Un-Efican Activities

The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith

by Peter Carey
Knopf, 422 pp., $24.00

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…

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