Posts Tagged ‘angela carter’

The Passion of New Eve

July 16, 2011

I feel so sad writing this, but after reading this book, I’m striking Angela Carter from my queer pantheon/sheroes list. It breaks my heart. I have vague plans of setting up flying buttress altars in my bedroom with books from authors like Dennis Cooper and Kathy Acker on them, candles, dried herbs, and other relevant stuff, to remind me every morning and every night that there are good things in the world, and Angela Carter’s work was third on the list. Uh, the list was three people long.

She just did so many of the things that resonate with me: she took feminism very seriously, she had an absolute wingnut imagination, and she was confrontational with those things. She did a lot of work with fairytales. She didn’t tell you how smart she was, she showed you.

Here’s the thing. As allegory, it’s brutal and effective, in large part because of its bluntness: Evelyn is a jerk. He dehumanizes his partner and bails when she gets pregnant. Radical feminists turn him into a woman; part of the indoctrination to womanhood is Ludovico technique screening of the works of Tristessa St Ange. Once Evelyn becomes Eve, she’s kidnapped into a brutal, polygamous parody of a heterosexual relationship, in which she and seven other subservient women cater to every whim of an inarticulate primitivist poet. Eve experiences sexism/the other side of patriarchy firsthand. The inarticulate poet- Zero- decides to kill Tristessa, the movie star, but he and the seven of his wives who aren’t Eve die in the raid. We also find out during the raid that Tristessa is a trans woman. She’s brutally ungendered and then murdered. Eve- pregnant with Tristessa’s child- moves on, into California, into the Earth’s vagina, back to the beginning of time, then leaves America in a boat.

Tristessa is at the center of the novel. If we conceptualize her as the embodiment of patriarchal beauty culture, everything else works as allegory: Eve[lyn] has a soft spot for her from the beginning of the novel. Part of Eve’s training to be a woman is being indoctrination into patriarchal beauty culture; the poet, inarticulate as he is, understands on some level that he’s been made to feel insecure by the same patriarchal beauty culture. She also provides the seed for the baby that’ll eventually, I don’t know, complete Eve’s transition to womanhood, or something. On one level it works very well! It’s smartass satire, which is a pretty effective, indirect way of talking about women’s oppression; in this way, Angela Carter is ahead of the polemics that a lot of other feminists were writing in 1977: she’s saying, “this shit is complicated, so let’s sharpen it up and kill someone with it.”

But by making Tristessa a trans woman, and focusing on her as a product of this ultimate male narcissism- created and perpetuated as much by men in Hollywood, invested in their own culture and privilege and power, as by herself- Carter places at the center of her novel the same straw woman argument that gave us Michfest, Janice Raymond, Bitch, and the narrow definition of women’s liberation that continues to liberate a very few women. The scene in which it’s revealed that Tristessa is a trans woman- was The Reveal already a cliche at this point? I don’t know- leads to thirty pages of the most brutal ungendering, both in the world of the novel and in the text itself, that I think I have ever read. We find out about Tristessa’s junk and immediately Carter’s (or perhaps Eve’s; I tried to read the novel as Eve’s unsophisticated understanding of transsexuality, instead of Carter’s, but much like the racist language Eve uses early on in the novel, that analysis/loophole doesn’t lead anywhere that I can figure out. And I wanted it to) pronouns change. Tristessa is mocked, beaten, sexually assaulted twice in two different ways, her house and art are destroyed, she’s forced into a mock wedding, and then she’s literally ungendered- stripped, head shaven- and unceremoniously shot. In the world of an Angela Carter novel, this cartoonish level of violence is normal- sexual assault is rampant here, in the context of talking about the sexual assault many women experience- but the language, the speculation, the narrative discussion of Tristessa’s sex is so brutal, mean, and located in such an ungendering cultural position, that it just broke my heart. Like outside of the text. My actual heart in my actual ribcage; it fell, my mood deflated, and I had to admit that Angela Carter’s analysis is viciously acute about everything except me.

