Fighting for the Crown

Wise Children

by Angela Carter
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 234 pp., $21.00

Love

by Angela Carter
Penguin, 120 pp., $5.95 (paper)

The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories

by Angela Carter
Penguin, 126 pp., $9.95 (paper)

Come Unto These Yellow Sands

by Angela Carter
Bloodaxe Books, 158 pp., $16.95 (paper)

The Old Wives’ Fairy Tale Book

edited by Angela Carter
Pantheon, 242 pp., $22.95

The Sadeian Woman and the Ideology of Pornography

by Angela Carter
Pantheon, 154 pp., $8.95 (paper)

Postmodernism in the arts notoriously starts from the premise that “anything goes,” but this is no great help if we are trying to find out what sort of fiction today is actually thought and spoken of as postmodernist. The expression has often been used about the books of Angela Carter, and so has the rather more easily definable term “magic realism.” Indeed when she first started to publish in the Sixties her novels were hailed in England as an enterprising native version of the kind of thing that was being done in North America by Thomas Pynchon and in South America by Gabriel García Márquez.

The link between magic realism and the more evasive concept of postmodernism in the novel probably was that everything goes: that the hitherto separable conventions of fantasy and realism, satire and social comment, could be fused together in a single permissive whole. The process was a very self-conscious one; the novelist knew exactly how new and up-to-date he or she was being, while at the same time being careful in an egalitarian way to avoid the more exclusive and old-fashioned label of “experimental”: the rigors of formalism were definitely out. But if this was postmodernism it could still be said to have been around for a long time, for critics were beginning to detect just the same brew of ingredients, even if less deliberately mingled, way back in the history of the novel. Looked at under modern eyes even The Mayor of Casterbridge, say, Hardy’s sturdy down-to-earth survey of the rise and fall in a country town of a man of character, begins to assume a fantastic aspect, with the author’s dreams and fears of failure and success clothing a fairy tale in the sober hues of business and property.

Fantasy, in short, can be seen as the basis of every novel: what matters today is the individual and original use made of it. Angela Carter scored high marks at that, from her first, Shadow Dance (1965), to her last, Wise Children. Although she is an enterprising and versatile writer, always exploring fresh themes, there is about all her novels a strong element of continuity, even communality, which may remind the reader of the claim often made for postmodernist art as “a single ongoing subcultural event” that does not distinguish between intimacy and togetherness, any more than between high art and pop art. Like other very capable modern authors Angela Carter is good at having it both ways, dressing up pop art in academic gear and presenting crude aspects of modern living in a satirically elegant style. In Love, her most effective and memorable novel of the Sixties, she cunningly drew a pair of youthful student hippies as a version of many traditional fraternal prototypes, including Ivan and Alyosha Karamazov. The brief novel is Dostoevskian in other ways, dramatizing a triangle of unbalanced passion and possessiveness and placing it in a squalid urban setting among students of the post–Lucky Jim type. Lee …

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