Burdens of Inheritance

It amuses and repels Peter Carey, but above all stirs his angry empathy, to remember that his country was founded in a cruel experiment. The first citizens of what came to be known as Australia were mainly convicts and paupers, tossed from Britain starting in the late eighteenth century, shipped to an unfathomable land of crumbling stone, and forced into labor. Starvation was a periodic threat. So must have been grief, paranoia, and bleak feelings about the murder of aboriginals that from this distance are hard to imagine. Rum figured prominently in these early years. When Captain Macarthur rose up against Captain Bligh and took control of the rum supply, Carey relates in his idiosyncratic 2001 travelogue 30 Days in Sydney (a travelogue because Carey has lived since the early 1990s in New York, and wrote as someone returning), he might as well have commandeered the national mint.

What kind of society grows from such a bizarre start? What kind of individuals grow up in such a society? These are the questions Carey asks in much of his fiction. For the fallout appears to live on, like factory dust that has penetrated the cloud layer, transforming the weather itself. Two of Carey’s most acclaimed novels, Oscar and Lucinda and True History of the Kelly Gang, take place a few generations after the colony’s founding, in the punitive Victorian era, when recent Irish immigrants were much oppressed, and play up the clash between propriety and private compulsion, official legalism and civic neglect. In works set in later periods like Illywhacker and Bliss, Carey combines unusual powers of description with a behaviorist’s eye to show how Australians flirt, work, love, and disappoint each other, and define ethics and culture for themselves in a country with fraught legacies of tradition and freedom. He gives us puffed-up provincials who exploit their arbitrary good fortune, wives with chapped hands who endure and women who flee so that they might do more than endure, inarticulate men who tinker with engines, bullshit artists, and variants on the Tall Poppy, a familiar national type who strives to succeed in the outside world. Australia is no longer a mere imitative appendage of England—as if that had ever been possible. But it is not yet the hip global destination with the sleek opera house and strategic proximity to Asia that the country advertises itself as today.

Carey can be very funny, and he writes with justified confidence in his ability to entertain. This, combined with his penchant for writing about liars and pranksters, and for raiding and rearranging well-known literary texts or famous real events in a way that has earned him the label postmodern (the latest of many examples is his novel My Life as a Fake, which reinvented the details of an actual literary hoax), can lend a quality of virtuoso gamesmanship to his work. But the repression he explores is by definition hard to put into words. So, in addition to historical, behavioral …

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