Updated: May 23
If you happen to have the misfortune to sign up for one of those ubiquitous Gender Studies programmes at university chances are that sooner or later you'll find yourself reading a certain Angela Carter. Beloved of the post-modern feminist academic, Carter ticks all the right boxes - never more so than with her 1977 novel, The Passion of New Eve.
Opening in post-apocalyptic America, this is a strange brew that does occasionally groan under the weight of its own symbolism. Examining the meaning of masculine and feminine, stripping it back, tearing it apart, it's almost as if this text was specifically written for the consumption of radical academics, a reality which does rather limit its appeal somewhat.
The novel is a first person account from a male character called Evelyn who is pitched somewhat unwittingly into a series of encounters that shape and ultimately reverse his/her gender identity. I would have loved to have heard the pitch for this to the editors of Gollancz:
After impregnating 'Mother' - a composite female Goddess 'neath the Californian desert, post-apocalyptic man gets gender re-alignment surgery against his wishes, then gets himself up the duff by an old movie star whom he used to worship as female, but who is actually male. Then it really gets weird . . .
Confused? You will be.
And yet it all starts so wonderfully filmic as Evelyn hooks up with 'Black Leila' in her Manhattan hovel, using and abusing this passive go-go dancer entirely for his own pleasure. Fun over, Evelyn is off to the desert where his ritual castration will take place.
Evelyn's various interactions in different millieus with different characters delivers a sense of disorientation which gives the impression of reading a series of short stories, rather than a complete novel. It is Evelyn and Evelyn alone that brings these various threads together. It might work for some, but others might find the narrative structure a touch disconnected, episodic.
It's not only the structure of this novel that might cause problems for the casual reader. For the majority of readers a good dictionary will be absolutely vital before tackling this, de rigeur. Miss Carter does like words that are big and obscure, the bigger and obscurer the better. Let's just say Orwell would not have approved of such an overt display of wordiness. Showing off or writing for a specific audience? Judge for yourself.
After the initial encounter in seedy New York, Evelyn's adventures come thick and fast, a post-modern Alice in a Wonderland. Joining the all-female harem of one-legged chauvinist Zero, this time in his new female incarnation of Eve, leads to some very vivid descriptions and hair-raising adventures. When reading about Zero I can't help but see Motorhead's Lemmy replete with confederate hat. Curiouser and curiouser.
Meanwhile California is burning. The world is ending. Evelyn hooks up with a Hollywood starlet of his-her boyhood who is actually a bloke . . . Dystopian nightmares don’t come any more surreal, trust me.
A word of warning: through its sheer panache this book can and does occasionally lose itself, an inherent danger with a non-linear novel that relies so heavily on symbolism and myth. This novel certainly makes you work hard. Demanding is indeed the word. Readers looking for a casual, light read might be well advised to look elsewhere.
Carter's description-defying novel is usually filed under 'fantasy' and/or 'symbolism.' Getting to grips with this multi-layered story is certainly no easy task, but immensly satisfying for those who can achieve this not inconsiderable feat of interpretative mastery.
Frankly, there are easier places to start in the Carter cannon than with this bizarre at times ostentatious offering e.g. The Magic Toyshop. For those who decide to begin with The Passion of New Eve, be warned you will be jumping in at the deepest of deep ends. Some will swim others will sink.