Sometimes the most original of writers will wear his influences on his sleeve. Novelist Peter Carey goes further, draping himself in the full motley of his ancestors—chiefly, Swift, Sterne, and Dickens. But in his wiry prose and in his outrageous, hypnotic plots Carey does not insist in any dreary academic way on his allusions and borrowings. Heedless of their pedigree, his densely populated novels zoom about from the macabre to the comic to the romantic to the raunchy to the horrific. A snatch of Pecksniffy dialogue, a Swiftian catalog of outrages, an amused aside to the reader that, as in Sterne, calls the entire enterprise into question—all occupy the mind for only a moment, then are put aside with a nimble contemporary shrug, gone before the reader has time to ponder. Throughout, the framing fairy-tale tone in the narrator’s voice invites you to accept a world in which the familiar and the preposterous coexist; this is not, however, to be confused with the murkier world of magical realism. Carey’s fables are sharp and pointed, less about the strange interior landscape of the psyche than about the external collisions of human society.
Australian by birth, now a New Yorker, Carey writes from and about the colonial mind. The ad-men, con artists, and survivalists of Bliss; the bush pilots and snake handlers of Illywhacker; the missionaries, farmers, and industrialists of Oscar and Lucinda; the car salesmen of The Tax Inspector; and the actors and politicians of The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith have in common a persistent conviction that life is really happening somewhere else. Whether they dream of Home (England) or The Big City (New York, Paris, London) or Glory (CNN, the Top of the Charts, Hollywood), their dreams distort their lives.
It is a shared conviction of the legends of the American West and of the Australian outback that the pioneers—cowboys and jackaroos, scouts and swagmen—just can’t stay put, in spite of their nostalgia for the settled ancestral past of old Europe. Carey’s characters tend to live in tents, in hotels, in shacks, in cars, in deserted warehouses; they are ready to roam, on the brink. Carey’s plots thrust his readers into a jumpy frontier life, hustling them forward on the breathless anticipation of whatever it is around the corner—the end that will justify the means, the path that will be chosen, the answer that will be articulated. Since life usually fails to provide such things, of course, the promise remains only that; and although the story might pause occasionally, for breath or death, it quickly recoups and keeps on running.
One of Carey’s underlying conceits is that the far-flung provinces of the English-speaking world are engaged in permanent intramural competition. In the antipodes, the Australian team longs to win so it will be allowed to return home to England, where it knows itself to be despised. Meanwhile, the Americans have outstripped their fellow former colonists by growing up to be an imperial power themselves, lording it about. In The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith’s fabulous version of this, the United States, complete with its macabre Disneyland culture, appears as the dreaded and envied nation of Voorstand. Voorstand is a first-world power; Efica, Tristan Smith’s birthplace, is a third-world dependency—a military, economic, and cultural colony of Voorstand. Eficans both love and hate Voorstand—just as residents of the third world both love and hate the United States. Addressing the putative Voorstandish reader at the opening of his story, Tristan says:
You hold the red passport with the phases of the moon embossed in gold. You stand with your hand over your heart when the Great Song is played, you daily watch new images of your armies in the vids and zines. How can I make you know what it is like to be from Efica—abandoned, self-doubting, yet so willful that if you visit Chemin Rouge tomorrow morning we will tell you that the year is 426 and you must write your cheques accordingly.
Hitherto, Carey’s landscapes have come from the known geographical world—even if, as in Bliss, Carey’s first novel, published in 1981, it takes some time before you realize that you are in Sydney, Australia. The city and country are never named, but the clues Carey leaves of flora, fauna, and geography add up; and the novel’s refusal to name its locale reflects the characters’ discomfort with it. Harry Joy, the advertising executive at the center of all the action, is beset by wife and children and associates and maitre d’s who all want to be elsewhere. His wife is bitter that Harry has never made good on his promise to move them to New York. While he recuperates from a heart attack, she throws herself into her affair with his business partner and makes plans.
