Hunger's Brides by Paul Anderson

It's postmodernism, Doc, but not as we know it
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

None of the above. This is a book in which 17th-century Jesuits rebuke themselves in the stressful italics of Robert Ludlum novels ("Are you now to meet with your greatest failure just when it matters most?") and privily work on nonsensical puns ("She would not know a Gnostic union from a nauseous onion"). You can tell the protagonists are Spanish because they talk in Spanish: "This single book is why, en mi opinión, the many generations of us who followed Cortes have not raised a single monument to him." Anderson is keen for his readers not to miss any of his tricks, even if that does mean diluting the effect to explain things to smaller intellects than his own.

One might think that narrating a long prose fiction in the voice of a historically documented poet might give a writer a moment's pause. Not Anderson, who rises gamely to the occasion. Sor Juana was very intelligent; we can tell, because we get a run-down on the contents of her library every few pages and she is always talking about Thucydides and Herodotus. She was a poet; we can tell, because she thinks in metaphors: "The road looked like a big ball of twine... to roll over it was to grapple with an unseen wrestler... stunning, like being tossed in a bag." Someone is speaking: the phrase "tripped off his tongue like a stone worn smooth from a very long journey in one's shoe".

Sor Juana is the central figure, but Hunger's Brides has two framing characters as well. There is Beulah, a troubled '90s post-doc who may or may not have written the entire book herself, Sor Juana bits included (postmodernism innit), and there is Dr Gregory, her ponytailed ex-tutor and ex-lover who may have tried to do away with her before the book starts. Dr Gregory is our editor (postmodernism innit), and has assembled Hunger's Brides from a mass of Beulah's jottings; so the reader is delighted with lengthy samplings from her diaries as she heads off on the trail of Sor Juana. Not so Gregory, who comments from his log cabin that Beulah has "a madness for synthesis unchecked by the slightest analytical scruple".

You don't say, Doc. "Single out navel and soft netherfolds of interthigh for special care. Tender hinterland," Beulah writes, having a wash. She goes for a walk: "Let us stroll now you and I, scrawl doubt across the neon sky like a pornqueen bowdlerised in a stable." Anderson loves this febrile reJoyceing register, halfway between Stephen Dedalus and Jerry Springer, and as Beulah slides into madness he dishes up more and more of it. The orotund wittering of Sor Juana comes to seem rather a relief.

After 100 pages of drivel like this, even the best-intentioned reader is looking for someone to blame. Where were the editors while this man was writing? But the typos and solecisms - "ran out steam", Dafoe for Defoe, regazza for ragazza - pop up in the most turgid passages, suggesting that everyone but the author has just been skipping the dense-looking bits. So the buck stops, as it must, with Anderson.

Not that it'll make a difference. An uncracked copy of this stillborn behemoth will probably become the autumn's most fashionable literary accessory, and Anderson's round-the-world jaunts will be covered for years to come. Baroque on.

Comments