On Angela Carter’s Style

October 28, 2009 § 2 Comments

Just finished: Nights at the Circus.

Reading next: The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins.

Everyone has a different idea of what makes a “well written” book.  I try to avoid describing books as “well written” for precisely that reason, though when I find myself using the phrase it’s generally in reference to a book in which I admired the author’s use of language, inventive sentence structures, and control over plot, without necessarily making much of a connection to characters or themes.  Calling a book “well written” is a backhanded compliment, at least from me. It can be a matter of editing as much as writing, to some extent.

Nights at the Circus did not strike me as well written.  I was surprised by this, as I very much admired the writing in Carter’s The Bloody Chamber. This is a matter of some sloppiness — things that surely should have been pointed out in editing — but also of style.  Now, it is impossible to talk about Angela Carter for very long without talking about style.  Hers was showy, verbose, lyrical, passionate.  Flowery, even.  In this book, it struck me as excessively so.  Perhaps it is a matter of length.  I’m not sure. At any rate, for my taste, this book includes a few too many sentences like this:

The toil-misshapen back of the baboushka humbly bowed before the bubbling urn in the impotently submissive obeisance of one who pleads for a respite or a mercy she knows in advance will not be forthcoming, and her hands, those worn, veiny hands that had involuntarily burnished the handles of the bellows over decades of use, those immemorial hands of hers slowly parted and came together again just as slowly, in a hypnotically reiterated gesture that was as if she were about to join her hands in prayer.

Carter will often coin hyphenates like that “toil-misshapen,” and will also wedge parts of speech in where she pleases (she’s especially loose about adjectives and adverbs).  The writing consistently draws attention to itself, which is enough for some people to write it off as poorly written (and for others to praise it as well written).  I have no problem with intentionally heightened (or lowered, or otherwise self-evident) language; but it better be damned well done.  Sometimes it is here; sometimes it’s not, as in that turgid sentence about the baboushka.

Another matter of style is dealing with person and tense; Carter can also be loose with this, and I am appreciative of it to an extent.  There’s something to be said for taking on the voice and perspective the story demands without worrying overmuch about the internal logic of your text; and I think Carter comes down on the side of liberty in these matters as in all others, consistently.  I enjoyed the transition from the shifting third-person perspective of the second section to the introduction of the first person, in the mind of Sophie Fevvers, for the first time in the book, as we enter the third section, “Siberia.”  But suddenly, within the first chapter, we again shift out of Sophie’s mind.  It seemed capricious and unnecessary, in a book that has been rather free about letting us delve into minds and perspectives, nearly omnisciently, and has also been telling us back-stories and legends with some regularity.

All of which is not to say I didn’t enjoy the book — I did.  And all of which is not to say it’s not full of more interesting ideas and characters and plot twists than nine-tenths of the fiction I’m ever likely to read.  But it struck me that this is one of the few books I’ve read recently that I found myself fighting against on the basic level of language: of annoyance with the words chosen, and their order.  I do think Carter wanted her readers to tussle at that level, to some extent, to fight against the threadbare mundane language in which most of us communicate (and even think).  Certainly the overabundance of her words and sentences was a central part of why the stories in The Bloody Chamber worked so well for me: nothing efficient, brutal, or straightforwardly masculine about them.  “There’s nothing like confidence,” as Sophie says.  In the tightrope act of fitting style to message, I thought the “confidence” of The Bloody Chamber was self-assurance, and the “confidence” of Nights at the Circus had more than a little of the grifter in it.

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