In an attempt to prove that musicians aren't just interested in sex, drugs and rock'n'roll, SPIN.com has gathered together an eclectic group of literary-minded musicians and authors to participate in a monthly, online book club. One member selects a book that has impacted their life for the club to read and subsequently discuss. We post the highlights.
This Month's Selection: The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter
Selected by: Rick Moody, author and honorary book club member
Reason for Selection: "I first read The Bloody Chamber back in college, when I was lucky enough to be in Angela's class. I didn't really know much about her then, and she was a lot better known in England than the U.S. at that time. But this was the book that kind of put her on the map. It consists of 'adult' versions of classic fairy tales from Perrault and others, but they aren't 'adult' in a reductive, crass way. They just sort of pry apart Little Red Riding Hood (above all) and give it (and the other classic tales) a much more nuanced and knowing surface.
"The first day of class with her, back in Providence, kind of provides a context. The class was over-enrolled, and Angela had to get it down to fourteen. When some guy in the back of the room asked what her work was like, Angela answered: 'My work cuts like a steel blade at the base of a man's penis.' The class was soon winnowed down to the necessary fourteen students. So these are stories that have that kind of comic sensibility. Fairy tales written by the kind of person who would say that sort of thing to a bunch of college students.
"The best story here, from my recollection, is 'The Company of Wolves,' but there's really not a bad one in here, and they are all animated by a certain acerbic language that just accepts no bullshit. She died of lung cancer in the nineties (too young: only in her fifties), but I remember her not only as a great teacher and person, but also for the perfection of the sentences and for her point of view. She was part witch, part socialist-realist, part Swinging London moll."
Emily Zemler, SPIN.com
I'm generally pretty thrilled by any writer who compares their work to the act of castration, but I am particularly engaged by one like Angela Carter whose sense of feminism is not easily categorized and often seems to lurk beneath the surface of her stories. Her writing seems especially successful because the prose is so well wrought, allowing overarching and interwoven ideas to pervade the stories naturally, without a feeling of the force that often intrudes upon so-called feminist literature.
I read these out of order, which I'm not certain you are supposed to do, but I will admit that I wanted to go straight for the wolf stories. I read a book a year or so ago called Little Red Riding Hood Uncloaked by Catherine Orenstein, which traces the themes and morality of that fairy tale through literary history and spends a great deal of time discussing it as a feminist work. Carter is discussed, briefly, unfortunately with the real emphasis on Neil Jordan's cinematic remake of Carter's stories In the Company of Wolves. There have been so many retellings of this specific fairy tale and its symbolism and meaning have been interpreted so many different ways (i.e. the bread in Red's basket represents the communion of Christ; the red cloak represents menstrual blood; it is a classic Freudian tale of the Ego versus the Id; etc) and I was intrigued by Carter's version(s).
Feminism is a term that is frequently misinterpreted. It has meant different things at different times throughout history. This book was published in 1979 near the end of Second Wave feminism, a train of thought that was more about dealing with social issues of gender inequality than with legal and political issues. That is to say, it was more about changing the public consciousness about the way women were perceived. Reading these stories in today's supposedly post-feminist world I wasn't necessarily blown away by their subjugation of the male-female dynamic, but perhaps the point is that they are more powerful because they are more subtle in addressing that public consciousness. Carter's ideas about how women should be portrayed in fairy tales don't come from the expected places in the stories- and I think that is what I liked most about them.
I insisted that Rick select a female author (really, how has no one picked one yet?) and I'm curious how the members of this book club, particularly the male ones, have reacted to his choice.
More discussion highlights on page 2.
Elizabeth Seward, Spelling & Grammar
I picked this book up several times without being able to get through it. That was until I started to see it all symbolically. Once I got past the fairy tale settings, it really did begin to dawn on me that Carter was speaking on behalf of all women-and this was before I had any knowledge of her presence in feminist circles. Emily is absolutely right in remarking on her feminism being more of an underlying motif than anything else. Nonetheless, I finally finished the book and it did ring some sort of bell in me. It reminded me of how new freedom is for women and how easily we take for granted the simple things, like earning our own paychecks, that our grandmothers and great grandmothers could not as easily do-if at all.It made me wander about all sorts of trains of thought...particularly the sexuality of women. I think we (women and men alike) often forget that one of the reasons why a woman's virginity is so precious is because it IS an act of violence in a way; causing pain and bloodshed. This creates the dynamic of the man 'taking' the woman in some sense when he takes her virginity and I can't help but associate this with the negative connotations society still has for women who enjoy sex freely...as if we should only bleed for the person we will stay with the rest of our lives. It's a disturbing, yet realistic, picture that Carter paints beautifully in many of her stories in this book.
