365 Days of Women Writers

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Day 32: Angela Carter, Angela Carter, Doris Lessing; or Two Short Stories and One Memoir

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I try to read as much publicly accessibly fiction as possible, but some days that’s just not happening. Like today, so you can only read the fiction if you subscribe to Granta. But maybe you have copies already.

Angela Carter (1) Cousins is one of her fairy tale stories, one about a feral child who is literally raised by wolves. It starts off almost absurdly grim:

If the river had not swollen twice its size, due to the rain, and been washing down earth and boulders, he’d have crossed it easily but he drowned, somebody hooked his corpse out miles down, weeks later, he’d traveled further in death than he’d ever done living.

The old woman knew her daughter couldn’t cross the river in her condition, in such weather. When the storm was over, the river calmed down, the old woman and her son went over to the farm themselves. The young woman lay on the straw mattress, she had bled to death. The roof of the building had caved in during the storm. By the traces of wolf dung, they knew wolves had got in. There was no sign of the baby, except those that showed it had been born.

Time passes and we learn that the baby has not died and the family attempts to recapture the child. It doesn’t go well.

In the final movement of the story, the cousin who first spied the feral girl has now grown and is off to the church to further his education and sees his cousin once more – now she seems fully a wolf, down to being covered in hair and having pups.

But his cousin took fright at the sudden movement, wrenched the teats away from the cubs, and ran off. The cubs scampered, squeaking after. She ran on hands and feet as if it were the only way to run, towards the higher ground, into the pale maze of the unfinished dawn.

Angela Carter (2) “‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore” (or as I’ve seen it published elsewhere “John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore” is a retelling of John Ford’s (English playwright) ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore as if it had been made into a western by John Ford (American director) Got it? Ok, here’s the stage:

America begins and ends in the cold and solitude. Up here, she pillows her head upon the Arctic snow. Down there, she dips her feet in the chilly waters of the South Atlantic, home of the perpetually restless albatross. America, with her torso of a woman at the time of this story, a woman with an hourglass waist, a waist laced so tightly it snapped in two, and we put a belt of water there. America, with your child-bearing hips and your crotch of jungle, your swelling bosom of a nursing mother and your cold head, your cold head.

Its central paradox resides in this: that the top half doesn’t know what the bottom half is doing.

This is the story of Annie-belle (Annabella) and Johnny (Giovanni) and their incestuous love affair. It’s really brilliant recasting of Ford’s play because if you are at all familiar with Ford’s movies you can just feel the sweeping vistas opening up before you. (While Carter snickers in her sleeve as we read.)

Doris Lessing – I think often we are the very least like ourselves when we are seen through our family’s eyes. The projection of who we were, who they would like us to be, and their own selves gets in the way.

Lessing’s Chicken and Eggs explores two periods in Lessing’s past when she is trying to raise chicks from eggs. The first, was when she was just barely child, in the traditional manner of the eggs being kept warm under a brooding hen.

In the second, Lessing is on the verge of adulthood and leaving home where the eggs are kept in a crude incubator warmed by a pilot flame. Her parents leave their isolated farm on the veld due to complications with her father’s diabetes and she’s left home alone to tend to the eggs – a precarious process made even more stressful under the weight of her mother’s idea of her:

‘What a scatterbrain, what a feckless girl’—so my mother would say of me to a guest, a visiting policeman, a neighbour coming over about some farm problem. ‘What a harum-scarum!’ Did she believe in the evil eye? No. And the Chinese, who, we are told, may say of their own, ‘This is my worthless wife’, ‘This my useless son’. Are they averting the evil eye? ‘She’s such a flibbertigibbet,’ usually said with a fond little laugh. What could she have meant? But the real question came much later, for if you are thirteen, fourteen, what she says has to be taken as true.

Time teaches her perspective, but Lessing has a lovely grasp on the young woman she was.

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Written by Chance

October 19, 2010 at 7:07 pm

Day 11 The Last Thing We Need by Claire Vaye Watkins

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There is a longstanding tradition of writing off into the unknown: fans do it to actors, musicians, writers they admire. Many of us are instructed to write to the President in elementary school. A friend used to regularly read a blog that was a series of open letters to Margaret Atwood.

Other than the last, these usually aren’t the sort of letters (or maybe they are, I just don’t write them) you usually find in works of fiction. In fiction, this contrivance of letters into the unknown that gives the narrator the courage or maybe honesty to tell the things that weigh on their soul.

I first encountered this particular literary convention in Judy Blume’s classic novel Are you there God? It’s me, Margaret. And even at the time, the structure felt somewhat artificial (though I think this is perhaps something that is intrinsic to Blume – her novels always have an artificial sense to me) but one that is none the less effective.

In The Last Thing We Need the narrator, Thomas Gray, happens upon the detritus of an accident (or possibly a party) while out driving, he starts composing letters to Duane Moser who left several prescription bottles in the mess.

The trigger to the letter writing is some pictures of a ’66 Chevelle, the same car which was driven by a man who tries to rob Gray in while Gray’s working the overnight shift at a gas station, a man that Gray killed during that attempted robbery, a man that Gray recognized before Gray killed him, a man that has Gray has never mentioned to his wife.

This is the event Gray writes attempts to come to terms with in his letters.

For me, I found the story effective despite the artificiality of the structure. The one element that didn’t work for me was the ending where Gray’s daughter disappears for a short while on the morning of a camping trip.

Written by Chance

September 28, 2010 at 7:17 pm