Wise Children.

Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction in 1984, and then won a special Best of the James Tait Black award in 2012 as the best of the 90-odd winners of the annual honor in its history, beating out such widely acknowledged classics as Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter (which was shortlisted), Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, Robert Graves’ Claudius duology, and E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India. I read it in April of 2016 and found it impenetrable, between her recursive prose and her seamless mixture of unreality into the realistic narrative, without any core characters to whom I could relate or with whom I could empathize. It’s been only a year and a half since I read it and I’d have a hard time telling you what it was about.

Her last novel, Wise Children, is completely different in everything but prose style – but here the almost Proustian prolixity is far more effective, as it reflects the effusive, vivacious personality of the narrator, Dora Chance. Dora and Nora are twins, the illegitimate offspring of the stage actor Melchior Hazard (I trust you’ve noticed these surnames already), who grow up in and around the theatre and whose lives intersect regularly with those of their biological father, their uncle Peregrine who pretends to be their father when he’s not wandering the globe, and Melchior’s various wives and other children, the latter of whom also come in pairs. The book is a bawdy, boozy, life-affirming comedy, told by Dora as she, her sister, and Melchior’s first wife, the Lady Atalanta, prepare to attend Melchior’s one hundredth birthday party.

Carter employs a ton of wordplay in the book, with double meanings, allusions, and rhyming. Referring to a little closet where a lost cask is found at one point, she has Dora call it “the place where the missus could stow away the master if the master came home plastered.” Her prose is musical, and the puns can be auditory or visual (Peregine calling his nieces “copperknobs,” a deviation from the British slang term for a redhead “coppernob,” and then referring to them getting the “key to the door” when they turn eighteen). I’m sure I only caught a fraction of the references to Shakespeare, English poetry, Greek mythology, and more.

The narrative itself is also unorthodox; it’s written like a memoir, but Dora can’t exactly walk a straight line (unsurprising, given her self-professed alcohol intake) when delving into the past, and her reliability is questionable – or Carter is employing a little magical realism, especially when Peregrine is involved. Much of the comedy is situational, as Carter weaves a web of love/hate relationships among the various half-siblings, parents, uncles, and associates, complete with mistaken identities and the Chances taking advantage of others’ inability to tell them apart. There’s a lot of booze, a lot of sex, and a fair amount of confusion over who is actually the father of each set of twins – much of that fostered by Melchior himself, as his interest in fatherhood is directly tied to its utility in his stage career.

This book appeared on the Guardian‘s list of the top 100 novels of all time, rather than Nights at the Circus, and although that opinion seems contrarian I’d have to agree with it. This is more accessible, funnier, and far more engaging. I’d challenge anyone who reads this to not adore the Chances, who make effrontery their primary coping mechanism in a world that would often rather forget their existence, and who turn the randomness of life into a series of opportunities. It wouldn’t make my top 100 novels list, but it is an incredibly fun, erudite book that regularly had me laughing out loud.

Next up: I’ve got 100 pages to go in Dan Vyleta’s Smoke.

The Man Who Loved Children.

Louie, delighted, ran downstairs. Whenever her irritations got too deep, she mooched in to see her mother. Here, she had learned, without knowing she had learned it, was a brackish well of hate to drink from, and a great passion of gall which could run deep and still, or send up waterspouts, that could fret and boil, or seem silky as young afternoon, something that put iron in her soul and made her strong to resist the depraved healthiness and idle jollity of the Pollit clan.

Christina Stead’s 1940 novel The Man Who Loved Children, a fictionalized memoir of what was apparently a brutal childhood with her famous biologist father, David George Stead, lay virtually unknown for over two decades before a 1965 reprint, featuring an introduction by poet Randall Jarrell, earned critical accolades and established the book in academic circles. The book appeared on the TIME list of the 100 greatest novels since 1923, and Jonathan Franzen has called the book a “masterpiece,” unsurprising given the book’s obvious influence on his own novel of dysfunctional family life, The Corrections.

