It’s a weird world Angela Carter creates in The Passion of New Eve: weird, unsettling and painful (especially if you’re a man). It’s a nightmare world unhinged from our reality but nonetheless revealing something about us in the process. We’re in a future-world, a dystopia in which America has fallen into civil war and California is ceding from the union and death and decay is everywhere around. The resulting satire circles round questions of race and sexuality and, primarily, gender, and analyses the relationship between history and myth, the passage of time, matters of historicity.
It begins with Evelyn, a male English professor moving to New York to take up an academic post. He is obsessed by a silent movie star, Tristessa de St Ange and, on his final night in England, he is fellated in a cinema while watching one of her films. He is not an enlightened man. His views on women appear to be antediluvian. From very early on, then, it is clear we are going to have a feminist satire and the normal narrative arc of such works would entail him enduring a painful learning experience. And so it turns out, although there is nothing normal or predictable about this novel. Rather, it is an intriguing examination of myths and men, if you'll pardon the literary pun.
Once in America, the story lurches into the bizarre, as the civil war unfolds in horrifying detail. Giant rats feed on the helpless. Depravity abounds. Death is everywhere. The triumph of western civilisation is at an end: “The age of reason is over,” a character tells Evelyn early on. Evelyn’s job falls through and he is thrust into the middle of the degradation around him. His only friend, an alchemist, is killed by a faction of rebels. He becomes embroiled with a black stripper and engages in a lusty, but emotionless affair with her. When she becomes pregnant she succumbs to a horrifyingly botched abortion and, as she lies in hospital requiring money for treatment, Evelyn abandons her. Written like this, the plot may sound a touch melodramatic but don’t be deterred because there is nothing predictable or even naturalistic about this novel. Perhaps its nearest relative may be the surreal fiction of Nathanael West and, like Balso Snell or A Cool Million, it all unfolds like a hideous, dreamlike trance. And it is now that Evelyn’s problems truly begin.
Out in the American desert, he falls into the clutches of a female cult based in the city of Beulah and led by the mysterious and troubling Mother. Here, the mysogynistic Evelyn is forced to confront his beliefs in the starkest way possible: Mother is a surgeon and, over the course of weeks, she turns Evelyn into Eve. “I am the Great Parricide, I am the Castratrix of the Phallocentric Universe, I am Mama, Mama, Mama!” she declares. Eve is divested of his male sexual organs and given female ones; he is feminised and made beautiful. He becomes a she. Ultimately, Mother's aim is to impregnate him with his own sperm, already harvested, to create "the Messiah of the Antithesis" and usher in "the feminisation of Father Time".
Eve, as she is now exclusively referred to in the narrative, escapes, but falls into the clutches of a lunatic, one-eyed poet, Zero and is added to his harem of wives, being repeatedly raped and used and treated as a sub-human possession: the patriarchy lives on, then. The novel continues in similar vein, Eve rebounding from one disastrous situation to another. She learns to harness emotion. She learns love. She learns compassion. She learns to live.
Frankly, all of this could be tedious. It could easily become a heavy-handed essay in didacticism pointing out the feminine merits and masculine demerits. It was, after all, published in 1977, at something of a high point in militant feminism. But this novel is too clever for that, and Angela Carter is too good a novelist. For sure, there is a feminist message in the novel, and it is cleverly advanced, but there is considerably more to The Passion of New Eve than that. Any great novel must have a central theme, but there must also be undercurrents at play, too. And here there are undoubtedly undercurrents.
The novel explores the relationship between myth and history, and history and historicity, particularly in the United States, that country which appropriated and invented its own myths and established its own, wildly accelerated history. Carter writes at one point: “Historicity in America goes more quickly, jigs to a more ragged rhythm than the elegaic measures of the old world...” This is true, of course, and it shapes much of the American psyche and American discourse. The myth of the west, the notion of manifest destiny, the pursuit of American exceptionalism, they have all combined to help fashion the USA into what it is today. And, of course, there is a great deal of ambivalence about this in some quarters, and that very ambivalence feeds into the developing mythical structures that continue to underpin the country. As a European, I find this endlessly fascinating. I think, simultaneously, that Americans are far too hard on themselves and nowhere near hard enough. This contradiction, of course, lies at the heart of the giants of American literature, like Faulkner and, in a different way, Updike and, different again, Philip Roth. And it is absolutely crucial, too, to any understanding of Cormac McCarthy. Indeed, McCarthy may be the absolute master of this particular discourse: after all, is it not at the heart of virtually every pronouncement by judge Holden?
In The Passion of New Eve we see absolute chaos, such as there must have been in the American frontier of the 1840s and before. But here, of course, unlike the American west, there are women. And the women bring order; this may not be a bountiful or harmonious order – certainly for men, especially for Evelyn/Eve, and Mother is a monster on a par with the great albino judge himself – but order it is, all the same. The myths may never be conquered, then, never tamed, but they can be approached, and this is what happens here.
Further, these myths are universal ones. The first great myth in most myth cycles is, of course, the creation myth and that is represented here by the character of Eve. We have the virgin mother and the virgin birth. Mother is a conflation of any number of female deities. The Freudian sexual politics of Oedipus complex and Penis envy are played out in reverse, bringing freshness to a debate which can become dulled by overfamiliarity and oversimplification. In this way, the novel mines a rich mythical seam and explores depths of human psychology and history.
It isn’t an easy read, and I doubt it would make many people’s lists of their top ten books, but it has a power and fury and impulsion of its own.