Dessa Darling, solo artist (Doom Tree)
I have a friend who is half greaser, half tragic artist and once a week we pick a topic, walk around a lake, and argue recreationally. The past couple of lake walks have been informed by questions that relate The Bloody Chamber.
Walk No. 1: Pornography. The tragic greaser thinks that the line between pornography and art is totally artificial, a completely arbitrary distinction designed to sustain a moral code. I wanted to agree -- seemed like the enlightened, cosmopolitan thing to do. But something seemed fundamentally different between the images that would bookend this continuum. Some material is designed to elicit a sexual response without regard to an aesthetic one. Other stuff seems to incorporate sex as part of a larger objective.Nonetheless, on the basis of our conversation, I decided to be more wary of any school-marm, knee-jerk reactions that might prevent me from experiencing work that my smart friend obviously found worthwhile. Reading the first dozen pages of The Bloody Chamber, I did find myself making little distracting internal comments.The gist was that this kind of sexual content, which to me sometimes read like a romance novel, seemed somehow lowbrow. And I thought "A ha, my friend is right." I have codified this distinction in my head. I've accepted a partition between the base and cerebral. And writing to arouse, somehow fell into the less artful category in my brain. Which brings us to the next walk.
Walk #2: Getting it. How much of the success any work of art ought to hinge on the audience understanding subtext -- on getting it? I don't know. But Emily pointed out that much of the content in The Bloody Chamber probably relates to the feminist ideas of the day. (I admit on first read, this escaped me.) Her analysis, though, made me wonder about that ratio-how much should good art depend on the understanding of the initiated, and how much its value should derive from some fundamentals of form? I tried to think of a great painting to use an example and then remembered how little I know about paintings. So. The book The Giving Tree comes to mind as a work with a somber, poignant meaning, but one that can appreciated even by readers who don't 'get it.' Five-year olds, as a rule, don't 'get' self-sacrifice to the brink of personal annihilation.Parents get that. But there's something satisfying about the progression of that book, about the mathematical way the tree reduces itself that compels readers who have no access to the latent shades of meaning. I think the art I like most features that two-sidedness-it is compelling at a glance, but also rewards more thoughtful dissection.
More discussion highlights on page 3.
Colin Frangicetto, Circa Survive
It's quite suiting that you brought up comparing the story to a piece of art, Dessa. I took in Carter's words very much in the same way I would soak up a piece in a museum. I have to admit that I had a bad taste in my mouth from the war of the sexes that raged during Unbearable Lightness of Being last month and after glimpsing over Emily and Elizabeth's comments was preemptively not "pumped" to dive in. But Rick is a writer -- a damn good one at that -- and I was determined to check it out because I am sometimes of the childish mindset that great artists are great because they have absorbed other great artists' work. I was very pleasantly surprised by my experience in reading this story. I have lived in my present town for two years and have never joined the library (I buy books so I can mark them). This piece was only available to me through the library as I have been traveling by bicycle and the local store was sold out of her works. and my God how thankful I am that I went there. I'll save that for another entry or day.
I read the majority of the story on a beach.
Going back to the piece of art thing: I don't even feel an urge to deconstruct this story. It was so enjoyable on the surface that it doesn't feel necessary. at least not for someone like me. I'm not going to shed some great insight into why Angela wrote this. But I am glad she did. It had such a familiar tone, which you guys have dubbed the fairy tale aspect of it. I honestly didn't feel any of the feminist ideas previously discussed. I didn't even feel that the sexual content was that prevalent to the overall effect of the story. I enjoyed the suspense of waiting for her murderous husband to return... I enjoyed her descriptions of sex as the gross and vicious act it can be, especially involving female virginity. I absolutely loved the ridiculously impossible resolution/climax of the story because it's exactly what I was starved for after feeling nauseous during the first half of the story.
It's like a Basquiat painting or a Man Ray photograph. It's a ride. And yes there is plenty under the surface for inquiring minds but the juxtapositions, color schemes, compositions and symbols give you more than enough to be fulfilled with before even starting to question... "Why?"
