Angela Carter’s The Passion of New Eve is a kaleidoscopic trip of a novel that weaves together magic realism, feminism, post-feminism and mythos with a richly allusive narrative voice The Observer aptly describes as “pyrotechnic.” Carter begins by introducing protagonist and narrator Evelyn, a young British professor who moves to New York City in hopes of taking on a new university post. We learn little about him except his boyhood passion for the film star Tristessa, a preoccupation that reveals much about his attitude towards women. He adores Tristessa for her tragic beauty and cinematic sufferings. Indeed, he loses interest in her when in response to his fan letter, MGM sends him a smiling photograph of Tristessa, insisting that “her allure had lain in the tragic and absurd heroism with which she had denied real life” (3). Her denial of reality is also essential to Evelyn’s passion for Tristessa. He describes her as “pure mystification,” her existence “only notional,” and lauds her as “beautiful as only things that don’t exist can be” (2).
He views the woman in real life in a similarly fragmented light, focusing only on certain traits and viewing them as personifications of principles rather than living, breathing people. Shortly after his arrival in New York, Evelyn meets Leilah, who intoxicates him with lust the first time he sees her, driving him to follow her through the city’s rat-infested streets. When he reaches her, she wordlessly agrees to have sex with him and the two begin a short-lived fling. She is described more as metaphor than person: a girl of apparent African descent, she is characterized as “negritude, the state of darkness,” “dissolution,” and “the profane essence of the death of cities” (10, 14). Nearly all the remaining descriptions of Leilah focus on either sexualized physicality—“her tense and resilient legs” and “fetishistic heels six inches high”—or the childlike, unconscious, nearly animal state that so draws Evelyn to her, including “her speech [which] contained more expostulations than sentences” and which sometimes made her sound “more like a demented bird than a woman” and her “drugged smile” (15). Unsurprisingly, Leilah is not quoted, her voice described but never heard.
Evelyn loses interest in Leilah as soon as he impregnates her; “she became only an irritation of the flesh, an itch to be scratched” (27). He rejects her pleas for marriage and insists she get an abortion. When the voodoo abortionist she selects leaves her infected and infertile, he pays her medical bills and leaves for a holiday before his intended return to England, his first destination the Californian desert. There, however, Evelyn gets more than he bargained for, including abduction by a cult of women to the subterranean city of Beulah where he meets the monstrous, self-created goddess Mother. There, Mother’s team of surgeons transform him into a woman implementing both “a special brew of silicon of her own creation” and “psychosurgery” that includes videos of Tristessa’s films, “every single Virgin and Child that had ever been painted in the entire history of Western European art,” and animals mothering their offspring (69,72). The surgery, both punishment for Evelyn’s misogyny and part of Mother’s messianic vision of a New Eve. Mother plans to impregnate Evelyn—now Eve—with his own sperm, extracted in a ceremonious rape prior to his transformation. Eve, beginning after months of “psychosurgery” to accept her newly constructed womanhood, is nevertheless terrified of motherhood and escapes the compound with fantasies of returning to her native England.
Back in the desert, Eve soon discovers that her new fate is not so easily evaded. In a haunting reflection melding foreshadowing and retrospection, Eve says: “I did not know that the apotheosis was inevitable and, however fast I fled, I could not run away from it but would always be running towards it. Indeed, to run away from it would be the quickest way to arrive there; my inexorable destination selects my route. I drove on” (80). Indeed, her surreal journey is far from over. Among other extraordinary events, she is abducted by the savage poet Zero and made part of his harem, meets Tristessa in the flesh and discovers her shocking secret, and encounters Leilah in a new incarnation.
Carter’s richly layered novel offers much more than the dizzying twists and turns of its plot. With a style The Times compares to Baudelaire, Blake, and Kafka, Carter saturates her characters and settings with symbolism. The novel takes on mythic proportion as Tristessa, Leilah, Eve, New York, the Californian desert, and many more assume potent symbolism. She adds an additional layer to her own mythos with frequent allusions to the Bible and Greek mythology. Perhaps most interesting to the American audience is Carter’s vision of an apocalyptic America divided by civil war between various racial and gendered groups. First published in 1977, the intersections of race, gender, and politics remain immensely relevant today. Carter conveys her conception of America through her incandescent knack for transforming physical spaces into psychological landscapes, linking Evelyn/Eve’s interior experiences to the political upheavals of the country. New York, for example, is an “alchemical” city populated by lurid street prophets and overgrown black rats; like Leilah, it represents “chaos, dissolution, nigredo, night” (12). With revolution fomenting amongst the Harlem blacks and the Women, it is the birthplace of civil war and uprising. The California desert, while in apparent juxtaposition with New York and Eve’s newfound fertility with its emptiness and arid infertility, is similarly ripe for revolution with its subversive timelessness, lawlessness, and isolation. City or desert, universal in Carter’s vision of America is its inevitable succumbing to revolution and dissolution. Whether the chaos promises a messianic future or apocalyptic one, however, is unclear. Carter’s frequent foreshadowing creates a prophetic voice that is powerfully and disturbingly ambiguous—one that will haunt you long after reading the final page. Tightly woven at less than 200 pages, The Passion of New Eve is a novel unlike any you’ve read before, one that you will tear through headily and then revisit for its manifold virtuosic subtleties.