So in this novel Angela Carter explicitly excludes trans women from her feminism. The central plot, wherein Eve becomes a woman, doesn’t set off any alarms; as I said when I wrote about Trouble on Triton, men- people who are not trans women- becoming women, without having any investment in being women beyond, I don’t know, the superficial- I do think that’s an interesting thing to write about, and the kinds of entitlement that both Even and Bron feel are worth talkig about. I thought Samuel Delany did a good job with it, for the most part! But Carter, here, did not. The difference between Eve and Tristessa is basically that Tristessa felt on some level that she was a woman, whereas Eve did not; and as such, Eve is portrayed to be the real woman, and Tristessa as necessarily not. The only other difference I can think of is that Eve had access to bottom surgery and Tristessa did not; in fact, the surgeon who nonconsensually performed the “sex change” on Eve had previously refused to perform that operation consensually on Tristessa.

It just breaks down pretty hard if you’re looking for a reading that’s respectful of trans women.

And so I feel pretty hurt. I’m 32 years old and I’ve had my heart broken by so many people I thought I could look up to that I pretty much don’t look up to anybody I don’t know any more; most of the stories I write are, on some level, about a failed or failing search for a mentor. But I had thought Angela Carter, author of The Sadeian Woman, wingnut feminist genius with razor-sharp teeth who died young and was willing to confront pretty much everyone, had an analysis that included me. Turns out it doesn’t. It makes sense that this was written in 1977 since hating trans women was pretty popular among “feminists” at that time, but that’s not an excuse;

Trouble On Triton

July 13, 2011

Okay, I think I told you this story before, but Smoot was like “Who’s your favorite author? I want to read him or her!” and I was like “Kathy Acker, who is yours? Me too!” and she was like “Samuel Delany!” and then we each bought books by the other’s favorite author and then the next time we saw each other we were both like “Well, I couldn’t get into it, so I gave up.” It was pretty good.

Anyway, I read some stuff about Delany, including a recent interview he did with the Paris Review (which said, on its cover, “SAMUEL DELANY AND WILLIAM GIBSON INTERVIEW”- or at least, that’s what I thought it said, so I thought it would be the two of them in conversation, but actually it was two separate interviews. I still haven’t read the Gibson one ’cause I kinda don’t care), and I think getting to know him a little better gave me the context I needed to get over the “I already know what I like. Nobody can recommend anything to me because I am so smart that if it was any good I would already have read it” automatic reflex in my nervous system, eg the hipster system. But I did! I got over it and I read this and I’m super stoked that I did and then I went out and bought two more of his books but I haven’t read them yet.

So Samuel Delany: the blurb goes “gay black science fiction writer whose struggle with dyslexia informs/informed the way he makes sense,” I guess. Which is interesting! I’m not gonna lie, if you’re not a woman writer but you want me to read you (unless you write total trash that somehow I can’t resist, ROBOPOCALYPSE YOU FUCK), it’s not going to hurt for you to be a person of color or a homo or to experience some other kind of oppression. And I will tell you this, Trouble on Triton reads to me as queer literature.

“Oh but Imogen you say that about everything you like: ‘check out this queer subtext!'”

Fine, whatever.


My point is that just, okay. (Here are spoilers.) It took me a long time to understand that the main character, Bron, totally sucks, and I wasn’t supposed to like him. He basically spends all of his time justifying everything he does and writing off everything everybody else does; I don’t think it’s a coincidence that as the embodiment of a lot of kinds of privilege, even in the context of heterotopia (y’know, Foucault’s concept of heterotopia. Obviously), Delany chooses to make Bron tall white and blond.

So it took me a while to get that, and also the writing is a little bit knotty and it took me a long while to figure out the rhythm of it and, like, get with it. That happened maybe a hundred and fifty or a hundred and seventy-five pages in? Right around the time that the person Bron has a desperate, all-consuming, boundary disrespecting, selfish love obsession with sends him a letter saying “here are all the ways that you are a fucking dick.” THAT was what hooked me. Bron isn’t even an antihero- just a jerk.

See how studiously I’m avoiding pronouns? In order to justify, uh, something, or prove himself right about something- it’s not super clear, or maybe it is, but all I have is the impression that it’s extremely self-serving- Bron goes in to have his sex changed. And his sexuality surgically altered. Though there were points of language that I’d quibble with, the conversation between Bron and the sex-change surgeon was pretty interesting and for the most part pretty right on, in terms of a culture where there’s no stigma to pretty much any kind of social thing; the surgeon is like “sure, y’know, whatever,” and Bron is like “I NEED YOU TO MAKE ME A GIRL IN THE BRAIN,” and the surgeon is like “well, most of the folks whose sex we change here already feel like they kind of are girls. In their brains. You don’t?” Which again points to the way that Bron is more interested in being right than pretty much anything else- I know people like that!- which sets up a pretty interesting context for this instance of transsexuality.

