Tuesday, March 30, 2010

the last book I read

The Infernal Desire Machines Of Doctor Hoffman by Angela Carter.

So there's this guy, Doctor Hoffman. And he has these machines. And what they do is project hallucinatory images over vast distances, but not just images that can't be touched, this is your actual interfering with the fabric of reality on some level that can be felt, touched, held, eaten, had sex with, etc. In an unspecified country (which I think we're meant to infer is in Latin America somewhere) the Minister charges one of his deputies, Desiderio, with the task of seeking out Doctor Hoffman and destroying him and his machines.

The trouble is, with all this mucking about with reality going on it's hard to tell what's real and what isn't. And who do you trust? And who is the mysterious Albertina who keeps cropping up in various disguises? As Desiderio embarks on his ill-defined mission he soon falls into a series of increasingly surreal adventures: calling in first at a nearby town to investigate the unexplained disappearance of its mayor, he stays the night at the mayor's residence, casually has sex with the mayor's sleepwalking daughter and is then forced to flee with the police in hot pursuit after she turns up dead the following day.

Taking refuge on a boat with a group of river-dwelling natives, he soon finds himself betrothed to their nine-year-old daughter. Gradually it becomes clear that the betrothal is just an elaborate ruse to have him served up cannibal stylee as the centrepiece of the wedding feast, so he escapes. Next he falls in with a group of Moroccan circus acrobats who in addition to performing many mind-boggling and physically implausible feats of skill and daring (taking their own heads off and juggling with them, that sort of thing) are partial to equally mind-boggling sexual feats, as Desiderio discovers when he is anally gang-raped by the entire troupe in their caravan.

Recovering in a secluded cave, Desiderio returns to the town only to find it, all its inhabitants and the entire circus have been washed away by a flash-flood. After being rescued by a mysterious European Count and his manservant, the group embark on a strange journey via a brothel populated by human-animal hybrids before ending up at sea and being shipwrecked on an African island where there are more cannibals (what are the chances?). This lot manage to boil the Count to death in a big cauldron before Desiderio and the manservant escape.

To no-one's great surprise the manservant turns out to be Albertina in disguise, and she leads Desiderio into even stranger territory as they encounter a race of centaurs. So far, so Gulliver's Travels, although Albertina's prolonged gang-rape by the entire herd of male centaurs is a detail Swift chose to leave out for some reason (much to Gulliver's relief no doubt). As Desiderio and Albertina are about to be sacrificed in some bizarre religious ritual they are rescued by Doctor Hoffman's helicopters and taken to his castle.

Having left Gulliver's Travels territory we segue straight into The Wizard Of Oz as Desiderio meets the fairly grey and unremarkable Doctor Hoffman who gives him a tour of the castle and his anti-reality generating apparatus. It turns out this is entirely powered by a whole room filled with ranks of copulating lovers; the Doctor's ultimate plan is for Desiderio and Albertina to finally consummate their love for each other and send out a final overwhelming wave of sex power to destroy the world, or something like that. I was strongly reminded of Viz's Doctor Sex at this point.

Anyway, at the last possible minute Desiderio rebels against the fate planned for him, accidentally kills the Doctor and then rather more deliberately kills Albertina, shuts down the machines, restores reality and escapes back home to be greeted as a hero. His feelings on the subject are rather more mixed, probably at least partly because he never actually managed to get his end away with Albertina. The depiction of sex in the book is very strange - Desiderio never consummates his relationship with the nine-year-old river girl Aoi (though he does manage a perfunctory quickie with her grandmother in the boat's galley), no-one seems to actually get laid at the brothel and Albertina keeps Desiderio waiting until they get to her father's castle, presumably to ensure an overwhelming world-destroying gush of pure sex power, though possibly also because she was smarting a bit after the whole centaur rape thing. Even the massed coupling in the Doctor's sex farm is a pretty mechanical and joyless business. Most of the sexual encounters that actually happen in the book are rapes - Desiderio by the acrobats, the Count's manservant (actually Albertina in disguise, don't forget) by the Count and then Albertina by the entire starting line-up of the Grand National.

Criticising Angela Carter books for being a bit weird is a bit like criticising the Pope for being Catholic, though, so you really just want to go with the flow. If you do you'll find it a uniquely surreal experience; nobody else writes quite like this. Or rather wrote, as Carter died of lung cancer in 1992 at the age of 51. I've only read one other Carter novel, Love, which at only 120 pages is little more than a short story. In fact I think Carter is one of those writers (JG Ballard is another) whose powerfully concentrated strangeness is probably best served by the short story format anyway: as good as TUDMODH is if you only want one Angela Carter I'd say you probably want the 1979 collection The Bloody Chamber.


The Black Rabbit said...

Yeah yeah. Waddever.

Would you like to see a bull rape a dwarf?
Then copy and paste the link below into your address bar...


electrichalibut said...

How the hell did we pass the time before the internet? I suppose we must have, like, gone outside and stuff.