Thursday, 11 May 2017

Review: 'The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman' by Angela Carter

The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor HoffmanAngela Carter captured my heart and imagination the moment I was given 'A Company of Wolves' to read in school. After being enraptured by her fascinating and liberating take on Red Riding Hood, I quickly devoured The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories, her collection of fairy tale adaptations. From there I went on to Burning Your Boats, a larger collection of her short stories, which gave me countless hours of dazzling bewilderment and enjoyment. But I had not yet found the time to sit down with one of Carter's novels, partially due to an ridiculous fear that the literary magic which was so palpable in her short stories wouldn't translate to a full-length novel. I should never have feared.

Original Pub. Date: 1972
Original Publisher: Rupert Hart-Davis

Desiderio, an employee of the city under a bizarre reality attack from Doctor Hoffman's mysterious machines, has fallen in love with Albertina, the Doctor's daughter. But Albertina, a beautiful woman made of glass, seems only to appear to him in his dreams. Meeting on his adventures a host of cannibals, centaurs and acrobats, Desiderio must battle against unreality and the warping of time and space to be with her, as the Doctor reduces Desiderio's city to a chaotic state of emergency - one ridden with madness, crime and sexual excess. 
A satirical tale of magic and sex, The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman is a dazzling quest for truth, love and identity.
Angela Carter was a genius. I often find myself praising authors on this blog and many authors are worthy of praise. The reason I love reading so much is because I find so many talented authors who are capable of putting into words the human experience in a way I never imagined possible. There's nothing as beautiful as looking up from a page and going 'Jesus, that's exactly how I feel... who knew'. So while I think there are many authors who can do this, not every author can do what Angela Carter does, both in her short stories and her prose. Carter creates a world which is entirely her own, which the reader is both only visiting and yet inherently a part of. For The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman you have to put aside what you know, what you expect when you open a book and what you think is acceptable. This novel is a meta-narrative, the ending is very much given away in the opening chapter, and the narrator constantly interrupts his narrative to comment both on his younger self, on the writing and whatever else he fancies. Carter either gives you too much, or too little, and yet you could never really complain about it because it's damn beautiful. There are things in this novel which may be difficult to read, Carter won't spare your sensibilities. But unlike in other novels, it doesn't feel like she's out to scandalise you, only, perhaps, shock you into a different kind of awareness.

The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman is both an absurd and a deeply real novel, a satire that is also honest. It is a novel that no blurb could genuinely do any justice, which is why I'm glad I didn't see one before I started reading. (This is why I almost chose not to include a blurb in this review, but in the end a blurb is a place to start for those who my review doesn't convince this book is brilliant.) The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman is about a lot of things: desire, identity, love, sex, gender, violence, reality, fantasy, logic, the list goes on and on. It feels almost like too much for a single novel, or a single novelist, to handle, but Carter beautifully wraps up all these themes into the life of a man, thereby making each one's appearance valid and natural. See, a human's life is a complex thing, as I'm sure we're all aware. From day to day we struggle with the most basic questions (e.g. why do I not have a single pair of matching socks?!) as well as the most existentially puzzling questions humanity has ever asked itself (e.g. what are any of us truly doing here?). So when one wants to combine the simple and the baffling, why not do so by looking at a person's life? Especially the life of a person who lives in a world where reality no longer forms a barrier between our imagination and the world around us. The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman is a difficult novel, and at times there are moments where you feel you might get lost in between Carter's words, but she is always right there to pull you back into the narrative.

I frequently lose count of how often I praise Carter's writing style. There is beautiful writing and then there is Carter's writing, to which I still haven't found a true equivalent. She is not the only brilliant author out there, of course, but she does something which language you don't see often. Carter doesn't spare words, rather she relishes in the possibility of words. When there are so many words up for grabs, why not try and use as many as possible of them? And she gets away with it. The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman, and any of her other writing, never feels long-winded, boring, repetitive or empty. Just because Carter uses a lot of words doesn't mean she's covering up a lack of meaning. With Carter, you get both quality and quantity. I would like to give the quote below as an example:
“Consider the nature of a city. It is a vast repository of time, the discarded times of all the men and women who have lived, worked, dreamed and died in the streets which grow like a willfully organic thing, unfurl like the petals of a mired rose and yet lack evanescence so entirely that they preserve the past in haphazard layers, so this alley is old while the avenue that runs beside it is newly built but nevertheless has been built over the deep-down, dead-in-the-ground relics of the older, perhaps the original, huddle of alleys which germinated the entire quarter.” 
Yup, that's a paragraph consisting of two sentences. And yet it is one of the most accurate descriptions I have ever read about old cities, of their timelessness that is yet a constant reminder of time itself. Throughout reading The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman I constantly found myself looking up words, rereading sentences, and lingering over words. Reading Carter feels luxuriant, like a midnight treat. I wish I could go back and read this novel for the first time all over again.

I give this novel...

5 Universes!

From the first page, pretty much the first sentence, Angela Carter had me on the edge of my seat. I was amazed, shocked, disgusted, intrigued, enamoured, saddened, and everything in between. But above all, the novel enveloped me in beautiful language and wrapped me up in a story that never once let up. The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman is a unique novel and I would recommend it to everyone.


  1. Excellent review.

    I have not read Angela Carter but I would like to. This book sounds so appealing. I love books that delve deeply into life's issues and questions. The fantastical elements sounds like they are so well crafted.

    I will read something by Carter soon.

    1. Angela Carter definitely delves deep, sometimes maybe even too deep, but it is worth it every single time! Do let me know what you think of her once you get round to it! And thanks for commenting :)