I confess. I adore Angela Carter. I adore her overblown, pretentious style mixed with her joyous embrace of the lewd and taboo. I adore that even when she failed, you know that she failed with every ounce of inspiration on the page. And yet, I was initially hesitant to read The Adventures of Holly White and the Incredible Sex Machine, a book influenced by Carter’s least accessible book, The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman; a book that exhausts me just at the thought of cracking the cover.
The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman (also known as The War of Dreams) is drenched, like Carrie at the prom, in descriptive text. The titular Hoffman is a mad scientist who, through his nefarious ways, transforms the city of the story into a psychedelia of uncanny flesh and mythology. We are made to feel unsettled, even nauseated, by the ever changing landscape (chanting pillars turned into lampposts turned into silent flowers), but also must wade through the mud of Carter’s embellished language. As the reader moves from one description-saturated paragraph to the next, it seems as if time has been suspended and forward progression may never again be possible. Instead you stand still as the landscape changes incessantly and you feel as if you must be going mad.
Fortunately, Krissy Kneen’s The Adventures of Holly White and the Incredible Sex Machine sidesteps the dense literary experience of Doctor Hoffman and plays instead with the very 1960s sexual revolutionary concept of energy generation and physical transformation through erotic desire.
Holly White begins the story naive and celibate; obsessed with sex but resistant, even fearful of it, given her body’s strange reaction to attraction. Is Holly part sea creature? We never find out, but we see her generate luminescent lubrication whenever she’s aroused. Holly’s salvation eventually comes with an erotic literary book club; the words of desire the catalyst for her own awakening as the explorer of carnality in all its variations, powered by the alien phosphorescence from between her legs.
The Adventures of Holly White is as much about the desire for words as it is the desire for physicality. Books take on the smell and texture of fruit; if you bite into them, juice will dribble down your chin. The story is driven by great works of erotic literature, particularly those based in Paris, the city of love and, as it turns out, a great deal of shagging. We see Holly see herself through different eyes, feel different skin, by the stories she reads, and be liberated by the newness of that moment of change.
The two books intertwined, Doctor Hoffman and Holly White, seem to create a vortex of distorted reality around them, affecting each other and even our own world. The character of Doctor Hoffman in Carter’s original work is able to distort his own world until its citizens can no longer determine fact from fiction. The physical book of Doctor Hoffman is able to distort the world of Holly White, transforming into a carnivorous flower (oh, Carter would be pleased) and breeding further copies of itself for picking. And finally, as if to say, “And you thought it was all make-believe”, as I was reading Holly White on the train in the middle of winter I encountered a scene where the character of Holly watches young women walk by in the height of summer, chewing gum as they go, and my own experience bled into the book because, at that moment, I could smell bubblegum as well. A young man on the train was chewing determinedly, and the fragrance scented the air as if emanating from the page.
It’s a rare book that seems to drift like smoke away from the printed page to rewrite the physical world. Or maybe it’s not rare at all? Our thoughts and actions are neuron firings after all, an inherently physical act tied to the core of our biology. Books use us as surrogates; shaping the world we live in by the subtle manipulation of our own hands. Terry Pratchett knew that books could be dangerous things, distorting the world around them. Krissy Kneen knows is too, and wants us to strip naked and be transformed.