The bar wasn’t quite right, but it would do. It was the best bar she knew but in no way equalled the bars she would have liked to sit in…. Her large mouth (Revlon Crimson Flush No. 7) was very red. She did not look nice, or easy, but she did look interesting. She could have been anywhere (Budapest 1923, Blakes Hotel London 1975).
When she had finally gone through the agonies of leaving Harry, when she had her own business, she would go to Blakes Hotel in London and sit in the bar there.
Bliss is appealingly energetic and ambitious, if also at times clumsy, combining as it does a sort of Cheever-Updike tale of middle-aged suburban male angst with fantastic paranoid plot twists worthy of a techno-thriller. After Harry Joy’s heart attack (during which he sees something like The Divine) he begins almost negligently to dismantle his former life. When he learns that his wife is unfaithful and that his children are corrupted by sex and drugs and money, he has the familiar male midlife crisis. Then his wife puts him away in a loony bin, from which he escapes, quite improbably, through a switched-identity gambit; and the novel enters wishfulfillment thriller territory. Harry acquires a saintly whore of a girlfriend, who is a political subversive. Together they are chased by bad guys, though of exactly what sort we never fully learn. Harry Joy’s sense of menace, and ours, remains vague—his heart might explode, his wife’s lover might attack him, some businessmen-gangsters with guns might leap out of the hotel closet. Eventually, Harry and his girlfriend escape and wind up living into the twenty-first century in the rain forest. Harry ends his life planting trees and retelling the Zen-like fables his father once told him. What keeps the whole thing hanging together, though just barely, is Carey’s guffawing irony.
Like Bliss, the early stories collected in The Fat Man in History (1974) can be too randomly paranoid. The title story is a paranoiac apotheosis, a story that takes place “after the revolution,” in a counter-revolutionary cell of sweating, stinking fat men—counter-revolutionaries by necessity, since the revolutionary state deplores fatness. In between shoplifting tins of smoked oysters and plotting to blow up a public monument, they all fall in love with the woman who comes by regularly to collect the rent for the landlord. She turns out to be a state spy, who betrays them. Another story, “The Chance,” is set in an amorphously “pre-revolutionary” time, when well-born chic revolutionaries undergo genetic mutation to acquire “a people’s body,” one that is lame, dwarfed, hunched. A similar Swiftian mixture of sensual delight and sensual disgust colors all of Carey’s writing, but not until his later work is this pre-occupation fully integrated.
Illywhacker, Carey’s second novel, though it, too, sags beneath the weight of its conceits, has a sturdier narrative spine. It’s the autobiographical tall tale of a 139-year-old former bush pilot, Model-T salesman, and womanizer, who constantly deflates his own epic by reminding us what a liar he is. (Mark Twain’s autobiography comes to mind, often.) Covering a fair chunk of both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, he constructs a colorful history of the Australian frontier that features roving bands of fan dancers, disaffected Communists, lesbian schoolteachers, and exporters of exotic birds. The writing is continuously various and engaging, and always hovering on mockery.
Horace had no love of lard. He explained this all to Phoebe while he licked it from his short thick fingers. He ate lard to ease the pain in his tongue which had been pierced (well-meaningly) with a hatpin during one of his fits of petitmal epilepsy.
He had written a poem to celebrate the event: “The poet, tonguepierced, / Trussed, gagged, / By butcher’s wife in Williamstown.”
I would never have viewed this funny-looking fellow as a competitor for my wife’s affections, and in this I was both right and wrong. I doubt they ever shared much more than a peck on the cheek, and yet, I fear, there are poet’s caresses that are more intimate for not being visible.
Oscar and Lucinda (which won the 1988 Booker Prize) is a tale of origins, a family history that sets out to seduce the reader. The novel opens circa 1850 with the parallel stories of little Oscar Hopkins, the narrator’s great-grandfather, in rural England and little Lucinda Leplastrier, “our founder,” in rural Australia.
