When I discovered that Delia at Postcards from Asia and Caroline at Beauty is a Sleeping Cat were hosting the Angela Carter Week from 8th to 15th June, I immediately signed up.
Then I skipped off to Wikipedia and saw, alongside that interesting picture, that she was an English writer known for her feminism, magical realism and picaresque writing. I later also came across an interesting interview of A. S. Byatt, in which she describes her first meeting with Carter, with whom she became great friends, and admits:
“…About five years ago she (Angela Carter) said that she had realized that she was a writer because of fairy tales, because she was hooked on narrative as a child, not by realist novels about social behavior or how to be a good girl, but by these very primitive stories that go I think a lot deeper. It wasn’t until she said it that I felt empowered…”
American Ghosts and Old World Wonders by Angela Carter is a stylish book, a little slow but avant-garde. I’ve read five stories in this collection so far and it’ll be easier to write about all in one three-starred review. But this story deserves a post of its own. It has some of the most imaginative, creative writing I have read in a while.
America begins and ends in the cold and solitude. Up here, she pillows her head upon the Arctic snow. Down there, she dips her feet in the chilly waters of the South Atlantic, home of the perpetually restless albatross.
That is an excellent sample of the kind of descriptions and metaphors Angela treats you with throughout the book. But John Ford’s ‘Tis a Pity She’s a Whore is special. The unique story begins with a note: John Ford was an English playwright, best known for his tragedy, ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore. In his time, the play was hugely controversial, and was retitled Giovanni and Annabella, after the two siblings whose scandalous incestuous affair the story follows.
In her story John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, Angela Carter has re-imagined the Jacobean play as a movie by the Irish American film director, also named John Ford, who was popular for his westerns. The siblings have been aptly renamed Johnny and Annie-Belle, and that is only the first of the many cheeky puns and tropes the story uses. It is not just a retelling, but an Americanization; one that will make you both throw your head back and laugh, and marvel at its ingenuity.
The story itself is pretty straightforward. When their mother dies, Johnny and Annie-Belle are left with their father, who has no time for them, and live far away from anyone else. Silence and space and an unimaginable freedom which they dare not imagine. Their affair, which seems only natural at first, leads to suspicious rumours about town, and ends in an unwanted pregnancy. Finally aware of the ‘wrongness’ of their love, Annie-Belle, the good girl that she is, agrees to marry the Minister’s son, who has always thought her pretty. The pregnancy becomes known only after the wedding, and while the Minister’s wife swears to kick the girl out, the men of the family show her an uncanny kindness. Annie-Belle tells her husband that the father of the child is a random passerby, no one he knows. Johnny, seething with rage, jealousy, running on alcohol, sets off to set the record straight.
What really stirs me is the brilliant structure of the story. It reads like a combination of a proper narrative, a script of a play and a screenplay. The action flits back and forth in time, as does the language. The alternating techniques and juxtaposing styles form a deeply interactive story, which uses its reader’s imagination as fuel. Carter breaks all the rules; gives you background music, stage directions, an omniscient narrator, notes to herself and camera positions. Varying the placing of the text, playing with the indents, using the page as almost a canvas, she creates an artwork of a short story.
EXTERIOR. PRAIRIE. DAY
(Close up) Johnny and Annie-Belle kiss.
“Love Theme” up.
No. It wasn’t like that! Not in the least like that.
He put out his hand and touched her wet hair. He was giddy.
Annabella: Methinks you are not well.
Giovanni: Here’s none but you and I. I think you love me, sister.
Annabella: Yes, you know I do.
The innovative structure of this story takes nothing away from Carter’s fairy tale style, which features in the other stories of this collection as well. From the simplistic “Once upon a time…”-style beginning right up to the abrupt ending, Carter leaves the reader to draw his own conclusions. But, she does depart from the plot long enough to drop observations and opinions that challenge you to take a closer look at the tragedy and its implications.
Each time they lay down there together, as if she obeyed a voice that came out of the quilt telling her to put the light out, she would extinguish the candle flame between her finger-tips. All around them, the tactility of the dark.
She pondered the irreversibility of defloration. According to what the Minister’s wife said, she had lost everything and was a lost girl. And yet this change did not seem to have changed her.
Of the other stories I’ve read, I like Gun for the Devil, which revolves around an old legend, about a man who makes a pact with the devil to obtain a bullet that cannot miss its target. Should you decide to read this collection, here’s a fair warning: be prepared to have every expectation (and every notion of how a story ought to be) unforgivingly shattered.