IS ANGELA CARTER a "moral pornographer"? She defined that term in her book before last, The Sadeian Woman, as "an artist who uses pornographic material as part of the acceptance of the logic of a world of absolute sexual license for all the genders." She went on to say that "such a pornographer would not be the enemy of women, perhaps because he might begin to penetrate to the heart of the contempt for women that distorts our culture even as he enters the realms of true obscenity as he describes it."
Reading Fireworks, I thought of Carter's "ideology of pornography," for these tales are nearly all exquisite while at the same time aggressively obscene. Like sinister fruits, they cause us to become addicted to their bizarre flavor: One is repelled by the strange aroma, the viscous pulp, and yet, unquestionably, there is nourishment along with the menace. As "nine stories in various disguises" they work two ways, just as Carter projects. They disturb our flesh, either with arousal or disgust, but behind the artifice lies meaning that burrows into our psyches.
The most powerful piece in this collection is "The Loves of Lady Purple," a story that crackles with evil. It is so strong that it is almost as if Carter coils her imagination, like a bullwhip, around the reader, and her achievement here is the more impressive because it treats an often-used theme, the symbiosis of puppet-master and puppet.
Lady Purple is a marionette, a "diabolic courtesan" on strings. "The catchpenny title of the vehicle for this remarkable actress was: The Notorious Amours of Lady Purple, the Shameless Oriental Venus. Everything in the play was entirely exotic. The incantatory ritual of the drama instantly annihilated the rational and imposed upon the audience a magic alternative in which nothing was in the least familiar." Soon after we are introduced to her and her adoring, but ailing, elderly owner, known as "the Asiatic Professor," it is obvious that her monstrousness is going to transcend the proscenium.
As Lady Purple comes to life, Carter working in the realms of two writers she admires, Poe and E. T. A. Hoffmann, makes this tale a must for the next anthology of literate horror. "The sleeping wood had wakened. Her pearl teeth crash against his with the sound of cymbals, and her warm, fragant breath blew around him like an Italian gale. Across her suddenly moving face flashed a whole kaleidoscope of expression, as though she were running instantaneously through the entire repertory of human feeling." Inanimate, she is an icon of savage, destructive sensuality; animate, she is perforce a demon, capable only of enacting, off the stage, her starring role.
The use of adjectives such as "asiatic" and "oriental" suggest Carter's fascination with the East. Seduced by it, Carter, who lived in Japan, gives us two stories, "A Souvenir of Japan" and "Flesh and the Mirror," in which the heroine finds herself in sexual thrall to Japanese men. The former is a delicately dense tale; in it the fireworks of the book's title appear.
The story begins as a group of Tokyo children, dressed in their nightclothes, are playing with sparklers on a street corner. "When the sparks fell down in beards of stars, the smiling children cooed softly. Their pleasure was very pure because it was so restrained." But from there it goes on to focus on the nameless narrator's obsession with her Japanese lover and the distance that his culture (or hers) places between them, despite their frequent couplings "in a room furnished only by passion."
Carter's observations about Japanese mores are rueful: "This country has elevated hypocrisy to the level of the highest style. To look at a samurai, you would not know him for a murderer, or a geisha for a whore." One senses instantly her absorption with her own attempts to describe the effect Japan had on her, as well as her Western need to contain is aware that it is inevitably elusive and she concludes, "try as we might to possess the essence of each other's otherness, we would inevitably fail."
Lovers, like alien cultures, are always unknowable in many ways. It is interesting to speculate as to why a feminist like Carter chose a sojourn in such an anti-feminist country as Japan, but one guesses that she finds pleasure in solitude, unease, disorientation, in pitting herself against this ineluctable other. Also, Carter likes to probe the tender spots, where life and love leave scars; she is not timid about fictionally rendering cruelty or pain. The pain of love is hardly unusual, but Carter extrapolates it to greater suffering, greater cruelty.
A story like "The Executioner's Beautiful Daughter" vibrates with the death of love, and its hideous setting and equally hideous events seem to be of a cold, gray place where an eclipse of the heart has become a permanent state. Its counterpoint is "Penetrating to the Heart of the Forest," a predictable but nonetheless mesmerizingly lush tale of a young Adam and Eve. How could Carter, who retold fairy tales in her last book, The Bloody Chamber, resist the Fall? There are no unexpected revelations here, feminist or otherwise; it is simply another of her skillful forays into "the hitherto unguessed at, unknowable, inexpressible vistas of love."
There is a "lady into cat" story and one about loneliness, also set in Japan. The most difficult tale, "Reflections," is about a looking-glass beyond Alice's dreams, in which the part of the Queen of Hearts is taken by a Felliniesque androgyne. Carter's imagery, however, is her own, though there are moments when she reminds one of other 20th-century symbolists, Paul Bowles, Robert Coover, even Flannery O'Connor, in the way she makes the grotesque matter-of-fact. Like those writers, Angela Carter weaves the landscape of her prose tightly around the helpless but admiring reader.