The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter

July 15, 2010

First published UK 1967, US 1969
Finished: early May, 2010
Source: Book blogs: Things Mean a Lot and others I forgot to write down
Genre: ?
On The Scales:  Hard to tell.  Depends how on-purpose it was.

I have seen the fatal flaw in my blog-a-book-a-day plan for July.  I keep reading them.

I have been stacking up everything I’ve read by the computer and the pile isn’t getting any shorter, even though I have replaced some of the actual books, like The Magic Toyshop, with pieces of paper scribbled with their titles.

I just now finished Bad Blood by Lorna Sage, and I was gratified to see that she has written a book on Angela Carter, because it must have been a match made in heaven.  I want to read it.  My first Carter has left me even more interested in what other people said about her than what she herself had to say in her fiction.

The Magic Toyshop is a lurid gothic fable of orphans, childhood, male and female power, creativity, class, and sex.

I’m all for lurid gothic fables, brainy books, and neglected classics.  This in mind, and having quickly discovered Carter’s novel was compulsively readable, I expected to have a strong positive or negative reaction to it.  My reaction was more of a mild positive.  The gargoylish awfulness of life in the toyshop–a rotation of claustrophobic misery and heavy meals–and the crowded, compost-y layering of subtle (and not so subtle) symbols and images both contributed to my engaging with it at a bit of an emotional remove.  I think her style of writing did that, too.  It is finely honed.  The book read like something thousands of undergraduates would one day be encouraged to dissect into millions of pieces.  And her post-pubescent main character initially copes with her situation by going passive.  As reader, I followed her example.  It was that or shake the girl.  Then she copes by falling in love with the Irish.

Falling being the operative word.

With her upbringing, Melanie didn’t really see any more active options.  Or at least this is what I think we were meant to believe: that she was so sheltered, it didn’t occur to her that there were outside agencies meant to prevent her despotic artist uncle from doing things like beating his apprentice/brother-in-law, not sending his niece and nephew to school, and keeping his family in a state of near-suicidal fear.  But this was the 60’s.  In London.  And yet she seemed to have grown up in the 1930s.  When I started the book, and was making my way through her virgin-in-the-tower budding-sexuality sighings in her parents country house, I was sure it was set in the 30s.

I want to say it was a bit much, but when the whole book is meant to be a bit much…

I wasn’t looking for realism, but The Magic Toyshop was playing around (on purpose) with a framework of realism, so it kept setting up oddly conventional expectations, fulfilling them, then taking a dive back into the absurd.

I was struck by her many descriptions of how ripe the unwashed grown Irish boys were.  The stink meant something. It was supposed to be sensual?  (The combination of “dirty” and “Irish” always sets off a few alarm bells.  Or maybe she was playing with negative stereotypes as well.)  But then if you switch over to realist mode, you have to admit that really, truly bad body odor is the one thing lust can’t conquer.  Had Carter ever been stuck in an enclosed space with an unwashed teenaged boy for weeks on end?  Hard to think it.

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10 Responses to “The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter”

  1. Nymeth said

    Her descriptions of their smell were strange, weren’t it? I think maybe the mixture of repulsion and allure (because she DOES describe them sensuously, even if the idea of BO is NOT appealing at all) they evoke in readers are supposed to mirror how Melanie experiences her sexuality at that point.

  2. zibilee said

    After reading quite a few great reviews of Carter’s work, I went out and grabbed her complete collection of short stories, and have just begun to dive into it. She is a very talented author, though her stories do verge on the weird. I am going to have to read this book, as I imagine it veers sharply from her short stories. Thanks for the great review!

  3. Colleen said

    Ha, wonderful review of a very strange book. And good call on the undergraduates dissecting it – my introduction to this book was when I was a TA for a first-year English course in which this course was taught. I think it’s great fun. And I recalled shocking my students into remember I was a scant 5 years older than them by noting that the Irish boys were an example of “creepy-sexy”, much like JT in that video in which he stalks a Brit lookalike – Cry Me a River, was it? Yes, that’s it.

    I do like this book very much, but I think I liked The Bloody Chamber better.

    • trapunto said

      I will read Bloody Chamber. It takes me a while to screw my courage back up to submit another interlibrary loan request!

      Funny how grownupness is such a matter of context, for youngsters. (Oldsters too, because here I am calling college kids youngsters, when I can clearly remember how not-youngstery I felt at 18.)

      You’ve got something with that creepy-sexy thing. The further I get in time from the book, the less I remember the creepy suicidal smelliness, and the more I remember the sexiness.

  4. Aarti said

    I have this one on my shelf and have heard that it is definitely “out there.” Your review pretty much confirms that.

    Also, what’s with people describing the Irish as dirty? I just finished a non-fiction book set in England during WWII, and the discrimination against the Irish is pretty obvious in some places. I can’t imagine they washed that much less than everyone else.

    • trapunto said

      Yeah, I’ve noticed it a lot. Bad Blood actually talked about the complex shades of meaning in the word “dirty.” Lorna Sage’s messed-up upper middle class family, who didn’t wash “the parts that didn’t show,” habitually talked about the “dirty” villagers without seeing the irony. They meant something else by the word.

      Although, I suppose I can see how things started out. Disenfranchised equals poor equals not having hot washing water or soap or spare time or a spare set of clothes.

  5. Jenny said

    I feel this way a little bit about Oscar Wilde–I mean of course I love him and always want to read things he has written, but I do slightly prefer reading about him. He certainly liked being written and talked about; wonder if Angela Carter was the same.

    My poor mum read this recently thinking it would be a lovely charming fairy tale. That is not quite what it is, however.

    • trapunto said

      I wonder too. There are some parallels between the Fin de siecle and the late sixties. A greenhouse for flamboyant literary figures.

      Your poor mum indeed! Especially since it really looks like it’s going to *be* a fairy story, until the parents die.

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