Stories of Black and White

Michael Wood

  • In Love and Trouble: Stories of Black Women by Alice Walker
    Women’s Press, 138 pp, £7.50, September 1984, ISBN 0 7043 2852 6
  • Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter
    Chatto, 295 pp, £8.95, September 1984, ISBN 0 7011 3932 3
  • Democracy by Joan Didion
    Chatto, 234 pp, £8.95, September 1984, ISBN 0 7011 2890 9

The freedom to juggle with language, Angela Carter suggests, is a promise and perhaps an instrument of other freedoms. Certainly her own cheerful jokes bespeak a lively independence of hallowed prejudices. ‘It’s very tiring, not being alienated from your environment.’ ‘It won’t be much fun after the Revolution, people say. (Yes, but it’s not all that much fun, now.)’ St Petersburg, in her new novel, is ‘a city built of hubris, imagination and desire’, and that, Carter says, is what cities, and lives, should be: crazy possibilities, even impossibilities, juggled into practice. But what if the first freedom is illusory, if all we have to juggle with is cliché, the language of others, a shabby idiom we can’t refresh and can’t abandon? What if the ‘shop-soiled ... romance’ Carter finds so much energy in seems to us merely worn down, beaten thin, at best only the shadow of an old puzzle? This is the dilemma that confronts narrator and characters in Joan Didion’s Democracy, a novel whose title itself mimes the slippery problem. Democracy, in Didion’s work, is not a form of government but an item of rhetoric: what the world is to be made safe for; a conspiracy of empire rigged out as a heart-warming liberal dream. An organisation called the Alliance for Democratic Institutions is simply a means by which a once hopeful Presidential candidate in the novel seeks to keep his political flag flying.

The question of language doesn’t surface immediately in Alice Walker’s collection of stories, published in America in 1973, now appearing in England for the first time. But it does lie in wait for such writing, ready to pounce like maturity or disenchantment. The stories neatly evoke a familiar vision of the American South – magnolias, cotton, red dust and tumbledown shacks. A young girl picking flowers stumbles on the body of a lynched man. An old black lady wanders into a segregated church and is bustled away by the congregation, who project onto her dazed, innocent face all their own mean and multiple fears. Poor blacks move North, become Muslims, and return as tourists to their past; others stay at home and become theoretical militants, a jealous wife discovering that her long-suspected rival is a pile of books with the words ‘black’ and ‘revolutionary’ in their titles. A father beats and then mutilates his daughter because she has slept with a white man, and because – shades of Faulkner – she reminds her dad of his sister, and arouses in him the incestuous desire without which no Southern tale, it seems, is complete. Alice Walker’s prose can be precise and vivid, but it also goes in for high-toned solemnity: ‘it is the fallen flower most earnestly hated, most easily bruised.’ She knows what it means to be left behind by ‘progress’ and ‘liberation’, and how much anger and outrage can be stored in quiet-seeming lives, but she tends, in these stories, to express her knowledge in hasty, melodramatic dashes of violence, an attack with a chain-saw, arson. The best pieces here – ‘Roselily’, ‘Everyday Use’, ‘To Hell with Dying’ – note smaller changes, the almost secret defeats and victories of those who are generally seen, as Walker says of one desperate young mother, as ‘not anybody much’.

Angela Carter will have none of this subservience of fiction to gloomy fact. She sets her Nights at the Circus in the last months of the 19th century and makes quite a bit of play with the timing, but insists that her narrative, ‘as must by now be obvious’, does not belong to ‘authentic history’. It belongs instead to the history of hubris, imagination and desire, and a very disconcerting narrative it is. It disconcerts not so much by the lovingly-collected freaks it takes for characters, or by its capacious plot, always ready to welcome a new, stray story to its bosom, as by its very odd diction. It is a book full of echoes of other writers, Balzac, Blake, Sade, Baudelaire, Goethe, Mervyn Peake, Wallace Stevens and a host of forgotten describers of circuses, of Russia and of dear old smoky London, and for a while it seems lost in the throng. ‘Lor’ love you, sir,’ it opens in stage Cockney, introducing us to Fevvers, the famous winged lady trapeze artist, toast of Europe and friend of Toulouse Lautrec, a figure who has ‘deformed the dreams’ of an entire generation in Vienna. She is a sort of Zuleika Dobson of the music halls, a large, coarse, kindly woman, constantly downing eel pies and bacon sandwiches and champagne, and she unfolds her story for an initially sceptical American reporter called Jack Walser. She was brought up in an East End brothel run by a one-eyed madame whimsically known as Nelson; put in a spell at the dreaded Madame Schreck’s museum of women monsters; escaped from the clutches of a wealthy necromant who was intent on having her as a human sacrifice; and soared into her stage career, the secret of which seemed to be not the aerial feats she performed, which were quite ordinary, but the leisure in the air which her wings allowed her: ‘What made her remarkable as an aerialiste ... was the speed – or, rather the lack of it – with which she performed even the climactic triple somersault ... The music went much faster than she did; she dawdled. Indeed, she did defy the laws of projectiles, because a projectile cannot mooch along its trajectory.’

