A want becomes a have

The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman

Hoffman has used his inverted, mystical science to conjure up angels and demons from the hearts of men, unleashing them in their world: every wish is granted, yet the streets run red with blood. Seeing his isolated civilization threatened, the Minister makes a spy of unassuming Desiderio, and releases him into the outside world. Desiderio must find and, ultimately, outwit the scheming doctor, hateful as the old academic is of reason and wishing, frighteningly to free man from what he sees as its chains.

Always the desired, so rarely the desirer, Desiderio is somehow immune to the charms of the hallucinations Hoffman creates. Only Hoffman's daughter, appearing in dreams and undreams, could ever sway his heart and bring him to his destiny in Hoffman's mountain lair. His route takes him over an ever-shifting landscape, with characters that are as good as hallucinations when they're not actually so: Hoffman's mentor-turned-servant, with a sideshow fashioned magically from miniature desire machines; the dozen acrobats who dissect themselves harmlessly in front of a live audience, but who are far more dangerous to Desiderio; earthquakes; boat people; horse people; and, the most dangerous of all, real, normal people who happen also to have machine guns and helicopters.

Angela Carter's fine grasp of fairytales (both the corpus and the techniques thereof), and of a subtle, childlike wonder that shows faux-naivety up for the cheap trick that it is, works lyrical wonders with this novel, layering it with reality's bluffs and counter-bluffs. A dreamlike fog pervades throughout, in which we cannot trust Desiderio's senses, nor the directions in which Desiderio's wants---or ours, for that matter---might take us next. If the narrative lacks bite, then the book is built to be rich and satisfying, the action melodramatic and self-effacing so that the next beautiful, impossible scene might unfold. Disclaiming even as it makes claims, Carter's own creation draws you in, and convinces you that her world is only as unreal as any other.

When Eco writes a novel where every single symbol has a special significance, or many such significances, you know you're in for a difficult read. Not so with Angela Carter, who seems able to throw every meaning she likes at a plot, to find every single one of them sticking. Swift and Grimm: Carter is both, and more.