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The Passion of New Eve (Virago Modern Classics) Paperback – August 27, 1992
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'If you can imagine Baudelaire, Blake and Kafka getting together to describe America, you are well on the way to Carter's visionary and lurid world' THE TIMES 'Her writing is pyrotechnic' OBSERVER
About the Author
Angela Carter (1940-1992), journalist and writer;author of novels, poems and flim scripts has had her talents much lauded;
'Her Imagination was one of the most dazzling this century'- Marina Walker, Independent
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And yes, that means a certain amount of bloody sexual violence, although it stops well short of pornography. This novel isn't about sex and violence anyway; it's mostly about sin, forgiveness, self-image, and the possibility of happiness once you've learned acceptance. All for under 200 pages.
You might call "Passion" a work of science fiction, since it takes place in some not-too-distant future, but then you might as well call it a Western because most of it takes place in the southwestern desert of the United States. A young professor named Evelyn (which is a man's first name in England when pronounced EVE-linn) comes to New York for a college job, only to find that black revolutionaries are about to burn the college to the ground. These same revolutionaries then build a wall around Harlem while feminist revolutionaries take random potshots at miscellaneous men. Good times.
Evelyn begins an affair with an underage black exotic dancer, whom he abandons when she gets pregnant. Hoping in the vaguest way for some kind of renewal, he flees New York for the aforementioned desert and gets captured by a group of those feminist revolutionaries. These women live underground and worship a former plastic surgeon who has, by her art, transformed herself into a grotesque goddess-form. She takes a sperm sample from Evelyn and then surgically transforms him into a fully-functioning woman (uterus and all) named Eve. She intends to impregnate Eve with Evelyn's seed and thus transform the mythological underpinnings of Western civilization as it collapses under its own weight, whatever that means. We're about halfway through the book. Stay tuned.
All of this is revealed on the book jacket, so I have no qualms about revealing it here. I assure you, the rest of this little adventure is even more bizarre. Someone asked me a little while ago if "The Passion of New Eve" is surrealistic - that's putting it mildly. Some people enjoy creative work that goes off the deep end like this and others prefer something that deals with more recognizable events. You'll have to judge for yourself if this novel is for you.
If it helps, you might consider the fact that "Passion" has more on its mind than just getting as weird as possible. Let's put it this way; for a long time, thinkers about gender have said that bringing men and women together in understanding is difficult, since the sexes' world views and experiences are so different as to be nearly incomprehensible, one to the other. To solve this problem, Angela Carter conceives of a man who is literally turned into a woman. Well and good. Now, given that a woman's world view and experiences are so alien to a man, what experiences will this former man have? The author will not choose them at random, especially with a civil war going on in this alternate United States. And indeed, Ms. Carter chose the new Eve's experiences with a good deal of consideration, and took care to set them up right from the start of her book so as to make the impact on the character as powerful as possible.
"The Passion of New Eve", being a novel rather than a poem, does not deal in abstractions by any means. On the contrary, as I implied just now, the plot is impressively structured and logical, even though the events within it resemble nothing you've ever seen before. (This is another reason to welcome "Passion" into the science fiction pantheon - a lot of great sf does exactly the same thing - but that's a conversation for another day.) So, not abstract, but it does have at least one thing in common with great abstractionists like Jackson Pollock in painting and Ornette Coleman in jazz. Both of them disregarded the traditional formats of their art, like shape and color or key and rhythm, but did not disregard the idea of form itself or pursue chaos for its own sake. Instead, they came up with new forms and figured out the rules as they went along. That's more or less what Ms. Carter did here with traditional story form.
Having said that, it's time to get into the question of art's function. It certainly takes a kind of genius to re-invent a whole form of expression, but if the work that comes out of it leaves you cold, is it any good? Probably not.
Fortunately, if you leave yourself open to it, you can be profoundly moved by abstract painting or free jazz, and the same is true of Angela Carter and "The Passion of New Eve". Good thing, too - if you read this novel, however short, and said "So what?" at the end, it would be a waste of Ms. Carter's time and yours. Well, however goofy and/or painful this novel can be, and although there's no spectacular triumph for Evelyn/Eve at the end, believe me - this is not a waste of time.
Let's put it this way; if a selfish fool suffers terrible pain and woe, and afterwards has the chance to make a kind and charitable gesture, you might feel sad for that person, but you wouldn't call it a waste, would you?
Benshlomo says, Classic things need new shapes once in a while.
I suspect that, one of the reasons why this novel is so little known, is because it differs from most of the popular science fiction genre in terms of its focus. Most science fiction concerns itself with how our creations (technology) can both benefit us and harm us. Carter envisions science and technology in the context of our gender roles, our archetypes, and patriarchy. She refuses to leave these things outside of the questions of science and technology. She brings these important concepts into the story and makes them part of the scenario, just as they are in real life. It occurred to me just how dishonest a lot of science fiction seems now, leaving these things out, these culprits, as if they have had nothing to do with the development of the modern horrors of the nuclear bomb, biological weapons, and whatever secret horrors they are working on now so as to make us feel that we have no choice or free will in anything--man trying to convince man that man is God.
Because the novel deals with gender and sexuality, there is an awful lot of graphic nudity, descriptions of rapes, misanthropy and misogyny. The central conflict of this novel is the war between men and women. In the apocalyptic future that is the setting for this novel, the war of the sexes has reached a point where men and women are fighting each other in military style, with weapons and, on the women's side, transgender surgery. The women of the city of Beulah are kidnapping random men and turning them into women. One of the most horrible passages in the book is the description of an involuntary transgender surgery, an emasculation. Here, Carter's gothicness comes through. She can't be happy unless she provides those gothic shudders. Equally harrowing, however, are the misogynistic horrors that the protagonist Eve undergoes once she flees Beulah and is captured by a woman-hater named Zero and his harem of female sex slaves.
It seemed to me that what Carter is saying here is that, we, humans, stop understanding each other when we stop being ourselves. When we get busy being "types" like archetypes (the leader of Beulah is a self-styled goddess calling herself Cybele, no less). One of the central characters, Tristessa, is a Hollywood screen goddess whom, as it turns out, is really a man. The sadness that she portrays so well and which has made her famous around the world is the result of her "secret." The women of Beulah think that men are the problem, so they run around turning men into women by literally emasculating them. Zero thinks that women are the problem, so he keeps a harem of basket cases around that he can humiliate. These women are his willing slaves because they have suffered sexual abuse, abandonment, etc. So they busy themselves being "women" for Zero and fitting into what he thinks that means. So no one in this book, except perhaps for Eve, is being herself. And this is hard because she lives in a world like our own, where we are constantly trying to conform to these "types," whether they are stereotypes, archetypes, or whatever. Communication and understanding simply cannot exist when people are not being themselves, and have no idea what it is to be themselves.
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