The Passion of New Eve

Angela Carter
The Passion of New Eve Cover

The Passion of New Eve


Evelyn, a young Englishman from a somewhat privileged background, is a cad when it comes to women. Carter's novel opens with Evelyn in a cinema receiving a blowjob from a young woman whose name he does not remember. They are in a crowded revival house, and the oral sex is a parting gift, for Evelyn leaves the next day for an academic appointment in New York City. The film on view stars Tristessa, a star of the silent age and early sound movies who seems to be an amalgamation of Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, and every other celluloid diva of the period. Tristessa and her melodramatic performances have loomed large in Evelyn's life, and during the course of the novel she will play a seminal role. He considers his ejaculation an offering to her magnificence.

Evelyn arrives in a New York City that is a phantasmagoria of filth and violence. (Carter's novel is from 1977. Her one visit to NYC almost a decade before had left her unimpressed, but still...) Both African American and feminist militias stage open warfare on the streets. Cockroaches swarm an inch deep on apartment floors, and squadrons of rats begin devouring sniper victims before they are fully dead. When Evelyn reports to Columbia University to take up his position, the Black Militants who have control of the university get one whiff and his plummy British accent and order him to clear out or get shot. He slinks back to his miserable walk up on the Lower East Side, wires home for money, and decides to see what will come his way.

On a risky nocturnal trip to the supermarket, Evelyn encounters Leilah. Leilah is black and dressed in whorish magnificence that sets Evelyn's libido aflame. He trails her back to her apartment and begins a sexual relationship that surpasses his most priapic fantasies. By night she supports them by stripping at low dives and fancy clubs, and during the day she does not object if he leaves her tied to the bed. Soon she is pregnant, and Evelyn uses money from home to pay for an abortion. But Leilah blows it on a witch doctor and finds herself in hospital. Evelyn drops another wad of cash at the nurse's station, rents a car, and hightails it for the Great American West.

At this point, Carter's novel starts to get really strange.

He is captured first by a band of radical feminists with a predilection for experimental surgery. They are led by Mother, a being who has surgically transformed herself into the image of an multi-breasted fertility figure. (In a later interview, Carter said that we no more need Mother Goddesses than do Father Gods.) From the title of the book you can guess where this is headed. Evelyn is both horrified and fascinated by the transformation into his own masturbatory fantasy. At one point he marvels that the clitoral implant has been an unqualified success.

But the novel is barely half over. There will be escapes, further imprisonments, and terroristic attacks. Imagine Gulliver's Travels infused with the spirit of the Marquis de Sade. Telling the story in Evelyn/Eve's voice allows Carter to gloriously overwrite the narrative. It is at times obscene, at times exhausting, and consistently very funny as it careens to its visionary conclusion.