Oscar and Theophilus, his Plymouth Brethren minister father, live in a desolate seacoast village, in perpetual mourning for Oscar’s mother. When Oscar is fourteen, the servants defy the law of the house, which forbids holiday observances as pagan: they spoon-feed him a morsel of Christmas pudding.
Theophilus acted as if his son were poisoned. He brought him to the scullery and made him drink salt water. He forced the glass hard against his mouth so it hurt. Oscar gagged and struggled….
His father said the pudding was the fruit of Satan.
But Oscar had tasted the pudding. It did not taste like the fruit of Satan.
The repercussions of his father’s violence are numerous: Oscar converts to the orthodoxy of the Anglican church, leaves his father to live with an Anglican minister and his wife, attends Oxford, and eventually takes a missionary appointment to New South Wales.
Lucinda, also an only child, is raised in the Australian bush by a farmer father and a mother who bitterly misses her London life. The talismanic episode of this childhood involves a precious doll. Lucinda is a sturdy nine years of age.
The hair was like her own—curly and frizzy to touch—but blonde, of course, where hers was frizzy brown. She pulled the hair out in little tufts, grimacing and screwing up her eyes….
Soon…the doll’s head was not bald and shiny as she had imagined but sticky and brown with a substance a little like a hessian bag.
Lucinda takes some straight black hair clipped from a horse’s tail and tries to glue it on.
The hair did not behave as she had imagined. It lay flat and sticky, matted together…. She rubbed her neck and forehead and left brown marks there. Then she coated the doll with more glue and this time she pushed the hair on in handfuls. What fell loose she pushed on again. It did not look how she had imagined, and although a part of her was alarmed, another part was thrilled by the great change she had wrought in Dolly who was—as if by magic—a different person, a native of a land where maps were not yet drawn.
Lucinda will always be excited by making things, even the wrong things, and unrepentant about her mistakes—she’s useful heroic and comic prototype for the artist. At the age of eighteen, orphaned, Lucinda sells the farm and buys a business, a glassworks in Sydney. This, too, will turn out to be other than she had imagined—mostly a financial and management headache—but again she will not be sorry.
In a dazzling aside, Lucinda’s interest in the glassworks is traced back to another formative childhood experience, when her father introduced her to the phenomena known as Prince Rupert’s Drops—little tear-drop beads of glass, a byproduct of glassmaking.
This is not the fabled glass stone of the alchemists, but something almost as magical. For although it is strong enough to withstand the sledgehammer, the tail can be nipped with a pair of blunt-nosed pliers. It takes a little effort. And once it is done, it is as if you have taken out the keystone, removed the linchpin, kicked out the foundations. The whole thing explodes….
Fireworks made of glass. An explosion of dew. Crescendo. Diminuendo. Silence.
There are drugs that work the same….
Carey is a constant metaphormaker, although he tires of his conceits quickly; he’s like Dickens with a short attention span. In structure, Oscar and Lucinda resembles one of those old-fashioned treasure houses of miscellaneous precious objects, with its metaphors and myths and aphorisms and tableaux in 111 short chapters.
The novel’s next act of seduction is that of possession, as Oscar and Lucinda meet and fall in love, drawn together by their shared mania for gambling. (Oscar had financed his Oxford education at the race track; Lucinda scandalized Sydney with her card-playing.) Together they design and build a church at Lucinda’s factory; in a long, surreal sequence Oscar drags this glass church overland by mule and upriver by barge, to a parish far in the bush. The journey kills him.
Finally, as with many a seduction, the novel’s last maneuver is to discard. Carey has skillfully set us up: after effectively creating an intense relationship between the reader and Lucinda, at the end the narrator reveals it is not Lucinda who is his blood ancestor, but another, unremarkable, woman, who has seduced Oscar on his deathbed. Lucinda is only financially the narrator’s family “founder”; after Oscar’s death, she gives her glassworks to Oscar’s widow, and heads off to make history as a bluestocking feminist reformer—leaving the novel, and us, behind. The story is effectively over, but Carey has made Lucinda’s person so vivid we are made to feel bereft.
