Grief, Rage, Cognac, and a Computer

Dominique Nabokov
Peter Carey, New York City, 2011

Peter Carey is an astonishing capturer of likenesses—not only in the sense of the portrait (the “good likeness”), but of the teeming similitudes with which a sharp eye and a rich memory discern and describe the world. Simile and metaphor, which are at the heart of poetry, are a less certain presence in prose fiction, in some novelists barely deployed at all, but in Dickens, for instance (with whom Carey is repeatedly compared), they are vital and unresting elements of the novelist’s vision.

In Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda (1988), a tiny detail may speak for much: “Mr. Tomasetti had passion, but it was of a different type. It was as cold as a windowpane in a warm room. It was this she trusted.” In a phrase Carey makes an unforgettable observation, encapsulates Mr. Tomasetti, says something too of Mrs. Burrows, the Sydney widow who “liked a little distance” in her men, and adds as it were a further facet to the mysterious thematics of his novel, in which the properties and manufacture of glass are a major preoccupation. As always when Carey is at his best (and that novel remains one of his most thrilling achievements), the reader has the elated sensation of figurative language working so closely with observation that the whole book is revealed as a marvelously live and organic unity.

Oscar and Lucinda takes place in the mid-nineteenth century, Dickens’s time, and a period to which Carey has returned in several novels, including his new one, The Chemistry of Tears. He has always been at ease in that era, and has written about it in many different aspects, with none of the research-heavy self-consciousness of too many historical novels. “The past is not dead, it is not even past” is the epigram from Faulkner at the front of True History of the Kelly Gang (2000), Carey’s invented first-person narrative of the Australian outlaw-hero. He finds a voice for his long-dead narrators that deftly frees them from the constraints and hazards of pastiche.

In the case of Ned Kelly there is one remarkable piece of source material, the “Jerilderie Letter,” a document of over seven thousand words dictated by Kelly to his fellow outlaw Joe Byrne in 1879, a year or so before his death at the age of twenty-five or twenty-six. To read it and then read Carey’s novel is to see an extraordinary act of homage, assimilation, and expansion, Kelly’s pungent and unpunctuated narrative voice inhabited and subtly expanded, with no sense of strain, as the voice of what is both a gripping adventure and a somberly hypnotic prose-poem. Carey, the poet of likenesses, finds on occasion a fellow poet in a man who has lived by his wits in the wild, seeing a kind of meager magnificence in the world and his struggles with…

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