Fevvers doesn’t always speak like an extra in My Fair Lady. ‘Like any young girl,’ she says early in her tale, ‘I was much possessed with the marvellous blossoming of my until then reticent and undemanding flesh.’ And later: ‘This clock was, you might say, the sign, or signifier of Ma Nelson’s little private realm.’ Her different dialects are deliberately, comically brought together at times – ‘This is some kind of heretical possibly Manichean version of neo-Platonic Rosicrucianism, thinks I to myself’ – but the effect, although funny, doesn’t explain the prose. It all sounds like parody, but of what? We need to understand that we have climbed, not into an imitation of some aspect of the turn-of-the-century, but into a self-mocking myth which at first, unlike Fevvers, has a little trouble getting off the ground. Things are clearer once we have been given Fevvers’ past life, and the novel moves from London to St Petersburg and Siberia.

Fevvers has signed up with a circus run by Colonel Kearney (Captain Kearney at one inexplicable moment), a short, fat, cigar-chewing, bourbon-swilling Kentuckian (no stinting on clichés here – you either relish them or wince) whose great ambition is to outdo Hannibal’s modest exploit with elephants and take ‘tuskers to the Land of the Rising Sun’, across the steppes no less. The American reporter has also signed up, in pursuit, he thinks, of the enigma of Fevvers – are her vast wings fact or fiction? – but already falling in love with her hefty charms and motherly lack of nonsense. Various adventures and encounters follow: the lapse into madness of a great clown, a tiger’s rebellion, the defection of the whole pack of Monsieur Lamarck’s Educated Apes, the derailment of the circus train in the wilderness, a mighty, destroying whirlwind. We hear the story of the girl who posed for the dead, imitating lost ones lured from the grave by the tears of the bereaved; of the murderess who set up her own House of Correction; of the Grand Duke who planned, it seems, to shrink Fevvers to a miniature and imprison her in a Fabergé egg. There are bandits, shamans, revolutionaries all adrift in a Siberia borrowed, in about equal doses, from Woody Allen and Dostoevsky. The Tsar, a bandit says, weeping – ‘the Little Father of All the Russians ... is the friend of simple truth and doesn’t know the half of what his officials get up to on the side.’ Fevvers thinks: ‘Nobility of spirit hand in hand with absence of analysis, that’s what’s always buggered up the working class.’

Walser goes mad but returns to sanity and Fevvers’ arms, and the book ends in glee: ‘The spiralling tornado of Fevvers’ laughter began to twist and shudder across the entire globe, as if a spontaneous response to the giant comedy that endlessly unfolded beneath it, until everything that lived and breathed, everywhere, was laughing.’ Fevvers has understood the joke of life, and also the freedom that lives in jokes, including the freedom from taking her own symbolism too seriously. She is the New Woman, as Ma Nelson says, ‘the pure child of the century that just now is waiting in the wings, the New Age in which no women will be bound down to the ground’. I’m not sure whether ‘waiting in the wings’ is a gag, or just one metaphor stepping on the toes of another. I’m not sure either whether ‘bound down’ is really meant to conflate being bound and bowing down. But Fevvers herself talks the same way: ‘And once the old world has turned on its axle so that the new dawn can dawn, then, ah, then! all the women will have wings, the same as I.’ Fevvers is a revision, an inversion of the myth of Leda and the Swan, which is a ‘demonstration of the blinding access of the grace of flesh’. The knockabout prose, the intellectual burlesque, fall into place here. The dream is worth dreaming, but there is no point in pretending it doesn’t look silly. To have shown that silliness is not incompatible with urgency is itself an achievement, and one we might have expected of the Angela Carter we know from her essays. But the imaginative achievement of Nights at the Circus is rather different, and can be suggested by a quick look at the behaviour of animals in the book. The elephants continually rattle their chains because they know there is a chance that ‘in a hundred years, or a thousand years’ time, or else, perhaps, tomorrow, in an hour’s time, for it was all a gamble’, their shackles may weaken and fall. The chimpanzees are incomparably more intelligent and responsible than most human beings, merely lack the organs to produce the sounds we have agreed to call language. Tigers wonder, every time they go into their act, why they are so pleased to do as they are told: ‘for just one unprotected minute, they pondered the mystery of their obedience and were astonished by it.’ These are not humans in animal drag, as in Orwell or Aesop, and they are not natural creatures whose liberation might be a cause to fight for. They are sympathetic pictures of difference, of an alienness which is both irreducible and overrated. ‘I didn’t know his God,’ Lawrence said of the fish, which is true enough, although he knew its sex. If the fish had been in a bowl, Lawrence would have known its prison. It is tempting to translate Carter’s imagery into sexual terms, where crude differences are fiercely promoted, and subtler, multifarious differences are often frantically denied.

