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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Infernal Desire Machines
of Doctor Hoffman

Angela Carter

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman

Title: The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman
Author: Angela Carter
Genre: Novel
Written: 1972
Length: 221 pages
Availability: The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman - US
The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman - UK
The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman - Canada
The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman - India
Les Machines à désir infernales du Docteur Hoffman - France
Die infernalischen Traummaschinen des Dr.Hoffmann - Deut.
Le infernali macchine del desiderio - Italia
El doctor Hoffman y las infernales máquinas del deseo - España
  • The US edition was originally published as The War of Dreams (1974)

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Our Assessment:

A : remarkable; if anything, almost too dazzling

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Daily Telegraph . 18/5/1972 Elizabeth Berridge
The NY Times Book Rev. B+ 8/9/1974 William Hjortsberg
The Spectator A 20/5/1972 Auberon Waugh
Sunday Times . 14/5/1972 John Whitley
The Times May . 18/5/1972 David Williams
TLS . 2/6/1972 .

  Review Consensus:

  Most very impressed -- if also a bit overwhelmed

  From the Reviews:
  • "Her surrealistic view of the universe transcends time and involves us almost to extinction. She is unique among her contemporaries in her ability to sustain such imaginings and leaven them with humour and poetry." - Elizabeth Berridge, Daily Telegraph

  • "A tendency toward wordiness, then, and a baroque texture, which at times becomes almost impenetrable, seem the main faults. The devious and complex nature of fantasy demands a simple style. (...) But, at her best Angela Carter has created a grotesque and sensual world that calls to mind the texture of Fellini's film Satyricon and the violent poetics of Kenneth Patchen's The Journal of Albion Moonlight. It is a book which deserves to be read and not swept away under that convenient rug labeled "speculative fiction."" - William Hjortsberg, The New York Times Book Review

  • "No doubt some readers will have no patience with the exuberant ramifications of Miss Carter's imagination. For my part, I can only testify that I read it enthralled, fascinated and bewitched. This column has not awarded a gold medal for some months now, but Miss Carter wins one for her sustained imagination, her originality and, most important of all, her clear, lucid English." - Auberon Waugh, The Spectator

  • "Miss Carter's most impressive novel so far. (...) (T)he enjoyment and the peacock brilliance of this book are Miss Carter's own achievement." - John Whitley, Sunday Times

  • "Miss Carter probes her unconscious like a diver feeling his way round an Armada-wreck, and she surfaces at intervals with grotesquely-barnacled treasures." - David Williams, The Times

  • "Not a detail is neglected nor a sentence left clumsy. Well-made shapely stuff, beneath the phosphorescent glow, and with more for the mind and senses than many slices of so-called life." - Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman is narrated by one Desiderio, looking back on an unusual time he lived through and adventures he had years earlier; as he admits: "I became a hero only because I survived". He was one of the few not greatly affected by the unusual changes that came over an entire city, the capital of a country -- African, presumably, though it's never precisely localized -- originally colonized by the Portuguese in the middle of the sixteenth century, who then were supplanted by the Dutch and, briefly, the British. The population is a mix of races -- Desiderio is half-Indian, half-middle-European --, and the city he grew up in was: "a solid, drab, yet not unfriendly city".
       What it became, however, is ... something entirely different. As the locale for an experiment by the nefarious Dr Hoffman -- echoes of E.T.A. entirely intentional -- it was a place where reality itself was warped beyond anyone's wildest imaginings. Or rather: exactly to everyone's wildest imaginings, amounting to, as Desiderio notes in his introduction, Dr Hoffman: "waging a massive campaign against human reason itself".
       As one Minister describes it:

