Penguin, 1993 (first pub. 1969)
This was a strange one to say the least (though not as strange as Ice!), and this review is going to be difficult to write, as I’m still mulling over Angela Carter’s beguiling 1969 novel, Heroes and Villains – half in fascination, half in bafflement.
Carter presents us with a future earth which, in the wake of a terrible conflict, has reverted back to the verdant tropical luxury of prehistoric times. Humanity itself has been vastly reduced, and the survivors are divided into several factions. The Professors and the Soldiers live together in compounds – the Professors preserve the various disciplines of learning, living a perpetually university-like lifestyle, researching and teaching; the Soldiers defend them and the community from the threat of another group, the Barbarians. These ‘savage’ people live in the woodlands with the dangerous wild animals, and periodically ravage the Professors’ colonies. And in the ruined cities dotted throughout the country – said to be haunted and perilous – creep the Out People, left deformed and desperate after the (presumably nuclear) war.
In this uncertain, fractured world, our protagonist Marianne – daughter of a Professor – attempts to carve a place for herself. Seeking something more than her sheltered existence in the Professors’ compound, she breaks out, only to find that there are also constraints in the exotic outside world. Living with a Barbarian tribe, Marianne finds herself bound to the terrifying yet beautiful young warrior, Jewel – and a new struggle begins as she attempts to turn the situation into a liberation rather than a further imprisonment.
Heroes and Villains is a rich and intelligent book – and rather overwhelming. As I understand it, Carter is using a post-apocalyptic (argh, I don’t like the label, but there we go) scenario in order to investigate notions of society, power, and control. Passing from one form of community to another, very different one, Marianne’s journey raises a number of complex questions: what values are important in sustaining a contented human existence? How can societies can be maintained whilst still granting autonomy to individuals? What sacrifices does one have to make to keep the peace? Entwined with and reflecting these larger questions is the story of the relationship between Marianne and the Barbarian, Jewel, where societal politics are played out on a smaller scale, emotionally and sexually – meaning that the book is also very much about the awakening of female sexuality, and the place and influence of women in a harsh, unforgiving world.
Or at least, that’s what I think.
Perhaps partly because of Carter’s wider agenda, and partly just because it’s her chosen style, characterisation in this book is certainly not your standard, attempted-naturalistic fare. Carter’s prose, including the characters’ dialogue, is self-conscious and matter-of-fact; character voice is not hugely differentiated from that of the narration. Because of this, you can’t really lose yourself in the characters, as you’re kept aware that they are simultaneously operating as ciphers or symbols, as ways of thinking through societal issues. Sometimes the characters literally function as philosophical mouthpieces, their erudite conversations bringing out the book’s larger concerns.
Nevertheless, the characters are still powerfully drawn, and the unravelling of their relationships is often fascinating. Jewel, especially, is a potent and charismatic figure. Unsettling the concept of the ‘perfect savage’ that the Professors speak of, his personal struggle is against that stereotype, which impinges upon his own individuality by dictating how he is expected to behave (again, my interpretation… would love to know what you think!). And, throughout, Jewel with his attractive but alarming vitality and half-trained mind is made just as compelling to the reader as he is to Marianne.
Marianne herself is also anything but dull: a sharp-tongued, severe sixteen-year-old, she is a worthy protagonist. As I’ve said above, Carter is not so much concerned with believability as with aesthetic impact, and Marianne is skilfully drawn to fit her place in the tale. Her strong personality forms an important focus for the reader; her actions are often flawed, but her courage and wit are constantly admirable. I found myself (interestingly) torn between pity, disapproval, and awe as I read of her battling against restrictions from her previous life, her new husband, the expectations of the Barbarians, the scheming Doctor Donnally (also a great but disturbing character) and the puzzling behaviour of his ‘idiot’ son, and the perils of the tropical landscape. I mean, jeez, what would you do??
The writing itself is – typically of Carter – rather wonderful. The matter-of-fact tone is curiously unsettling, and it by no means bars her from producing some really astonishing passages. Just read this, for an example…
There were gold braid and feathers in Jewel’s hair and very long earrings of carved silver in his ears. Darkness was made explicit in the altered contours of his face. He was like a work of art, as if created, not begotten, a fantastic dandy of the void whose true nature had been entirely subsumed to the alien and terrible beauty of a rhetorical gesture.
… Pretty spectacular, I thought.
Conclusion: If you just want a light, entertaining read, Carter’s Heroes and Villains is probably not for you. But if you’re looking for something a bit more challenging and thought-provoking, it’s worth checking out. The novel is odd but intriguing – though perhaps a bit frustrating at times. Carter certainly has her own agenda, and you won’t find what you expect from a ‘post-apocalyptic’ tale if what you have in mind is The Day After Tomorrow or War of the Worlds. But if you approach Cather’s novel with an open mind, I think you’ll find it a rewarding read.