Fireworks: Nine Profane Pieces
Recently, Larry posted a list of things he wanted to see covered in the blogging community and on that list was the work of Angela Carter. While I am by no means any sort of Carter expert, I am an aficionado of her work, and I felt both that it would be something interesting to do and that I could do a decent job. Over the next few weeks, I will be covering all of Carter’s short fiction, a few of her novels, as well as perhaps her dramatic works and non-fiction. For those of you who appreciate Carter’s work I hope you find what I have to say interesting and insightful, and for those of you who haven’t read Carter’s work I hope that these articles pique your interest, and convince you to give them a try.
Fireworks: Nine Profane Pieces, 1974
When I went outside to see if he was coming home, some children dressed ready for bed in cotton nightgowns were playing with sparklers in the vacant lot on the corner. When the sparks fell down in beards of stars, the smiling children cooed softly. Their pleasure was very pure because it was so restrained. An old woman said: ‘And so they pestered their father until he bought them fireworks.’ In this language, fireworks are called hannabi, which means ‘flower fire’. All through summer, every evening, you can see all kinds of fireworks, from the humblest to the most elaborate, and once we rode the train out to Shinjuku for an hour to watch one of the public displays which are held over rivers so that the dark water multiplies the reflections.
Inspired by her time living in Japan between 1969 and 1971 as well as her divorce and the grotesqueries of Poe, Fireworks is Carter’s first short story collection and contains nine different stories dealing with: relationships between people, sexual awakening, abuse, social taboos, reflections, male and female power dynamics, and feminism in general. As she remarks in Sacred Writing, living in Japan and the repression of women that occurs there caused her to become radicalised, and it was during this period in her life that she first developed her strong feminist views evident in her work. Her prose is lush and beautiful, and her imagery is at times surreal or sensual, but always rich. It may not be the best of her short story collections, but all of the stories are strong and show her evident talent as a writer through her control over language and her mastery of symbolism. The stories are powerful and permeated throughout by meaning.
The first story in the collection, A Souvenir of Japan, is the story about a gaijin woman living in Japan and the relationship she has with a Japanese man that she lives with. They meet in a toy store, over a children’s pop-up book showing the Japanese folktale of Momotaro, the boy born from the peach. She lovingly nicknames him Taro, mistaking his repressed masochism, usually found in women in the west, for innocence, and when he is sleeping hunched up she believes him to resemble a goblin. While she at first is happy, she soon realises the inherent sexism in Japanese society, and she is ostracized and judged by the other people in her neighbourhood, (which despite its appearance is little more than a slum), for being older than Taro. He abuses her psychologically with his absence, confining her to the inner room while he stays away as long as possible, roaming the town with his friends like some “existential hero”, seeking some way to overcome his never ending feeling of ennui. They both try to objectify the other in order to possess them before the other can; recalling the Sartrean ontology of the relationship between the self and other, in the way that the self seeks to annihilate the other through his or her own being. They view each other by relation to the self and as a result never really see the other. Taro’s claims of undying love is only a form of rhetoric, he is only concerned with the idea of being in love as if it could be some way of curing himself of his boredom, but in reality they are just platitudes. Carter likens this kind of conviction to those tragic endings often found in Bunraku in which the lovers commit suicide. Her life is like the fireworks, all for appearances, the truth is much worse and nothing can ever survive it.
The second story, The Executioner’s Beautiful Daughter, is a tale of incest in a small mountain village. The town is populated by ugly, hairy, and dirty peasants who have been banished from normal society for engaging in incest. They long to do terrible immoral and unconscionable things, but lack the understanding or know how to do so. As is fitting, the most terrible crime in this society is incest, and the sentence is death by decapitation from the town’s terrible executioner. When the story begins, we see him decapitate his own son for having a sexual relationship with his daughter, as she is the only beautiful person in the village. We learn that he is a hypocrite as he is the only person who does not have to fear being executed, he regularly engages in incest himself. The executioner is grotesque, as Carter describes how his face has become contorted to mirror his mask, and the way the daughter’s abuse is almost normal only makes it a more disturbing story as it gives the impression of the abuse being systematic. Everyday forced to serve her father’s whims as a servant and sexually at night the daughter dreams of her dead brother riding on a bicycle, even though she does not know what one is. The most interesting thing about the story is that nothing really happens, other than the execution of the son; the lack of any sort of action in the story perfectly displays the stoppage of time, which mirrors the stagnation of the village and its people. It is in this sense almost a painting or a snapshot of a moment.