Greta Salpeter, The Hush Sound
I happened to start reading the The Bloody Chamber the day after I'd finished a collection of fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm and also watched American Psycho. That night, I'd fallen asleep with mixing nightmares of Cinderella slicing her heels with a serrated knife to fit the glass slipper and scenes of Christian Bale slashing women apart after engaging in perverse sexual acts with them. That next day, I opened this collection of brilliant short stories by Angela Carter with a perfect backdrop hanging in my imagination -- a mix of innocent fantasies (a princess in a castle, beauties and beasts, talking animals, vampires) and realistic human perversion. I really enjoyed the stories and want to thank you, Rick, for the exceptional choice.
The book's focus on the depravity of sex and, more specifically, on the power a man feels when stealing (or taking) a young girl's viriginity, reminds me of a poem I read a few days ago... I don't remember the whole thing, but it was about a young man taking his young girlfriend's virginity in a dingy off-the-highway motel. They were showering afterward when a strand of red ran down her leg and he described it as being a "thread that I could pull to completely unravel her." The powerful descriptions of sex in Angela Carter's collection, mixed with the head-in-the-clouds lightness of fairy tale backdrops, was what made it so exceptional to me. It was heavy and dreamy, psychologically grounded but and imaginative and light.
More discussion highlights on page 4.
Michael Jurin, stellastarr*
I've been mute so long; I've decided to babble. Apologies in advance.
First a note on reading. By this I mean "the act of." An ex-girlfriend bought me a copy of The Bloody Chamber years ago. She told me that I'd really enjoy it. Embarrassingly, I waited till now to read it. Why? Why did I not dive immediately into a book that someone specifically chose for me? (And her book tastes are impeccable.) Well, I'm sure other books distracted me. Moods are constantly shifting with my surroundings. Some art/books/movies/albums are more attractive during different seasons of the year, et cetera. But also, the physical book does have to seem esthetically appealing to my present mindset. Like, sometimes I'm in the mood to read hardbacks, and sometimes I want something light and portable.
Which brings me to think the reason was this: the typeset of the copy she bought me is unnecessarily small. Smaller than most mass paperback print. And unconsciously I believe I am rarely in the mood to read tiny print. This still means I suck for not fully appreciating the gift, but I think a point could be made to publishing houses. A book should hopefully not only be entertaining to the mind, but also pleasurable to physically read. I have good eyesight, and do not need glasses. I would like to keep it that way. Maybe more young readers would get into countless "classics" if it weren't for their typically cheap tiny print crammed on the page. It's daunting to the eye at first glance. Dense bricks instead of inviting paragraphs. Edgar Allan Poe is generally a sufferer of this.
Okay, The Bloody Chamber... Angela Carter's truly impressive command of phrasing and vocabulary were the first things that really pulled me into this short story collection. Descriptions were detailed to the point that you could almost look behind the page to view it all as reality. And yet she kept you tethered to her version of this reality by leaving it dream-like, aloof, stylized and purposefully unreal. It reminded me a bit of Ray Bradbury.
I didn't immediately think on the feminist aspects of the stories, nor the fact that Carter's name occasionally pops up during the topic of modern feminism. I simply read them for what they gave me. Most fairy tales are power struggles, and often ones pinning the sexes. So I accepted that notion upon theme alone. However, this might have been precisely why Carter chose to rewrite fairy tales in the first place. I don't know. I certainly was not distracted from her vivid story telling by thoughts of this subtext. More so, I felt that she used sexuality, in particular pubescent innocents and naivety as a catalyst for tension. A couple stories used the pivot of letting our knowing minds (in a biblical sense) watch unknowing ones in... hmmm... precarious circumstances. The effect was an unnerving play on the perversities we might imagine.
As Emily nicely pointed out, symbolism can be read and reread up and down for meaning. There was particularly a link of white and red in most of the stories. I personally found it more a subtle undertone of violence or danger than a marking of feminism. Remember, most fairy tales were born with darkness and teeth before Disney or children's writers ever domesticated and defanged them. (Greta would definitely know this, fresh from Grimm's fairytales.) Ok, she did definitely bring up bloody sheets a few times. Plus, I did notice that male characters were often more concealed in personality than the women. Tall, dark and... mysterious... dangerous?
"Puss In Boots" was a break from the norm, a naughty little romp in amongst dark forebodings. But I loved the playful whims of Puss, and the peek into cat psyche when it comes to human relations. "The Erl-King" stood out strong, and so did "The Lady of the House of Love." Both are great specimens in the art of writing short stories.
Want to read the next book along with the SPIN.com Book Club? Pick up Leonard Cohen's The Book of Longing, selected by Elizabeth Seward of Spelling & Grammar, and then check back here next month to see what the musicians thought and voice your own opinions!