YA (young adult) dystopias are all the rage and I’ve delighted in my share of them. Sometimes, however, one feels the urge to leave one’s inner teenager behind while still contemplating the ride to hell in the proverbial handbasket. My urge was satisfied last week by Angela Carter and Vladimir Nabokov. There are a handful of novelists whose prose is so artful that one suspects even their shopping lists are a joy to read. Carter and Nabokov are among them. Both write with a richness and complexity that are fine dining compared to YA fast food. I have enjoyed both over the years, but somehow had missed two dystopic servings until now.
In Angela Carter’s scifi The Passion of New Eve (1977), the young Englishman Evelyn grows up with an enormous crush on silent film legend Tristessa. All grown up, he moves to New York for a professorship, but his timing is awful. American civil society is collapsing. Crime in New York is beyond rampant while identity politics escalates into full-blown civil war along lines of race, gender, and ideology. California secedes, at least according to the proclamation of one of the warring factions there. Evelyn’s job vanishes. He nonetheless finds time to become involved with a pole dancer named Leilah whom he uses and callously abandons. He drives west to escape her even though a flight back to the UK surely would have been wiser.
In the Western desert Evelyn is captured by an armed band of women who are worshippers of Cybele – and skilled bio-engineers. They take him underground to meet the Mother, their leader, who surgically has turned herself effectively into Cybele. There, Evelyn is re-engineered into a woman – not just superficially but fully functionally. She is able to bear children, which is what the Mother has in mind for her. Evelyn, renamed Eve, is an extraordinarily beautiful and feminine woman at that; with her deep understanding of male fantasy, she is effortlessly alluring, which proves to be very much a mixed blessing. Eve escapes the Mother only to be captured again, this time by a Charles Manson-ish lunatic named Zero who lives on a desert ranch with his sycophantic young wives. Zero is sterile and somehow has got it into his head that this is the fault of Tristessa, the silent film goddess who had been Evelyn’s boyhood crush. Tristessa is still alive and lives nearby in a bizarre glass house. Zero and the gang including Eve invade the home, but while torturing Tristessa the homophobic Zero is shocked to discover Tristessa is actually a man. Eve escapes again and more adventures follow including warfare in LA, a re-appearance of Leilah, and an encounter with an old senile drunk woman who might be a vision of Eve’s future.
Angela Carter is often called a feminist writer, but, to steal a line from Wolfgang Pauli, that is “not even wrong.” Sex is at the core of all her fiction, but in a complex way that is deeper than politics. It is clear she sees power in femininity even where it seems to be absent. Zero seems to keep his women literally enthralled, for example, yet they outnumber him eight to one, so he doesn’t do so by force; only Eve is held by force, and she only by the force of the other women. “But his myth,” Carter writes, “depended on their conviction; a god-head, however shabby, needs believers to maintain his credibility. Their obedience ruled him.” She says something similar in her non-fiction The Sadeian Woman and the Ideology of Pornography (1978), which is sympathetic both to Sade and porn. Angela Carter died in 1992 at age 51.
Bend Sinister (1947) by Vladimir Nabokov is far less surreal even though it is set in the imaginary city of Padukgrad in an unnamed country with heavy Slavic and Germanic influences. The official ideology of the state is Ekwilism, a quirkily metaphysical blend of fascism and communism, which Nabokov viewed as two sides of the same coin. In the name of community and equality the state is tyrannical in ways petty and grand. The protagonist, philosophy professor Adam Krug faces it all sardonically, whether he is stuck on a bridge because the guards at each end dispute his privilege to pass or if he is threatened with execution.
Krug knew Paduk, leader of the totalitarian "Party of the Average Man," when they were both schoolboys. Paduk wants Krug, an internationally respected philosopher, to endorse him and his party. Krug resists until his son David is taken into custody and threatened. Krug gives in, but through sheer bureaucratic incompetence rather than malice the wrong David is returned to him. It turns out the right David was killed while in custody. Paduk makes Krug another offer: he will release 24 political prisoners (including some of Krug’s friends) if he will co-operate.
There is a grim graveyard humor to Krug. It is a coping mechanism probably best understood by those who have lived in such a regime. There is no happy ending except for a reminder by Nabokov that this is fiction. This, too, is a grim joke, for in the 1940s it wasn’t so very fictional – nor is it in some spots today.
While teen angst is all very well and good, both of these books provide some grownup and thoughtful dystopian visions. Recommended.