Apocalypse-Albert_Goodwin
Type
Review
Category
The future
United States

Angela Carter, Donald Trump and the American nightmare

Ever since the interrupted continuum I refer to as myself had left Manhattan six – or was it seven or eight months ago? – it had lived in systems which operated within a self-perpetuating reality; a series of enormous solipsisms, a tribute to the existential freedom of the land of free enterprise. – Angela Carter, The Passion of New Eve

It seemed some kind of cosmic synergy that the week Donald Trump was elected POTUS, I happened to finish reading a particular novel, published in 1977, by feminist surrealist Angela Carter. The backdrop of The Passion of New Eve is an America aflame, torn apart by contradictory combinations of visions of freedom and prosperity on one hand, and the right to bear arms on the other, that so characterise the country. For me, the surprise of Trump’s victory was accompanied by the idea that an Englishwoman may have predicted its aftermath 40 years previously. Carter extrapolates from the social struggles of the decades leading up to New Eve’s publication to produce a surreal novel in which the fissures of American society have broken it completely apart.

The strategy of divide and conquer that Trump used throughout his campaign is a staple of politics that reaches its apogee with fascism. And the ultimate end to which this logic is put is societal ‘cleansing’ that is not only ethnic, but also plays out on the basis of sexual orientation. Carter’s New Eve asks many questions of the ontology and performance of gender, but its backdrop is civil war. Evelyn, as our narrator begins the novel, arrives in New York City from England expecting ‘a clean, hard, bright city where towers reared to the sky in a paradigm of technological aspiration … peopled by … a special kind of crisp-edged girl with apple-crunching incisors and long, gleaming legs like lascivious scissors’. Instead he is confronted by rats and uncollected garbage, murder in the streets, the ♀ symbol enhanced with teeth emblazoned on the walls, and the university at which he is supposed to have a job inhabited by ‘combat-suited blacks’ with machine-guns who laugh him off.

With delectably poetic language that renders each successive environment luminous and saturated with detail, (indeed biographer Edmund Gordon reports that Carter was consciously performing an experiment in tone which she described as ‘to beautify to the extent that it becomes like uglifying’) Evelyn encounters a series of bizarre enclaves after a road trip to the desert. Each is a radical imagining of extreme ideology made flesh and lived large. First Evelyn is captured and imprisoned in Beulah, a society of single-breasted women presided over by the Great Parricide, the Great Emasculator, the giant four-breasted one her daughters call Mother. It is here that Evelyn is abbreviated to Eve, and the male organs removed in a single snip. Disoriented with her new gender, Eve escapes only to become one of the harem of the terrible one-eyed, one-legged Zero, where the girls are beaten if they do not show due deference to the master’s pigs. All but Eve are somehow transfixed by the brutal rule of Zero, willingly acquiescent.

If the brushstrokes that render these extremes of feminism and patriarchy are coarse, the text is so vividly dreamlike that the satire is virtually extinguished by the horror (and wonder) of the predicaments. The passion of the book’s title is double-edged, both rite of suffering in Biblical proportions and a reflection of the appetites and emotions of the newly-made woman.

Evelyn’s matinee idol as a boy in England is a Hollywood manifestation of femininity called Tristessa de St Ange, who haunts every part of the book. She is part of Eve’s post-op female conditioning regimen at Beulah, but also the deranged Zero’s imagined nemesis. The hunting of Tristessa tracks her to a desert mansion and the most hallucinatory passages of the book, as Zero’s dehumanised, infantilised pack of girls wreak havoc on an elaborate series of facades and inhabitable conceits that facilitate Tristessa’s fantasy world. Without giving everything away, Tristessa connects with Eve in ways that Evelyn as a child could never have imagined. Tristessa is very much not what she seems. She is both an archetype of the female form and, I would argue, a personification of The American Dream. That is to say that both Tristessa and The American Dream are figments of collective imagination, so perfect and inviolable that they cannot possibly exist.

In danger of ticking monocultures off a list, Carter contrives Eve to next be ‘rescued’ by a regiment of teenaged boys: ‘I saw that they all had their nipples pierced. Dangling from each nipple was a little round medallion made of gold that shone in the sunshine. The medallion on the left nipple was inscribed with the word: GOD and that on the right nipple with the word: AMERICA’. So here, a children’s crusade balances the underground city of Beulah with respect to gender, while the reader is invited to consider a variety of scenarios in which individuals willingly subscribe to ideology. Misandrist feminism, tyrannical patriarchy, the militarisation of religious youth, and even the delusion of self-creation in the case of Tristessa – each is a different manifestation of the First Amendment to the US Constitution, usually coupled with the Second. The final section of the book finds Eve in a California that has seceded from the Union, where various factions are at war to control the State.