Carey is fond of strong and beautiful heroines whose self-sufficiency is often drawn to set off the weakness of the males around them. Maria, the title character of The Tax Inspector, although very much a contemporary career woman, has the pioneer fighting spirit; she collects taxes out of the liberal ideological conviction that they pay for the common social good. Single, very pregnant, and proud, Maria valiantly investigates the Catchprices, a family that runs a shady car dealership on the outskirts of what is, explicitly, the urban-blighted Sydney. From grandfather to father to son, the Catchprice men have sexually abused their little boys; Granny Catchprice has a pyromaniacal streak. The threat that this family ultimately poses to the tax inspector is positively gothic: she is trapped and trussed up in the basement lair of the youngest and craziest of the Catchprice men. Meanwhile, Granny Catchprice decides to blow up the car dealership, enlisting another of her grandsons to help her lay down the dynamite. He balks at first.
“You coward,” she said, hitting him again. She shocked herself with the strength of her blow, the pleasure of it. She pulled up the trapdoor beside the salesman’s office. She gave him the flashlight. “You leave the police to me. I never have a problem with police,” she said. “You get down there, filth. I want a stick every three feet, and when you’ve done that you come back to me and I’ll teach you how to use the crimping pliers.”
…She lit a Salem and drew a long rasping line of smoke down deep into her lungs. She closed her eyes and opened her mouth and let the smoke just waft away. The dragon lady. She grinned.
Still trapped in the basement when the explosion occurs, Maria goes into early labor. Her captor, after reluctantly assisting at the birth, then tries to steal her baby.
He talked to the child, intently, tenderly, with his pretty red lips making wry knowing smiles which might, in almost any other circumstances, have been charming. He cupped and curved himself so much around her baby that she could barely see him—a crumpled blood-stained shirt, an arm, blue and cheesey, and small perfect fingers clenching. She would do anything to hold him.
She asked him once more: “Please,” she said. “Give him to me. He’s getting cold now. He needs me.”
In the novel’s final grueling moments, Maria has to kill the crazy Catchprice boy to rescue her baby. Still, although it might not seem possible, The Tax Inspector is very funny as well as horrible. Carey’s over-the-top scenario parodies casual notions of the dysfunctional family—while at the same time insisting on the proximity of real harm.
After the chill wind of The Tax Inspector, The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith at first seems almost whimsical, a cute story with cute names. It is not so at all: Carey’s new novel is a savage and hilarious social satire, told, in the manner of Gulliver’s Travels, as a fable set in mythical lands—although no visitor from “our” world voyages there. Instead, the hero of the novel, Tristan Smith, is a native of the country of Efica, and it is his coming-of-age adventures in Efica and in distant Voorstand that shape the plot. Carey has created a complex, detailed world—he has even gone so far as to draw maps, invent dialects, and document the local histories and folklore of his imagined places.
A former European colony, Voorstand has grown to be a dominant world power. The humble, by-the-way nation of Efica, also originally settled by Europeans who killed off all the native people, is a collection of islands dependent on Voorstand for manufactured goods, for capital investment, and for pop culture. In turn, Voorstand uses Efica as a military outpost and as a dumping ground for its waste.
Tristan Smith, Efican, the severely deformed child of a stage actress, Felicity Smith, and one of three possible fathers, tells his story with all the flourishes appropriate to his sense of heroic self-importance. “I was born in the Scottish play, at the end of a full rehearsal.” His first stage appearance will be only hours later, when his mother, playing First Witch, staggers onstage from her child-bed and brandishes her newborn:
ENTER TRISTAN SMITH—a gruesome little thing, slippery and sweating from his long enclosure in that rubber cloak, so truly horrible to look at that the audience can see the Witches must struggle to control their feelings of revulsion.
He is small, not small like a baby, more like one of those wrinkled furless dogs they show on television talk shows.