The Loves of Lady Purple is third and the story I personally believe to be the best in the collection. The story is about a puppeteer and his beautiful puppet the oriental Venus Lady Purple, and the story he has concocted of her life that the puppet show consists of. Abandoned at the door of a wealthy couple as a baby, when she reaches sexually maturity she seduces her adopted father, before murdering both of her adopting parents, stealing the contents of the safe, and heading off to the nearest brothel. There she becomes an expert whore and a skilled dominatrix, taking many lovers, experiencing great pleasure in torturing them and ruining them all for her own enjoyment. Eventually though, her fortunes change and she is reduced to combing the shore in rags for the hair from drowned corpses that wash up on the beach to sell to the town’s wigmakers. Her sex-drive now nymphomania forces her to engage in acts of necrophilia. After the show one night, when the puppeteer engages in his habitual childish ritual of kissing the doll after every show, she comes to life and kisses him back, only to bite his neck, killing him. The story works so well because it is essentially about the way in which patriarchy dictates the roles of women. Lady Purple can only be what she is, and that is dictated by the history that the puppeteer has instilled in her. In a tautological question of whether life is imitating art or art is imitating life. On coming to life the puppet can only relive her own origin by murdering the one who loved and cared for her, and heading to the nearest brothel.
In The Smile of Winter Carter really shows of her skill as a stylist as she uses the landscape of a desolate beach to convey the loneliness of a gaijin woman in Japan. She carefully adds each part of the landscape to paint a clear picture of isolation and loneliness: the absent sound of seagulls, the refuge washing up on the beach from the polluted sea, the hardhearted fisher women and more. As the protagonist describes the world around her, she knows that she is imposing herself onto it, personifying it in order to suit her own narrative. The ontological truth is that despite her egocentric view of the world, none of these things that she describes care about her loneliness or her sorrow, they are by the very nature of their existence indifferent. This becomes a sort of strength, as she writes in the final paragraph:
Do not think I do not realise what I am doing. I am making a composition using the following elements: the winter beach; the winter moon; the ocean; the women; the pine trees; the riders; the driftwood; the shells; the shapes of darkness and the shapes of the water; and the refuse. These are all inimical to my loneliness because of their indifference to it. Out of these pieces of inimical indifference, I intend to represent the desolate smile of winter which, as you must have gathered, is the smile I wear.
Her loneliness she will wear like a badge of honour, not allowing it to define her but choosing to define it herself, the universe’s indifference will instead be personified in her smile. In doing so, she instead transforms it into the kind of strength that can only be found in this kind of solitary existence.
Fifth in the collection is Penetrating to the Heart of the Forest, a story about the maturing and sexual awakening of two siblings, a brother and sister, as they explore a dark and mysterious forest. They are brought to the village on the outskirts by their father after their mother’s death, who has an absent minded nature and seems only interested in his work. As a result they are raised mostly by the books in his library and the people of the village, and grow up in awe of the great forest so close by. The villagers are descended from emancipated slaves, and have brought their culture with them, including some belief in voodoo and they believe that at the centre of the forest is a dark, evil tree, the image of the Upas Tree of Java, murderous and poisonous. The children long to discover the centre of the forest together and so head into it in order to explore it, where a change in the relationship between them occurs. Before they had always done things together, always been equals, always understood, but there in the forest that changes when a carnivorous lily bites the sister. As Carter writes:
Her words fell heavy with a strange weight, as heavy as her own gravity, as if she might have received some mysterious communication from the perfidious mouth that wounded her. At once, listening to her, Emile thought of that legendary tree; and then he realised that, for the first time in his life, that he did not understand her, for, of course, they had heard of the tree. Looking at her in a new puzzlement, he sensed the ultimate difference of a femininity he had never before known or any need or desire to acknowledge and this difference might give her the key to some order of knowledge to which he might not yet aspire, himself, for all at once she seemed far older than he. She raised her eyes and fixed on him a long, solemn regard which chained him in a conspiracy of secrecy, so that, henceforth, they would share only with one another the treacherous marvels round them.