 

The dystopian novel is a type, a genre. There are many examples that could be discussed in reference to the state of things in 2016, including Elizabeth Hand’s Glimmering, (1997) David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, (2004) and Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, (2003). All three are useful in thinking through why Carter’s New Eve might be a particularly apt cautionary tale for the emerging Trump World Order.

Each book imagines a world that could conceivably emerge from the time in which it was written, and each is predicated on a kind of disaster or cataclysm, either impending or in the narrative’s past. In a sense the themes boil down to human weaknesses – avarice, the thirst for power, a lack of empathy. There are two fundamental conceits of Atwood’s book. The story is told with reference to a past (our very-near future) where multinational corporations have control of societal institutions to the extent that one is either inside one of their domed city states, where employees of a company avail themselves of amenities entirely owned by it, or outside the domes, in ghettoes where commerce and society exist at a much more feral level. The other conceit is of a genetically engineered, plant-like, passive humanoid race, and its creator’s plan to replace the human race with them.

Cloud Atlas employs a fractured, episodic structure. The parts of the novel that are set in the future exhibit some similarities to Atwood’s dystopia, where a fast food chain is the main survivor of a global catastrophe and makes a profit by subjugating cloned humans to slavery conditions with the use of drugged food and the promise of retirement in a mythical nirvana. In both of these books we see free market capitalism taken to very nasty ends, and these stories do resonate with the successful decimation of the influence of unions in the western world over recent decades. They resonate also with the world depicted by Naomi Klein’s No Logo (1999) and tragedies such as the Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh in 2013. 21st century life in first world countries exists on a continuum between a denial of, and complicity in, the near slave-labour conditions that produce our shoes, clothes and appliances at one end, and left-wing guilt and occasional activism about their reality on the other. So these futuristic scenarios do not seem that far-fetched.

Hand’s Glimmering is a story told on the eve of apocalypse, where the earth’s atmosphere has been fatally compromised by deliberate human chemical interference designed to combat global warming. Religious fanaticism has also come to dominate society and particularly entertainment. What all three of these novels have in common is a kind of underlying political correctness. We (those of us to the left to the extent that we’re at least in the ‘centre’, wherever that is) know that the exploitation of labour, the unchecked growth of industry without consideration for the human cost, and the steady warming of the planet, are problems that can be mitigated. There are countless examples throughout history of religious ideologies taken to extremes or perverted in ways that result in persecution and human misery. Reading these novels, part of the pleasure is the identification with what we assume of the author as a fellow traveller. They take these scenarios to fascinating and shocking points of speculation (partially) in order to say ‘what if?’. To shake a finger at these catastrophes in waiting, to help us address the aspects of human activity that exacerbate division and inequality.

Due to the period in which it was written, Carter’s New Eve is different. The globalisation of corporations was underway, but was neither as developed nor, probably, as apparent as it became from the 1980s onwards. Arguably, the time in which Carter wrote New Eve was one in which the idea of the ‘local’ had, unconsciously, an integrity, a reality, that is difficult to imagine in the internet saturated parts of the world of 2016. Despite the fact that whatever perceptions about human nature we draw from the work can be applied more broadly, New Eve is explicitly about America. It is the racial, gender and religious divisions of American society that are satirised in its consecutive set pieces.

Carter’s trip to the US in 1969, at the age of 29, was the first time she had left the British Isles. From there she went to Japan, where she would spend a couple of years, in the process breaking up with her husband, who had returned from their American jaunt to England. This travel was enormously important to her writing. Her observation of the exaggeration of gender roles in Japanese society radicalised her feminism, though she remained suspicious of joining any club, and refused to be defined by her gender. She was aware of, and disregarded, the expectations of her burgeoning status as a feminist writer.

The female-only setting of Beulah in New Eve is not idyllic. Its inhabitants are in their own way as brainwashed as Zero’s harem. There is something about Carter’s equivocal treatment of all the ideological cul-de-sacs represented in these mini-societies that allows us to see them as what they are, rather than on one side of a right/wrong ledger, or as individuals tragically co-opted, knowingly or unknowingly, by corporations or institutions beyond their control. The individuals in New Eve that fall prey to messianism have in some sense signed on willingly to exclusionist, militant factions, and in this we recognise Trump’s politics.

 

Much has been written about New York in the ‘70s, how bleak and desperate things were. The city had careened into bankruptcy, crime was out of control, the visionary idealism of the ‘60s was mostly kaput. – Will Hermes, Love Goes To Buildings On Fire

Carter’s US trip lasted from late July to early September 1969. She alighted in a New York City it seems she didn’t have to exaggerate too much to become the one that Evelyn finds in New Eve. As Gordon writes, this period was tumultuous, characterised by the Stonewall riots in New York, the Zodiac and Manson murders in California, the bombing of government buildings, armed conflicts between the Black Panthers and the police, and the overarching spectre of the war in Vietnam. Travelling the country via Greyhound buses, Carter was taken aback by the racial and social segregation this involved. ‘Riding the buses is weird’, she wrote to a friend in a letter quoted by Gordon, ‘since one sees only the Other America – the poor people, spades, Mexies, mountain men & European tourists. Everyone else is in a car or plane’. It is not hard to see how these experiences were translated into the various scenarios of the novel.