The Doctor has invented a virus which causes a cancer of the mind, so that the cells of the imagination run wild.
       Soon enough: "he has already made this city a timeless place outside the world of reason". As one of his representatives explains:
For us, the world exists only as a medium in which we execute our desires. Physically, the world itself, the actual world -- the real world, if you like -- is formed of malleable clay; its metaphysical structure is just as malleable.
       So anything is possible -- the wildest things that can be dreamed up -- but without the certainty of reality the city and its citizens are completely unmoored.
       It is young Desiderio who was charged with undoing the world's undoing: he was: "to assassinate Dr Hoffman as inconspicuously as possible". The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman then, more episodically, follows his travels and travails as he tries to accomplish his mission and to survive (with more of an emphasis on the latter, at times), a journey that takes him through a world that, though often arguably more anchored in the real, is infused with vaieties of strangeness.
       Things do not start out well, and soon he is on the run, an escaped prisoner facing serious charges. Injured, he is rescued by river people and given an opportunity to escape -- his previous life and any concerns about Dr Hoffman. He comes close to embracing it, but even this world and solution might not be quite what he wishes it to be, and at the last minute he jumps ship. After that, each station he passes through is also marked by strangeness; to find, for example: "The furniture was also alive" barely rates as a surprise. It makes for quite a journey -- for Desiderio and reader alike.
       There's an almost casual density to Carter's invention, a sparkling flood, yet each piece crisp and clear; there's nothing over-written here, not a word out of place; if anything, it can seem almost too precise and perfect.
       So, for example, when a dozen caged girls -- if one can still call them that -- are encountered, Desiderio explains:
Each was as circumscribed as a figure in rhetoric and you could not imagine they had names, for they had been reduced by the rigorous discipline of their vocation to the undifferentiated essence of the idea of the female. This ideational femaleness took amazingly different shapes though its nature was not that of Woman; when I examined them more closely, I saw that none of them were any longer, or might never have been, woman. All, without exception, passed or did not enter the realm of simple humanity. They were sinister, abominable, inverted mutations, part clockwork, part vegetable and part brute.
       The introduction already reveals Desiderio's great love, the doctor's daughter, Albertina, to whom Desiderio dedicates the book. Already there he also reveals the fate of their love: he killed her, and his quest-story is as much about his doomed love for her -- she appears, in a variety of guises, along the way, before the inevitable conclusion -- as his efforts to stop Dr Hoffman and his infernal machines.
       Unsurprisingly, in a novel where characters' deepest wishes can become real, after a fashion, and where the narrator announces at the outset that he killed his one great love, The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman is a novel dripping with eroticism. As with all the realized fantasies, there's a disturbing side to much of this: de Sade is one of Carter's greatest influences, and it shows; in addition, several of Desiderio's love interests are age-inappropriate. Yet even as much here is discomfiting -- and arguably isn't sexy -- Carter again demonstrates that she was the finest erotic author in English of the second half of the twentieth century. As in de Sade -- and the novel's premise -- sex for her extends beyond the simply corporeal; what makes her writing on sex (and the roles of men and women, apart and together with that) so impressive is how it touches on the metaphysical and philosophical (without being dragged down by it); indeed, she's far better at it than de Sade, who always lost himself in excess.
       If the premise is absurd, it's still beautifully -- and not over-elaborately -- imagined, in variations such as a set of what look like toys Desiderio is shown:
They are symbolic constituents of representations of the basic constituents of the universe. If they are properly arranged, all the possible situations in the world and every possible mutation of those situations can be represented.
       The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman is lush and dense, incredibly imagined, and provocative both to mind and on much more elemental levels. Carter's writing is so good -- truly splendid -- that it can almost be overwhelming: it's rare to come across writing like this, that does so much without showing strain or effort, and manages to be playful, funny, and deeply disturbing (in all the best ways). Its focused compactness can make it at times almost suffocating -- there's no room to surface, to come up for breath -- but there's a great deal here to be enjoyed.
       A most impressive achievement.

- M.A.Orthofer, 15 April 2017

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The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman: Reviews: Angela Carter: Other books by Angela Carter under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       British author Angela Carter (1940-1992) is best known for her fiction. She is the winner of numerous literary awards, including the John Llwellyn Rhys Prize (1967), the Somereset Maugham Award (1968), and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize (1984).

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© 2017=2022 the complete review

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