From there, the story becomes a retelling of the Fall, the sister becoming a new type of Eve, and the centre of the forest a new type of Eden. It ends, unsurprisingly, in the centre of the forest with a piece of fruit and a kiss to mirror its source material. The story is interesting as a take on gender roles as a reclassification of Eve from the role to profane to something sacred, the act being empowering instead of a sin, but I feel ultimately the story falls a little flat in a rare misstep. A lot of the early exposition seems extraneous, and doesn’t gel with the end, making it feel like it changes direction in the middle and as a result almost becomes two separate stories.
Constructed notions of the self and others, idealised ideas about love and infidelity are the themes of Carter’s sixth story, Flesh and the Mirror. When the protagonist returns to Japan, her lover is not there waiting for her, and as a result she decides to create her own reality by walking the streets of Tokyo looking for a stranger to take as a new lover. She finds a man and they have sex in a hotel under a great mirror, and it is almost a revelatory experience as it is like no mirror she has seen before; it annihilates time and space and treats them with charity and indifference. The reason she feels that way is because the mirror gazes on people who do not know each other acting out of character, it does not judge them, they are not themselves, they are the ghosts of themselves and they are defined not by themselves but by the mirror. She doesn’t feel guilty during the act, only afterwards when she has to slip back into character and is expected to be ashamed. When she meets up with her boyfriend, we learn that the relationship between them is not real; they merely project onto each other their own ideas of love, and the idealised idea of who the other person should be. Carter writes;
So I suppose I do not know how he really looked and, in fact, I suppose I shall never know now, for he was plainly an object created in the mode of fantasy. His image was already somewhere present in my head and I was seeking to discover it in actually, looking at every face I met in case it was the right face – that is, the face that would correspond to my notion of the unseen face of the one I should love, a face created parthenogenetically by the rage to love which consumed me. So his self, and, by his self, I mean the thing he was to himself, was quite unknown to me. I created him solely in relation to myself, like a work of romantic art, an object corresponding to the ghost inside me. When I’d first loved him, I wanted to take him apart, as a child dismembers a clockwork toy, to comprehend the inscrutable mechanics of its interior. I wanted to see him far more naked than he was with his clothes off. It was easy enough to strip him bare and I then picked up my scalpel and set to work. But, since I was so absolutely in charge of the dissection, I only discovered what I was able to recognize already, from past experience, inside him. If ever I found anything new to me, I steadfastly ignored it. I was so absorbed in this work it never occurred to me to wonder if it hurt him.
From here the relationship can only disintegrate, nothing can survive that sort of harsh truth, and the couple only lasts a few days before they go their separate ways. Like A Souvenir of Japan, what makes this story so strong is that it has something meaningful, almost profound, to say about interpersonal relationships and the way in which we objectify not only others, but also ourselves by the way in which we force ourselves to live in the way in which we are characterized. “The most difficult performance in the world is acting naturally, isn’t it? Everything else is artful.”
For her seventh story, Master, Carter adopts a Latin American magical realist style in order to tell the story of a sadistic school boy who grows up to become a hunter in Africa. There he buys a slave by trading a tribe one of the young tribe’s girls for his spare tire, who he nicknames Friday (Carter’s nod to Defoe, “the father of bourgeoisie novel in England”) and teaches only two words, her name and his: “master”. He uses her as a slave and sexually abuses her, usually with the butt of his rifle before his penis. As he travels around African, he continues to only hunt and kill jaguars, drinking a crude form of alcohol distilled with bananas acquired from a priest. He begins to get sick though, having contracted malaria, but this only seems to make him more sadistic. Friday, seeing the gun as his source of his power, begins to mimic him and herself becomes a great killer and an even better hunter than he. The more she kills the more she begins to transform into something else, and when the hunter is sick and has run out of alcohol, she completes her transformation by making him her prey. Like Penetrating to the Centre of the Forest, this story doesn’t quite work, as it does not compare to the work of the great magical realists like Marquez and co and as a result feels like Carter is adapting her own work into someone else’s style. One of the great strengths of Carter’s work, for me, is that is it uniquely her own, and working in someone else’s style feels like a step backwards.