I mean, Bron changes sexes, without actually being trans, right? There are shades of (what reads to me as) a kind of seventies feminist, like, if culture weren’t so busted there would be no trans people, which maybe Delany was putting there and maybe he wasn’t; I mean, maybe it’s true, and my point is just that well who knows, that’s not the most productive thing even to talk about. So anyway Bron becomes a lady and it doesn’t make her any less of a jerk and then the ending- again I am spoiling this for you- is this fantastic scene of Bron aaaaalmost realizing that she is a jerk and her problem isn’t with everyone and everything else, but is instead her own bull-headed conviction that she deserves everything good in the world and the fact that she doesn’t get it is this massive cosmic injustice… but then she can’t quite get it, so she just lets it go, implying that she’s just gonna keep putting coping mechanisms in place, instead of dealing with her shit. Ha! Fuck yes! Fuck a happy ending!

Right after I finished this I got out my copy of the Passion of New Eve, by Angela Carter, which I’d been meaning to read for forever because it’s another story of a man who’s forced to become a woman even though he’s not trans. And it’s from roughly the same time period, too- and Angela Carter, also, was totally a wingnut (not to mention a phenomenal writer), so I’ve read the first sixty pages of her novel. I mean, other stuff than the gender thing happened in Trouble on Triton, but maybe predictably that was what was most interesting for me. I dunno. I’ll let you know how it goes. So far the epicness and the way settings are established, deepened and then left behind is reminding me of Carter’s The Infernal Desire Machines of Dr. Hoffman, which was a pretty awesome book. Fuck Yeah Angela Carter. Mira said it was like a long fictionmania fantasy, except written by a sadistic feminist cis woman instead of a… well, I don’t want to say anything mean.

Gender Born, Gender Made

May 4, 2011

So today in what seems maybe to have been an act of divine providence, this book “Gender Born, Gender Made,” by a psychologist named Diane Ehrensaft fell into my lap. I don’t know why it’s in my store, a week before it comes out, just a single copy- maybe Chris ordered it, I don’t know- but I snatched it up and started reading it on my lunch break and had to stop reading it because I was starting to cry.

It’s a book about gender variant- a phrase she wants to replace with “gender creative,” which sounds kind of hippie but also you can’t argue with the way “gender variant” centers cisnormative genders/gender performances- kids, and how to be a child therapist for them without being a fucking J Mike or Ken Zucker. In the first chapter, she’s already talked about how aversion therapy doesn’t work, and how samples are skewed and controls don’t exist in the experiments Zucker & co cite, and just about how bad the science is there- and, most importantly, how if you’re doing counseling, you’re supposed to do no fucking harm, and it’s just blatantly, infuriatingly clear how much harm reparative/aversion therapy does, if you look at it from any perspective other than ‘transsexuality is unacceptable.’

I’ve always hoped that this stuff was out there in the legitimate psychological literature, but in the context of the prevalence of the ‘make your kid cry until they stop being such fuckin queers’ school of psychology, I haven’t seen it anywhere. And I’ve been in the process of figuring out how to go to school to shout down that busted-up school of psychology, figuring that I was going to have to burn down my own path to even start talking about how much harm this kind of praxis does, so seeing this in print just feels like breathing after not being able to breathe. Or some better metaphor.

So anyway it certainly might let me down and break my heart- desert me- but I just want to tell you how much I hope it doesn’t. And you know how pessimistic I am about books that aren’t written by Kathy Acker or Dennis Cooper or maybe Angela Carter- it’s hard for me to be optimistic.

Also I’m supposed to be reading this advance copy of Embassytown that Cat gave me, to review for The Green Man Review– which I’m super into, actually. It’s nice to read anti-colonial science fiction about semiotics. But I am going to be on buses for like ten hours tomorrow, and I feel like I’m gonna have to shirk my responsibility to Cat and China to read this book about trans kids (which is about other things than trans kids, obvs) first.

It’s the hard knock life, etc