, in a sudden last uncertainty as to where their true allegiances lay, for the young man and his tutor had the strange attachment of years between them, the girl and her husband the bemused attraction a sense of fatality and the girl and the magician the bond of a common language. And the girl and the young man, also each suffered from the loss of a father.’
The dialogue reigns supreme here in my opinion. I showed a bit of dialogue to a friend of mine who found it incredibly unrealistic and I’ve read this opinion a couple of times now “Carter just can’t do dialogue”, but I love it. Honestly. The prose in this book is already riddled with words that all seem to be there for reason and some level of meaning, nothing is left to chance, this is only reflected in the dialogue. Some of which I get, some of which I don’t, but like the sound of (because we’re all prone to fancy like that). One of my favourite exchanges:
‘Who do you see when you see me?’ She asked him, burying her own face in his bosom.
‘Do you want the truth?’
‘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.’
He was silent for several minutes.
‘The map of a country in which I only exist by virtue of the extravagance of my metaphors.’
‘Now you’re being too sophisticated. And besides, what metaphors do we have in common?’
The closest I’ve ever got to this in real life is “I’ll decimate you” “Not before I devour you.” – I think if I asked someone the same question as above and they replied back with “the firing squad” I’d be compelled to do something ridiculous like marry them – this also goes for Oscar Wilde/Sarah Bernhardt “Mind if I smoke?” “I don’t care if you burn” exchange.
Bonus Material: Donally’s Aphorisms
- BOREDOM IS THE HANDSOME SON OF PRIDE
- ONENESS WITH DESTINY GIVES STYLE AND DISTINCTION
- MISTRUST APPEARANCES, THEY NEVER CONCEAL ANYTHING
- MEMORY IS DEATH
- OUR NEEDS BEAR NO RELATION TO OUR DESIRES
- THE WORLD BECOMES A DREAM AND THE DREAM, A WORLD
- I THINK, THEREFORE I EXIST; BUT IF I TAKE TIME OFF FROM THINKING, WHAT THEN?