Reflections is my least favourite story in the collection, and probably my least favourite Carter short story, as it is a bit of a mess. It is the story of a man who finds himself at gunpoint in a strange house where he meets an almost Janus-faced hermaphrodite, with a face half masculine and half feminine. She is furiously knitting so that nothing falls through from the world beyond the mirror, like the strange reversed shell that the protagonist found outside at the beginning of the story. It involves comparisons between the hermaphrodite’s penis and the other female character (Anna)’s gun. He is forced through the mirror into anti-existence where he is raped in a reversal of the usual roles, causing him to kill Anna with her own gun, for which the hermaphrodite screams at him for raping her. I think I recognize some of the ideas that Carter is working with, the equation of male genitals to the gun as force, and the rape as a reversal of traditional gender roles, and perhaps even some alchemical meaning in the use of a hermaphrodite, but I found the story confusing, hard to follow, and heavy on symbolism from someone usually skilled at its use. As a story, its failures are much more evident than the two other small missteps in this collection, and while it isn’t a terrible story by any means, it just feels like a failed experiment.
The final story in the collection is Elegy for a Freelance, and it has a much more political slant to it, telling the story of a murder and the consequences in rented accommodation in London. There is a rather wonderful description of the city, which reads:
London lay below me with her legs wide open; she was a whore sufficiently accommodating to find room for us in he embraces, even though she cost so much to love.
She is so old she ought to be superannuated, you said, the old cow. She paints so thickly over the stratified residue of yesterday and the day before the day before’s cosmetics you can hardly make out the wens and blemishes under all the layers of paint, graffiti and old posters – voluptuous, oppressive, corrupt, self-regarding London marinating in the syrup of her own decay like baba au rhum, while the property speculators burrow away at her guts with the vile diligence of gonococci.
The unnamed protagonist of the story lives an almost bohemian life in the basement of sex and planning political terrorism with her boyfriend, the sociopathic X, who idolizes assassins and Russian revolutionaries. They plot to kill a politician, and when drawing lots for who will shoot him, X wins, but he loses his nerve and goes upstairs to make sure he can kill someone, murdering the landlord and stealing his savings. The protagonist is horrified by his actions, as she sees it as crude murder betraying their idealism. They tie X up, and she and her neighbours A, B, and C have to decide how he should be punished in a form of community justice, while they also deal with the birth of A’s child. They decide to hang him on Hampstead Heath, but leave the corpse uncovered so there is the possibility they may too be punished for their actions. Arguing over what they should do next, they learn that a military coup has overthrown the government and taken control of the country. The story is interesting because it recalls an earlier time in Carter’s life, as well as creating a picture of claustrophobia in the basement and the corruption of idealism by greed. In a sense it also mirrors the way in which all revolutionary movements have resorted to crime and used the epoch of history as an excuse.
In conclusion, Fireworks is a great collection of stories despite the occasional misstep. The Loves of Lady Purple is a fantastic story, and is one of my favourite in all of Carter’s short work and the three linked stories set in Japan, A Souvenir of Japan, The Smile of Winter, and The Flesh and the Mirror are raw and reveal a personal side of herself from her experiences living Japan and her divorce that is rarely seen in any of her other work. The majority of the stories are compelling, often shocking, and permeated with insights into the self, interpersonal relationships, existential anxiety, and the politics of gender. Carter has a strong, unique voice and a fantastic control of the English language, able to conjure up vividly beautiful and grotesque scenes alike with ease, as the quoted sections demonstrate and her strong use of motifs throughout the story pull you in time and again. That being said, the collection is not without its flaws. Thematically overall it lacks the cohesion of her other collections and there are a few missteps when it comes to her stories as discussed, but that does not diminish that fact that it is still a fantastic collection of stories than shows us a portrait of an author finding herself and beginning to embody herself through her work. In that sense, Fireworks represents a sort of birth, the birth of one of the best Anglophone writers of the past fifty years, and for that reason alone it belongs in the library of all of you reading. The true joy though is that her stories only get better from here, and I hope you will stick around to see them.
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