Tristan’s defects include the inability to walk and articulate normally; nevertheless, from the age of ten he longs to become an actor, and he gets training in movement and breathing and “finding his action” in the Feu Follet, his mother’s repertory theater. While never blind to its obvious comic dimensions, Carey writes with knowledge and compassion about the work of acting and making theater.
Tristan’s mother, Felicity (born in Voorstand), is the artistic director as well as the star of the Feu Follet. Her sense of artistic mission also includes political activism (a rescue of native Efican forms and resistance to the cultural hegemony of Voorstand, support of agit-prop plays protesting the presence of the Voorstand military on Efican soil). She loves and protects her son, but resists his obsession with becoming an actor.
Tristan’s first breakthrough performance, which he improvises offstage for his beloved mother, is of a character in traditional Efican drama, the Hairy Man. Tristan climbs a tree:
I dragged my running nose upwards, past lines of of ants. I pressed my cheek hard against the corrugated bark as if the skin alone might keep me stuck there, and watched, from an inch away, the ants congregate on the snot-smeared bark.
I now waited for my maman to understand my action. Not a word came up to me. Her silence went on and on, pushed me up and up. When I finally looked down, I was perhaps forty feet from the earth….
My arms were an agony. My legs hung like tails. But there was nothing I would not have done to maintain that private look of admiration that I found in her face.
His triumph is only brief; his mother insists on misunderstanding his behavior, by taking it not as a performance, but as his expression of his wish to go hunting for birds’ eggs. Since he is utterly dependent on her, and her passions shape his entire world, this misunderstanding is deeply painful. Eventually, however, she is worn down by his persistence, and she helps to train him for the theater.
Felicity runs for the Efican parliament on an anti-Voorstand plank, and before the election she is assassinated by the Voorstand secret service. Horribly, her murderer leaves her body hanging over the stage in the theater for her son to find. As he tells the story, he lapses into the third person:
Tristan saw his mother hanging dead inside the Feu Follet theatre. Her handbag was on the floor. Her eyes bulging, her jaw slack. His brain lied to him.
It is a mask.
Then: It is an exercise.
Then: It is someone else.
The second half of the novel, formally more picaresque than the first half, tells of Tristan’s adventures in Voorstand. In the years since his mother’s death, Tristan has logged a lot of time on an underground computer network, generating revolutionary screeds against Voorstand. Now twenty years old, he decides to venture into the land of his mother’s birth, where his biological father, Bill, a former actor from the Feu Follet, has joined Voorstand’s most popular and most powerful theatrical institution, the Sirkus. With nothing particular in mind beyond a desire to foment further political discord and perhaps seek his father, Tristan undertakes the journey incognito, accompanied by Wally, one of his mother’s former lovers and a surrogate father, and by a male nurse (who turns out to be a beautiful female spy, another Efican revolutionary, in drag).
The plot accelerates dizzyingly: the three travelers take a boat to the Voorstand continent, landing secretly in the neighboring country of Zeelung. There they get forged visas to cross the border into Voorstand. A guide drives them to the capital city, Saarlim, where they begin their search for Bill. Here, the central dark joke of the novel, Carey’s fierce attack on American culture, begins to come into focus. The language of Voorstand, Dutch-English, is much like that of South Africa, and the first allusions to Carey’s cryptic Voorstand folk tales of Bruder Mouse and Oncle Duck and Bruder Dog seem at first cartoonish. But as the novel proceeds, we begin to see how the folk tales embody the uncanny mixture of bloodthirsty empire-building and self-righteous piety in Voorstand’s culture. The piety has to do with a belief in animal rights—no Voorstander eats meat, animals are not trained for work or as pets. Violence toward humans is another matter. Here’s a fragment of the folklore as Carey gives it to us without a gloss:
The Saint was sitting by the fireside thinking of our Oncle’s flesh—his head chopped off and so on. He was thinking terrible thoughts with perfect happiness when Bruder Mouse appeared to him in all his furry finery.