Whereas Franzen’s book at least had humor, Stead’s novel is a bleak tale of psychological abuse and neglect stemming from an ill-advised marriage between a man, the egomaniacal Samuel Pollit, and his second wife, Henrietta “Henny.” Louisa, Sam’s daughter from his first marriage, is a primary target of Henny’s while suffering under the thumb of her father, while the couple’s six children all suffer more from the couple’s inability to live within their means or otherwise provide for the children.

Sam is a loudmouthed tyrant, a fatuous narcissist who believes himself to be a great philosopher who is destined for greatness, yet is despised by co-workers and loathed by his shrewish wife, not without reason on both counts. He preaches – mostly to his own children – that all men are brothers, and equal, and should be on equal footing, yet has some very peculiar views on who exactly qualifies under those statutes:

Suicide ought to be recognized and permitted, for a person was captain of his own life. Murder of the unfit, incurable, and insane should be permitted. Children born mentally deficient or diseased should be murdered, and none of these murders would really be a crime, for the community was benefited, and the good of the whole was the aim of all, or should be. Murder might be beautiful, a self-sacritifce, a sacrifice of someone near and dear, for the good of others – I can conceive of such a thing, Looloo!

He speaks to his children in a patois of babytalk, fake German accents, and an imitation of poor African-Americans that reads like the verbal equivalent of blackface. He accepts a six-month assignment in southeast Asia, leaving his wife largely to fend for herself during that period, only to return to find that his enemies at work have begun to plot his ouster – a vendetta he refuses to fight, claiming virtue but showing little more than cowardice. He’s a fraud, unaware of his falseness, who takes out his frustrations on his wife and children while feeding his voracious ego on the unquestioning admiration of his offspring.

Henny came from some money, only to find her wasteful husband ready to squander what she brought to the marriage and unable to provide for all of the children he seems to force her to have – yet one of her coping mechanisms is to hurl abuse at Sam, at Louisa, and even sometimes at her own children, including frequent threats to harm herself, Sam, and the children. She should elicit some sympathy as the victim of an emotionally abusive husband, a state that explains some of her behavior (particularly around money, which she remains inept at managing), yet her willingness to empty her well of hatred on the innocent children, especially her stepdaughter, exhausts any compassion the reader might have developed for her earlier in the novel.

Louisa stands in for Stead, who, like Louisa, lost her mother when she was two and lived with a stepmother who (she claims) never liked her. If there’s any positive storyline in the book, it’s the slow emergence of Louisa from the torpor of her home life, which gradually descends into shameful poverty, into a modest awakening and realization that she’d be better off on her own, without her parents. (How she achieves that is one of the book’s few surprises, one I won’t spoil.) Her character is little more than a punching bag for the first half to two-thirds of the book, yet she’s actually the central character; Sam and Henny don’t develop, because they’re long past the point where they might change, and are so blinded by contempt of each other that they have dug into their respective trenches and will engage in grinding warfare until one side capitulates through death. Louisa can and will evolve, thanks to outside influences that help her discover that her father is, indeed, a fraud, even a monster. The oldest of Sam and Henny’s kids, Ernie, comes to a similar realization but plays a supporting character as Louisa takes the lead in the novel’s climactic final two chapters.

As you might imagine from the descriptions above, The Man Who Loved Children is a terribly arduous read. Sam’s affected speech to his children is unreadable, for the difficulty in parsing the gobbledygook but more for the incredible condescension it entails, for how he uses the language to keep the children in his thrall and attempt to deny them their emotional maturity – they can’t grow up if I don’t talk to them like young adults. (For the record, my wife and I have never talked down to our daughter like that; there’s a clear line between being silly and stunting your child’s verbal and emotional growth.) But the arguments, the vile language, the outright abuse – especially that heaped on Louisa – was excruciating to read. This book was work, and I’m not sure the payoff was really worth it.

Next up: Christopher Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories, two short novels in one volume that also served as the inspiration for the film Cabaret.