Thursday, July 03, 2008

Scattered Thoughts on Reading Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber

I've had this collection of Carter's short stories and her book Love in my TBR pile for a while. I picked up The Bloody Chamber when I was doing research on the Interstitial Arts Foundation, particularly to figure out if my writing would be a match for their anthology. (Boy, howdy, not only was Carson's Learning just an unbelievably bad product once I was finished revising, it was also dripping so horribly with commercial fiction's lesser points that I will be shocked, shocked I tell you, if I learn that the poor IAF anthology sub readers got past the first page.)

I enjoyed the collection, though some of the stories struck me with that depressingly familiar head-scratching confusion I often get when I read short fiction. Each story is a retelling/re-imagining of a fairy tale or folklore trope. I could follow and enjoy the fairy tales much better than the folklore, most often due to the focus on wolves and werewolves. I never did get interested in that much, so I found myself lost in some of those stories.

Regardless of this reader's unfortunate inability to parse everything she read, it was quite clear that Carter is a master wordsmith. In fact, I'll likely reread many of these stories just to get a sense of how she created everyday images in non-everyday terms as well as evoking the fantastic just as well. Also, the establishing of character voice in "Puss-in-Boots" is a very compelling reason for a reread. Lots to learn, oh yes.

I think my favorite story is "The Bloody Chamber," for which the collection is named. It's a retelling of the Blackbeard story, which I've somehow managed to read a few renditions of without really intending to do so. At its heart, the base story is about women being punished for their curiosity despite having been all but told to be curious by the punisher (if I'm remembering the various dissections and discussions right). The lightest reading of it I've found is an erotic twist in which Blackbeard subjects his wife to a dungeon scene for exploring his naughty room. There is no death and no real pain or fear in that one.

Carter's "The Bloody Chamber," however, is very different, but it still keeps the kernel of the myth at its heart: the role a woman plays at the whim of a powerful man, including relinquishing her life into his hands. One detail of this story that my brain keeps dragging out to examine and seek more from this story is that the woman, a pianist, eventually starts an affair with the piano tuner Blackbeard has hired. From the moment of the consummation of their affair, the woman (in narration and in dialog) no longer calls the man by his name, she only calls him "my lover." In fact, he is one of only two characters who is ever named outside of their title or their relationship to the narrator. I find this fascinating and a brilliant tie-in to the themes of roles and selfishness and self-discovery the story employs.

A juxtaposition that caught my eye and worked to the detriment of one story and the enhancement of the other was the order of the two Beauty & the Beast retellings. The first, "The Courtship of Mr. Lyons" was fine, and I enjoyed it well enough, particularly how it twists the tale in on itself and almost has Beauty trap the Beast as such and possibly doom herself to the same fight through the sins of self-absorption and narcissism, exactly what got the Beast in so much trouble himself. But then I read "The Tiger's Bride," and the manner of that retelling of the same tale was far and above the better of the two that I can't help but think of "Courtship" as a light, fluffy story that doesn't really do much beyond a clever writer's trick.

The collection became a challenge for me, though, once I started "The Erl-King." I couldn't place the parent text. And the last line just thoroughly confounds me. Maybe I'll read something later that will clue me in. And then came the Snow White story "The Snow Child." I could offer a couple of readings on it, but they are so inextricably linked with my own particular experiences and viewpoint that I'm not sure they even approach the authorial intent, let alone the accepted literary wisdom. (Note to self: actually read some Carter litcrit soon.) The collection ends in a series of stories that run vampire-werewolf-werewolf/Red Riding Hood-werewolf/vampire/Alice in Wonderland set that, as I mentioned above, gets decently far away from my interests and background knowledge for me to comment much beyond, "Yes, good story, that."

A couple of tiny details I picked up on that I hope were intentional, but if not were beautiful accidents: the heavy use of the word "somnambulism" and its kin, and the tie-back toward the end of the last story to the first story with the use of the phrase "the bloody chamber."

I'm working my way through my mother's copy of Carter's The Sadeian Woman, a collection of non-fiction about the Marquis de Sade (which manages to be scintillating instead of squicky), and there is that copy of Love still sitting in the TBR pile that I'm looking forward to reading. I'm not sure I get the "interstitial" label that the IAF in particular is keen to give Carter, but most of my reading since the CL debacle has informed me that my idea of insterstitial is far too heavily grounded in commericial fiction to mesh with theirs.

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