One mo nothing, next minute there he was, buttons gleaming, as solid as a yellow oak on a Monday morning. His black ears were sharp. His teeth were white. His eyes as bright as an angel of the lord.
The Sirkus, Voorstand’s central and pervasive cultural institution, is a hightech theatrical extravaganza, with acrobats and actors and video projections and sound-and-light effects. There’s a main Sirkus in the Voorstand capital, and a road version that travels about the Efican provinces, dazzling the locals. The Sirkus has been vilified in Tristan’s circle, who insist on the homelier virtues of their own flesh-and-blood theaters. Even Bill, who has left Efica to join the Sirkus, is skeptical of it. But of course the Sirkus’s seductions are too powerful to be ignored; and Tristan himself was infatuated with the traveling Sirkus shows he sneaked off to see as a child in Efica.
In Voorstand, Tristan goes to a performance of the Water Sirkus. The spectacle has its stock characters, who include the same sinister Bruder Mouse and Oncle Duck, six-foot-high characters that are sometimes physically onstage and sometimes are hologram projections. In the Sirkus, they re-create famous folk-tale moments, which resemble something like cartoon passion plays. Technical wizardry and now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t fantasy are central to the entertainment.
There was no plot, or shape, although there was the continual preoccupation with drowning that distinguishes Voorstandish art in general. There was no circus ring at all, and as such it would have damned itself, not only politically, but also theatrically, with members of the Feu Follet. But few of the critics at the Feu Follet ever saw a Sirkus. Certainly not the Water Sirkus. They therefore overlooked one vital thing—the Sirkus is thrilling. Would it have captured half the world if it were not?
Outside the Sirkus itself, there are also robotic, pint-sized simulacra of the Mouse for sale as pets, since real animal pets are forbidden. There, the petit and deformed Tristan sews himself into a small robot Mouse suit, originally for purposes of disguise. But inside the skin, he becomes the antic, merry, monstrous creature, free at last from his deformed identity but now a slave to the culture he was brought up to despise. Tristan inside the Mouse “struck poses, rolled, tumbled, held its hands across its mouth in a giggle.” Later, he says, “I scratched my head, which is, as you know, the standard comic gesture for Bruder Mouse.”
Tristan-Mouse is so charming that he is “adopted” by a powerful society woman with political connections, who has him perform shuck-and-jive routines for her guests, and also takes him into her bed. The authorities begin to suspect the Mouse is not a robot, but the political subversive in their midst. The disguise is now a liability. The moment when Tristan sheds his Mouse suit to flee Voorstand is for him a second birth. As the novel accelerates to its final pages, Tristan and his friends give the authorities the slip and head off into the wider world. In its mock-classical conclusion, the picaresque hero, armed with fresh knowledge, ventures forth anew: “At that time, although I did not know it, my unusual life was really just beginning.”
While the target of Carey’s satire is the Disneyization of the world’s culture, he is taking aim at other, age-old targets as well: cruelty, false piety, the tyranny of governments, vanity, self-deception, intolerance. At times the dazzling surface of Carey’s prose and the sheer volume of inventive detail might seem to obscure his simple heart’s affection for love and loyalty and truth. But that may well be Carey’s shrewdest move of all—to provide a plot with the bells and whistles of a video arcade game to tell his own version of a simple folk tale, “How Tristan Grew.”
Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman is the biography of its hero in utero. Like Tristan Smith, who is often described as a “homunculus,” Tristram Shandy is an actual homunculus, a fetus with a lot to say. It would not do to make too much of the Sterne connection, which is more spiritual than formal otherwise. But as Tristram Shandy asks: “Shall we for ever make new books, as apothecaries make new mixtures, by pouring only out of one vessel into another?” When this question was posed in 1761, in one of the most original novels ever written, Sterne well knew that the answer was both yes and no. As it still is; like Sterne, Peter Carey is both comfortingly old and disconcertingly new.
June 22, 1995