Burning Your Boats (short stories) by Angela Carter

The most difficult performance in the world is acting naturally, isn’t it? Everything else is artful.

-from ‘Flesh and the Mirror’

I’ve been reading this bulky collection on and off for a couple of years. I bought this Vintage edition in a Castlemaine bookshop while I was in town for a friend’s wedding in 2013, and since then it’s crossed continents with me a number of times. I dipped into the stories here and there, and then a few months ago I finally committed. I kept the heavy volume on my bedside table and read it cover to cover, first story to last. Finishing felt like a sigh of relief – like I’d been through something. I sat up late, half-naked and perspiring in the Cambodia-in-June humidity, writing my notes on the collection. The heat, the dark, the sweat … all felt very appropriate.

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This collection was published posthumously in 1995, and includes stories from the 1960s right up until Carter’s later work in 1993. Angela Carter wrote nine novels but – as Salman Rushdie points out in his introduction – “the best of her … is in her stories.”

Carter is probably best known for her subversive fairytales (‘The Bloody Chamber,’ ‘The Tiger’s Bride’ etc) and for being something of a champion of feminism. But reading this comprehensive collection you start to realise that Angela Carter was first and foremost a lover of language – as Alison Lurie notes in The New York Times, “As a writer, Carter could do almost anything.” Burning Your Boats includes a number of impressionistic biographies (Edgar Allen Poe, Jeanne Duval, and – my favourite – Lizzie Borden), as well as reflections on life as an expatriate in Japan (including ‘Flesh and the Mirror’), and stories that are much more grounded in modern life, such as the previously uncollected story ‘The Quilt Maker.’ As Rushdie notes, Carter had an “addiction to all the arcana of language.” Her stories are replete with symbolism, magical realism, myth, and hints of the gothic. Many of them investigate the idea of the unconscious, in both form and content, and consequently often affect the reader on a subconscious level.

[V]ivid as a hot-house

-from ‘The Snow Pavilion’

Getting through this collection was harder than I expected. The prose is dense in a lot of the stories, and I found myself stumbling over it, or rather hacking away at it the way one hacks through a rainforest. The writing is also jungle-like in its heat – there is a great deal of heavy-breathing-life in these stories; sex and blood are common themes. Other verbs that come to mind are cloying and suffocating. Being caught in this book felt a lot like being stuck in the Lizzie Borden household, as described in ‘The Fall River Axe Murders’: “The house is thickly redolent of sleep, that sweetish, clinging smell. Still, all still”; on a day that is “combustible.”

Carter admits that her writing is not striving to make the reader comfortable. In the afterword to Fireworks she notes that she is writing tales, and that “the tale differs from the short story in that it makes few pretences at the imitation of life.” According to Carter, the tale also has one purpose – “that of provoking unease.”

I did find some sense of connection, however, in Carter’s stories about Japan. Most notably ‘Flesh and the Mirror,’ in which the narrator wanders the streets of Tokyo wallowing in romantic anguish, and extending her feelings out into the city itself:

I was trying to subdue the city by turning it into a projection of my own growing pains. What solipsistic arrogance! The city, the largest city in the world, the city designed to suit not one of my European expectations, this city presents the foreigner with a mode of life that seems to him to have the enigmatic transparency, the indecipherable clarity, of dream

Always dissatisfied, even if, like a perfect heroine, I wandered, weeping, on a forlorn quest for a lost lover through the aromatic labyrinth of alleys. And wasn’t I in Asia? Asia! But, even though I lived there, it always seemed far away from me. It was as if there were glass between me and the world. But I could see myself perfectly well on the other side of the glass.

My own experience of wandering the winter streets of Seoul – a twenty-something expat with a broken heart and a selfish sense of the city reflecting my own drama back to me – is all too recognisable in this story.

On finishing Burning Your Boats I was left with the overwhelming feeling of not having quite understood. But there is so much that has stayed with me – images (a man being swallowed by a mirror, a brother and sister in a forest), characters (an aging movie star who makes a pet of the de-toothed MGM lion), and feelings (the chill of northern winters, the heat of Massachusetts). Maybe, like with Murakami, these things will settle in my unconscious and slowly rise to the surface later on, somewhat clearer.  Or maybe I just need to re-read the collection. Alison Lurie suggests that Burning Your Boats is best not consumed all at once. She’s probably right. And there is definitely so much in here that is worth returning to. Like the quilt maker on the final page of this collection notes, maybe all I need to do is “Shake it out and look at it again.”

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Angela Carter was born in England in 1940. She lived in Japan, the US, and Australia. She died in 1992, at 51 years old.

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