There are two other images involving tigers, though, which do not belong to this pattern. In the first, the tigers in the mirrored saloon of the circus train disappear into, but not through, the looking-glass when the train crashes: ‘On one broken fragment of mirror, a paw with the claws out; on another, a snarl. When I picked up a section of flank, the glass burned my fingers.’ In the second image tigers, entranced by music, lie on the roof of a house in the middle of the Siberian nowhere, ‘stretched across the tiles like abandoned greatcoats’, a ‘thatch of swooning tigers’. The music is Mignon’s song from Wilhelm Meister: ‘not a sad song, not poignant, not a plea ... She does not ask you if you know that land of which she sings because she herself is uncertain ... She states the existence of that land and all she wants to know is, whether you know it, too.’ It would be easy to maul these scenes with interpretation; hard to miss their magical air of violence not tamed but transposed, their hint of Blakean innocence; their less peaceful suggestion that even mirrored animals can snarl and burn.

It is understandable that the creator of the fulsome Fevvers should not be drawn to the ‘wet and spineless’ heroines of the Seventies, ‘the zomboid creatures in Joan Didion’s novels, for example’. I have always found it curious that Didion, who in her essays is such an alert and diligent observer of the busy world, should construct her novels around such withdrawn, benumbed women, but I take it that these pieces of her working life do match, make a picture: the journalism saves her from what the characters in the novels are always in danger of becoming. Democracy doesn’t offer a different type of heroine, but it does address the question her heroines pose for Didion, and it permits her to wonder how much of a novelist she is.

Inez Christian, the child of a rootless (later crazy) father and a flighty, vanishing mother, is brought up in Hawaii, that well-heeled American colony, marries Harry Victor, a promising young mainland politician, and has two children. She accompanies her husband through twenty years of half-truths and tackiness, the long climb up, the missed nomination, and then one day, when she can stand it no longer, she leaves him. Her son follows in his father’s treacly footsteps, her daughter is saved from heroin addiction only to take off, mindlessly, into the welter of the fall of Saigon. Inez herself is involved in certain violent incidents which provide the novel with its nicely held suspense, and Didion with the narrative difficulties she wants to look at. Asked by a reporter what she thinks the major cost of public life is, Inez replies: ‘Memory ... Something like shock treatment ... I mean you lose track.’ The reporter queries: ‘ “Lose track” of what exactly?’ ‘Of what happened ... Of what you said.’ ‘I see,’ the reporter says. ‘Yes. During the campaign.’ ‘Well, no,’ Inez says. ‘During your ... During your whole life ... You drop fuel. You jettison cargo. Eject the crew. You lose track.’ ‘I thought,’ the narrator remarks, ‘of Inez Victor’s capacity for passive detachment as an affectation born of boredom, the frivolous habit of an essentially idle mind.’ Later she sees it differently: ‘I thought of it as the essential mechanism for living a life in which the major cost is memory.’