However, the idea of ‘The Other America’ is one that bears some examination. UK commentator Tom Walker, in the guise of his character Jonathan Pie, laments the ways in which the politically correct left censors debate by othering dissenting views. In this analysis, Hillary Clinton’s description of some of Trump’s supporters as a ‘basket of deplorables’ is emblematic of a global problem. ‘The Other America’ here is, paradoxically, the side that won the US election. Of course, Trump’s rhetoric has been all about his idea of ‘The Other America’, peopled by illegal immigrants and Muslim terrorists (this may sound familiar to Australian readers). It’s hard to read how widespread the sentiment is, but Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’ slogan has been repurposed as ‘Make America White Again’ in the context of reports of racist hate crimes across the States in the wake of the election result. Indeed, US comedian Samantha Bee uses statistics to say ‘once you dust for fingerprints, it’s pretty clear who ruined America – white people’.

I am no historian, but it may be worth considering whether both the late 1960s and early 1970s, and our current international situation, denote seismic ruptures in the project we call capitalism. 1968 was the year in which Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated; there were riots in Paris; Russia invaded Czechoslovakia; in England Enoch Powell gave his infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech. These headlines were the tip of the iceberg in the context of an era of political demonstration and upheaval that flowed through into the early 1970s. Opposition to the Vietnam War became a global movement, while at the same time the squalor of London and New York in the mid-1970s may be seen as both part of the impetus for punk music and culture, and the harbinger of the hardline conservative governments of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.

Similarly, many are pointing to Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, as well as a perceived rise in nationalist politics across Europe, as defining a global disenchantment with mainstream politics. One broad-brush reading of this is that the various social movements that fomented through the 1960s – particularly with respect to equal rights being granted to people regardless of gender, race or sexual preference – gave rise to profound narratives of inequality. While the mid-1960s seemed to be characterised by the hope of change, the turn of the decade descended into frustration and disappointment at its slow pace and the conflict that campaigners had to engage in with intractable aspects of the establishment.

In the early 21st century we are perhaps faced with a similar set of contradictions, whereby the logic of change towards equality and autonomy is asserted by many and resisted by those who perceive change as a threat. This is nowhere clearer than in conversations about marriage equality in Australia. We might also think about the increasing mainstream awareness of gender fluidity. If we apply these ideas to recent debates in the US, we are faced with the conundrum of a nation where same sex marriage is legal, yet virulently opposed by many. It is difficult, for instance, to reconcile the success of The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson’s 2015 memoir that philosophically interrogated our understandings of gender, sexuality, family and belonging, with a Trump presidency.

Concurrent with movements and discourses that assert a common-sense social inclusivity is the legacy of the economic rationalism that, aggressively promoted by Thatcher and Reagan, and in some measure adopted by centre-left leaders like Clinton and Blair, has resulted in increased social inequality. This is paired with the decline of manufacturing in first world economies, and the inevitable decline of fossil fuels, creating alarming levels of unemployment and disparities in the distribution of wealth. Austerity measures are instituted by governments upon people already suffering who can only interpret these actions as the protection of the interests of the rich, while the ruthless and careless investment practices that created the GFC in 2008 seem to have gone unpunished. It is not difficult to see where the disenfranchisement has come from.

In both historical moments we see a layering of opportunity and the threat of repression; the articulation of widely accepted, or at least patronised, ideals of inclusivity and equality in conflict with the brutal indifference of free market economics. Perhaps this is why the phantasmagorical America Angela Carter imagined in the novel she wrote intermittently between 1972 and 1976 resonates so strongly with the fears many of us have about where the country may go under Trump.

 

Image: ‘Apocalypse’ by Albert Goodwin / Wikimedia

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John Encarnacao lectures in music at Western Sydney University. His book Punk Aesthetics and New Folk: Way Down The Old Plank Road is published by Ashgate. As a recording artist, his last two releases are with the song-oriented The Nature Strip and the free improvising Espadrille.

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Comments

  1. Thanks so much for this incredibly smart & thoughtful essay, John. I’m honored to have Glimmering namechecked in it. I first read The Passion of New Eve in the late 1970s, when it had a huge impact on me. And recently I too have been thinking about it in light of the election and the increasingly bleak state of the world/ It’s a novel I’ve always thought should be better known, now more than ever. So thanks again — all best from Maine, Liz Hand

    • Thanks Liz! My partner and I both read Glimmering this year and got a lot from it. To know you’ve read this piece and enjoyed it is quite something. I look forward to reading more of your books. Best, John

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