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’.

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