Alexandra Duncan

Science Fiction. Fantasy. Feminism.


Jeremy and I stopped by the Friends of the Library book sale yesterday on our lunch break. They didn't have any old National Geographic magazines this time, as I'd hoped, but we did make some good finds in between the romance novels and Sue Grafton books.

On a side note, I love finding romance novels with weird titles like Outback Dad or Wife-in-Training, which the library had a-plenty. Once, in B. Dalton, I encountered an entire series of romance novels devoted to the premise that the heroine has gotten herself knocked up and must now find love before her due date. It's like Tess of the d'Urbervilles, without the murder and pathos. But I digress.

I found a nice paperback version of The Grapes of Wrath, along with two almost-new Margaret Atwood hardbacks that had been withdrawn - what are you thinking, Buncombe County Library? - and Angela Carter's The Infernal Desire Machines of Dr. Hoffman.

I wouldn't recommend this last book if you are at all squeamish about scenes involving gang rape by centaurs. It's very well written, but deeply, deeply bizarre. My senior creative writing project adviser recommended it to me in college. I was writing the first half of a novella, and Dr. R was my first reader.

"Have you read The Infernal Desire Machines of Dr. Hoffman?" she asked, after she had read my first draft.

"No," I said.

"I'll lend it to you," she said. "What you're writing reminds me a lot of that book."

After I read Carter's book, I didn't know how to feel about Dr. R's comment. Obviously, she respected Carter's work and meant what she said as a compliment. But while Carter's book was beautifully and meticulously written, mine was distinctly lacking in centaur rape. Granted, my story was more out in left field than most of my peers, and it did take place in a distopic, alternate-reality version of New Orleans - which became disturbingly less alternate in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina - but I thought it followed pretty clearly in the tradition of magical realism or science fiction. The Infernal Desire Machines of Dr. Hoffman was an experimental masterpiece that wouldn't hesitate to shiv any Jeanette Winterson book it met in the Women's Literature Correctional Facility. I had to go soak my brain in Jasper Fford's The Eyre Affair after reading it.

Why, then, did I buy Carter's book? It does make an interesting conversation piece, and I do have some friends who might be able to stomach it's more disturbing passages, but I don't necessarily want to read it again. I think it was out of some perverse sense of pride that I finished the thing, like those people who climb all of the world's highest mountains, or get together at swanky parties and eat deep-fried tarantula. I'm glad I did it, but is wasn't easy to swallow.

More than that, though, it's nice to have a reminder that not everything being written for and by women has to be chick lit. Angela Carter, Jeanette Winterson, Margaret Atwood: we ladies have our heavy hitters, too. We're capable of profound thought and literary experimentation, not just confessionals about boy-craziness and shoe shopping. When she wrote Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte may have unintentionally opened up the floodgates for the slew of romance novels that populate our shelves, but she also made it possible for people like Angela Carter to push the bounds of literature a little farther.

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