Inez is what Didion’s earlier heroines were trying to be when they got lost: a woman without qualities. She resists definition, because the only definition available in Didion’s world is self-caricature. Inez’s husband, her children, her sister, her dim brother-in-law, her entrepreneurial uncle and his wife, all are travesties of human creatures, talentless actors consumed by lamentable roles, and Didion is mercilessly funny about them, about their astonishing gift, for example, of evading everything that looks like reality. Indeed, as I suggested, the book is in one sense about the language these characters inhabit, the awful homes of stereotype they make or borrow to live in. Didion creates a sort of chamber music out of their jargon, which in her depressed way she must enjoy as much as Carter does her clichés. People have irons in the fire, balls in the air. They go through the mill, through the wars. They triangulate for coverage, handicap for bias, figure in leanings, consider the filter on the lens. They don’t want the hassle, their options remain open. Certain disagreeable things ‘come with the life’ of a politician, and a politician’s wife always has ‘very special’ feelings about education and the arts. Heroin addiction is called ‘substance habituation’ and ‘chemical dependency’. Asked if he is going to the hospital to see a girl he has nearly killed in an accident, Inez’s son says she’s ‘definitely on the agenda’. When a homicide occurs in the family, Inez’s brother-in-law says: ‘There’s considerable feeling we can contain it to an accident.’ The humour in all this is often very brilliant, and very grim. Inez’s sister is shot and dying, her brain is damaged, and she is unconscious. Her technical death will occur when three consecutive electroencephalograms, at eight-hour intervals, show no movement. A fourth reading would remove all vestige of legal doubt, and ‘would be something everyone could live with’. Except her sister, Inez murmurs. What is technical death opposed to? Inez asks at the hospital. Actual death? Technical life? No, the confused resident says, ‘it’s not necessarily an either-or situation.’ ‘Life and death?’ Inez says, outraged. ‘Are not necessarily either-or?’

As these last quotations suggest, Inez is the small, sad voice of reason in the book, the cutter of crap. But this is a comfortless role, since Inez has nothing to put in the place of the travesties that surround her. Didion gives her an oblique, almost speechless romance with a figure as nebulous and solitary as Inez herself (‘they seemed not to belong anywhere at all, except, oddly, together’): a dubious American dealer in arms and matériel, a man who believes war is business carried on by other means, and who is made to look relatively honest by the boundless hypocrisy of almost everyone else in the book. But the man dies soon after he and Inez go off together, as if to show that the romance was the dream-child of hopelessness rather than a real alternative – or as if to show that the crap can’t be cut, only pointed to. Inez ends up running a refugee camp in Kuala Lumpur, herself a ‘kind of refugee’, the narrator thinks, a woman who ‘ceased to claim the American exemption’ from history, and gave up all belief in the ‘uniqueness’ or ‘difference’ of anyone.

Didion’s cleverness in this novel is awesome and at times trying. She deftly sketches in the whole of Inez’s Hawaiian past by pretending this is the novel she has given up writing; brings her own compositional difficulties to the fore, makes them part of the subject, the mystery of Inez. She litters the page with snappy, one-sentence paragraphs, moody verbless sentences. Some of this is just literary coquetry, or the pressures of bestsellerdom bending the text a bit. But to stop at this stricture would be to miss the most interesting feature of Democracy, and the seriousness and intelligence with which Didion puts questions to herself and us. At the heart of this novel is not so much a character or a situation as a set of perceptions, colours, dreams, a response to a poem, notes on places, scraps of dialogue, tiny signs of large events in American history. ‘Consider any of these things long enough and you will see that they tend to deny the relevance not only of personality but of narrative.’ To make a narrative is to make a certain kind of sense. ‘When novelists speak of the unpredictability of human behaviour they usually mean not unpredictability at all but a higher predictability, a more complex pattern discernible only after the fact.’ But then what about real unpredictability? Is it always possible to make narrative sense of things? Should we always try? In her earlier novels Didion implicitly answered yes to these questions, with rather disappointing results. The books were not at all bad but lesser writers than Didion could have produced them. In Democracy she again implicitly (and successfully) answers yes, but explicitly she is saying only maybe. ‘Most readers,’ she shrewdly notes, are ‘rather quicker than most narratives’, and this means, I think, that while she needs narrative for this book, narrative does not meet all her needs. The novel Didion says she didn’t write about Inez’s past is a trick, an elegant mode of exposition. The novel she hasn’t written about Inez herself is the one we find in the spaces and silences of the book before us. Inez haunts us not like a memorable character but like a troubling lyric in the middle of a story, a fragment of song caught up in a narrative whose grace itself is suspect, and which the persistent song keeps threatening to unravel into mere rags of rational guesswork.