Angela Carter "The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman" (King Penguin)
hile many of Angela Carter’s short stories and novels are delightful, bizarre, and twisted takes on fairy tales and genre stories, some tend more towards the dark, disturbing, and random. I’d probably put a bunch of stories and The Passion of New Eve in the latter category as well as this one, The Infernal Desire Machines of Dr. Hoffman. It has a very episodic, random feel, like an old-timey picaresque. There are also a lot of disturbing elements – for example, there is more than one gang rape in the book (err…there’s a centaur gang rape, for those who want to avoid that). The Passion of New Eve had a random feel and lots of bizarre sex and violence, but in that one, I felt there was a strong feminist thread running through the narrative, the author upended a lot of stereotypes, and it was more coherent in its focus on various aspects of an apocalyptic America. There wasn’t as much of that in this one – the stereotypes stayed stereotypes. For example, although the two main characters and One True Lovers, the narrator and Albertina, are both described as non-white, there are multiple characters who are portrayed in a “stereotypical native” way. I also didn’t find the book as cohesive as The Passion of New Eve, even with links to the main Albertina/Dr. Hoffman plot. It was still involving and had Carter’s wonderfully descriptive language, but not her best effort.
I thought the first chapter, describing the War on Reality, was superb. I was expecting something random, but was still a bit disappointed that Carter didn’t focus on that thread. In fact, after the initial chapter, the narrator encounters people and groups who are pretty much unaware of what is going on in the city. The narrator, Desiderio, is a dedicated but rather colorless bureaucrat. He describes how things in the city turned topsy-turvey – a plague brought down by the formerly believed-dead mad scientist Dr. Hoffman.
“The Doctor started his activities in very small ways. Sugar tasted a little salty, sometimes. A door one had always seen to be blue modulated by scarcely perceptible stages until, suddenly, it was a green door.”
But there’s no denying this incident – “During a certain performance of The Magic Flute one evening in the month of May, as I sat in the gallery enduring the divine illusion of perfection which Mozart imposed on me and which I poisoned for myself since I could not forget it was false, a curious, greenish glitter in the stalls below me caught my eye. I leaned forward. Papageno struck his bells and, at that very moment, as if the bells caused it, I saw the auditorium was full of peacocks in full spread who very soon began to scream in intolerably raucous voices, utterly drowning the music so that I instantly became bored and irritated. Boredom was my first reaction to incipient delirium.”
Things rapidly degenerate, as the dead roam the streets, inanimate objects come alive, and phantoms invade everyone’s dreams.
Desiderio faithfully assists the Minister, who is the only one willing to continue defending the city, but admits to himself that he is agnostic in the battle. He has strange dreams that are dominated by his ideal woman, Albertina, and she comes to be his only passion. The Minister sends him outside of the city on a mission related to Dr. Hoffman, but from then on, the narrator runs into one and another set of weird characters. He starts out in the creepy house of a missing mayor, finds refuge with boat-dwelling natives, joins a circus, falls in with a Marquis de Sade-like nobleman, and wanders a weird fantasy land. There are links to Hoffman and Albertina, but sometimes it feels like a stretch. Even when Albertina appears, there is still wandering and randomness.
Utterly unlike anything I have ever read, perhaps unlike anything I will ever read again. As I said, the initial chapter is difficult to overcome, but once you do, the story pulls you along through a story that is an allegory, but never a simplistic one. One of the most thought-provoking books I’ve read.
The title suggests a certain Dr. Albert Hofmann (which would be very close to the implied, but never stated, name of the hero's nemesis) whom was the inventor of LSD.