Several Perceptions was Angela Carter’s third novel, published in 1968 and winning the Somerset Maugham Award in 1969. Apparently it is the second in a sort of loose series, the Bristol Trilogy, also comprising Shadow Dance and Love. I hadn’t read it before and Angela Carter Week was the perfect nudge to get it down from the bookshelf.
And I had been missing a treat! Joseph has failed his university exams and now works as a hospital orderly, washing the dying and laying out the dead. His girlfriend, Charlotte, has left him, he is obsessed by old age and the Vietnam War. Living in a joyless bedsit decorated with pictures of Marilyn Monroe and a self-immolating Buddhist monk, and giving his money away to beggars, he doesn’t have enough to eat, doesn’t have the energy to wash. Like his biblical namesake, he is tormented by dreams. But he likes facts. One day he puts out some food for the cat and tries to gas himself:
When he turned the tap and caught the first whiff of gas, he had vague second thoughts; to die of ennui and despair, instead of for some cause, with some motive, making some humanly significant gesture, was a grey, sad way to go. It was a simple way of saying ‘no’, that nothing was worthwhile.
Unfortunately, drunk on gas, he is suddenly possessed of a desire to blow himself up and ‘prove’ something to Charlotte, thus botching his suicide attempt. Annie Blossom, a fellow tenant, rescues him and his friend Viv and Viv’s mother Mrs Boulder tend him. Discharged from hospital, he lies in his bed:
Somehow, he thought, he had contravened the laws of cause and effect, as the philosopher Hume suggested was possible; he had blindly stumbled upon a formula that annihilated causation and now anything was possible, rain would fall upwards and sparrows begin to recite the Apocalypse in throaty voices of bards and prophets.
Although nobody sprouts wings or turns into a wolf in this novel, and it is in fact set at the time it was written (and in, presumably, Bristol although for some reason I imagined it was Brighton while I read it), this is an expressionist rather than a realist work; expressionist in its heightened intensity, its hyperreality rather than realism, its focus on the protagonist’s suffering and struggle against the established order. But being by Angela Carter, it’s also poetic and witty and rude and satirises itself. It shows us Joseph’s subjective world whilst subverting it.
Since it seems he must live, Joseph tries in a desultory way to find a way to accommodate himself in the world. It’s a world of decaying houses, elderly tramps camping out on the Down, young people in bright clothes who, like Joseph, reject the established order yet are powerless to escape or replace it. For Joseph this order encompasses not only governments responsible for the atrocities in Vietnam, but also his estranged parents and his psychiatrist, Dr Ransome. He even resents Viv, who coasts along smugly on his unemployment benefit. Yet as Ransome points out, Joseph’s anger is never channelled into anything useful:
‘I don’t think you care at all about the sufferings of the people of Vietnam, Joseph; not in any real sense of involvement with a real situation. You make no move to relieve those sufferings in a real way, through voluntary service, for example. You don’t even join in any organised protest. Rather, you’ve taken this dreadful tragedy of war as a symbolic event and you draw a simple melodramatic conclusion from this complex tragedy – you use it as a symbol for your rejection of a world to which you cannot relate. Perhaps because of your immaturity.’
In other words, Joseph’s sensitivity is self-indulgent. He never does anything. But Joseph asks him, ‘What else can I do but make gestures? You’re older than me. Tell me.’ (Even as he climbs melodramatically onto the window sill as if to cast himself off it, but doesn’t.) Joseph looks at Ransome and sees the Mekong Delta: he is part of that world of power. In fact, Joseph does perform transgressive actions, albeit small ones like sending a parcel of his shit marked ‘Eat me’ to Lyndon Johnson. He elects not to tell Ransome about these acts because doing so would move the game he sees himself and Ransome as playing out of the realms of words and fantasies and into something so definite that it could result in his being labelled as dangerous and confined to an asylum.
(Photograph of Angela Carter from here)
Joseph dislikes Ransome’s perception of him as immature and self-centred. He is further disconcerted by Mrs Boulder’s analysis of him. Since the departure of Charlotte, successful in her English examinations and now comfortably resident in North London, according to Joseph, Joseph has crumbled. He dreams of her as a vampire. But after he and Mrs Boulder have done the dirty, they talk of Charlotte and he speaks of her differently:
‘I was rotten to Charlotte, I squandered all her allowance on pot and comic books and made fun of F.R. Leavis.’
‘You preyed on her you know,’ said Mrs Boulder. [...] ‘It was awful to see you together, she took everything so seriously and you were a right little beatnik, making fun of her all the time.’
This came as a shock to me after 116 pages of Joseph’s victim act: it wasn’t so much Mrs Boulder’s analysis but Joseph’s acceptance of it. But many characters look different in different lights. Mrs Boulder, for instance, first encountered by the reader in a pub, is by turn ‘immaculate’, ‘enamel’ and with ‘abused flesh’, ‘a shot swan’, ‘a fat, white, naked, middle-aged woman’ with ‘curdled skin’ from a vaccination mark and then, later at a party, she is ‘superb’, ‘a snowdrift in moonlight’, ‘a white queen’. Character is complex and unstable, and our perception of other people subjective and shifting according to our moods. Joseph cannot categorise Mrs Boulder as an ageing whore, a tragic beauty or a mother substitute, and she is all those things and perhaps none of them, perhaps the spaces in between them.
Dreams, pot and booze further blur the boundaries. Who is really mad? It is hard to tell, since since all perceptions are given equal weight, balancing or undercutting each other, and all is narrated with Carter’s trademark irony and humour. Joseph says he wants to feel ‘real’, but what is that? Repeated references to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland suggest perhaps a different logic is needed in this world. There is so much more in this rich novel, I could waffle on for ages. But I think we’ve all had enough? I’m off to read Love now – the deadpan style is very similar, and quite different to the prose of The Bloody Chamber which I find more heaped-up and velvety, sensual. The prose of Several Perceptions is often spare but then blossoms into lush images; in this it resembles its world, apparently ordinary but lit up by dreams, fantasies.
‘Why were you sick over Charlotte that time, do you remember?’ [asked Joseph]
‘She used to look at me as if I had a heart of gold,’ said Mrs Boulder. ‘I thought, “I’ll show her”.’