In “Do You Love Me?,” a Borgesian short story first published in 1975, Peter Carey described an unnamed country in which things—first landscapes, later objects and people—begin to disappear “like the image on an improperly fixed photograph.” The unloved “nether regions” of the country are the first to go. “We had no use for these areas,” says the narrator, the son of a cartographer, “these deserts, swamps, and coastlines, which is why, of course, they disappeared. They were merely possessions of ours and if they had any use at all it was as symbols for our poets, writers and film makers.” The questions raised by “Do You Love Me?” have been asked in different ways across many of Carey’s novels: Is it true that the less a country is witnessed—or the less it is written about—the less real it becomes? And just who should get to do the witnessing?
For readers who have never been there, Australia exists as an imaginative blank over which Carey, of all contemporary novelists, has staked the strongest claim. His novels sometimes read as ornate, bafflingly detailed maps. In the past he has used a variety of genres—metafictional tall tale in Illywhacker (1985), picaresque pastiche in Oscar and Lucinda (1988), Dickensian homage in Jack Maggs (1997), faux memoir in True History of the Kelly Gang (2000)—as navigational aids, marking out with recognizable literary forms the immense panorama of emptiness that, for many readers, constitutes Australian history. But in the process he’s left plenty of territory unlabeled.
Carey’s maps often suggest a particular aspect of his country’s colonial inheritance: the divide between what the geographer Thomas Griffith Taylor identified as Australia’s “productive agricultural” coastlines and the “sparse” and “useless” landscape of its interior. Leah Goldstein, the doctor-turned-dancer in Illywhacker, called this land “a black man’s country: sharp stones, rocks, sticks, bull ants, flies,” through which the colonial settlers could only move “like tourists.” In Oscar and Lucinda, for which Carey won the first of his two Booker Prizes, Mr. Jeffris—the frustrated adventurer who leads Oscar’s Fitzcarraldoesque expedition to transport a glass church through the outback—is obsessed with the idea that “he should be an explorer of unmapped territories.” The sheets of glass carried by the expedition, he thinks, “would cut a new path in history. They would slice the white dust-covers of geography and reveal the map beneath, with rivers, mountains, and names, the streets of his birthplace, Bromley, married to the rivers of savage Australia.”
Midway through A Long Way from Home, Carey’s fourteenth novel—a funny, humane, and enchanting book that is among his finest—one of the two central narrators, Willie Bachhuber, meets an Aboriginal man nicknamed Doctor Battery and takes him for a drive through an anonymous landscape. “If this was our country’s heart,” thinks Willie, “I never saw anything so stony, so empty, so endless, devoid of life other than predatory kites, circling, while we sat separately contained, our webs of pain and history hidden from each other.” In Australia the infrastructure of colonialism—fences, roads, wells, and windmills, what Carey calls in the new novel “so much failed whitefellah endeavour”—lies arbitrarily, precariously, and perhaps only temporarily across a much older landscape. It’s a striking moment partly because Carey’s novels haven’t always engaged directly with the stories and experiences of indigenous Australians.
Two kinds of maps work against each other in A Long Way from Home. The first is provided by a fictionalized version of the second Redex Round Australia Reliability Trial, a circumnavigation of the continent first organized in 1953, which sought to stitch the nation together by sending 250 or so ordinary cars along 15,000 kilometers of dusty back roads. The second consists of a series of startling counter-cartographies—songlines, folk sagas, modern myths—that come in the final section of the book.
The Redex Trial was billed not as a race but as a test of reliability. Competitors were docked points for arriving at checkpoints too early, and special coatings were applied to engine parts to allow the organizers to check that drivers hadn’t changed any of their original components along the way. During the first race, Australia’s automotive infrastructure was so underdeveloped that Shell was obliged to install hundreds of gas stations on the five-thousand-kilometer stretch of road between Townsville and Adelaide. Like the Tour de France before it (a race that, as Roland Barthes argued in Mythologies, gave many French people their first glimpse of a map of France), the Redex Trial was also an attempt to generate a sense of national identity, a beating of the bounds that mapped out the continent kilometer by kilometer.
For the most part A Long Way from Home is narrated as a two-hander, alternating chapter-by-chapter between the voices of the gloriously feisty, meritorious auto dealer Irene Bobs and the fusty and timid schoolteacher Willie Bachhuber. Carey has used this technique before, notably in Theft: A Love Story (2006), in which two brothers, Michael and Hugh Boone, tell a tale of art-world skulduggery, and Parrot and Olivier in America (2009), in which a French aristocrat and his English servant embark on a journey through 1830s America. Not so much unreliable as indeterminate narration, it’s a technique that endows these books with a mischievous cubism, letting Carey reflect on the events of the plot from different perspectives.
Irene is married to Titch Bobs, a car salesman who is “ideal in almost every way,” and whose sales figures are known “like cricket scores” by local aficionados. (Carey is attracted to jobs—gambler, priest, con man—in which blarney and patter are more important than anything else, but we don’t hear a great deal from Titch himself in the novel.) Irene met Titch when he delivered a Ford to her mother and stayed on to give her driving lessons. Titch’s father, “Dangerous” Dan Bobs, is another celebrity car salesman (Carey has written about dynastic competitive car salesmanship before, too, in his 1991 novel The Tax Inspector), the first man in Australia to earn a pilot’s license, with something of the manner, but none of the charm, of Illywhacker’s narrator, Herbert Badgery. Striking out on their own, Titch and Irene set up house in Bacchus Marsh, a small town (where, incidentally, Carey was born). They hope to establish their own Ford dealership there.
Willie Bachhuber is a “chalk-and-talker” who moves to Bacchus Marsh after running away from his marriage and the child support payments he decides he isn’t responsible for. He is also a general knowledge geek and a regular competitor on a radio quiz show, though he’s never allowed to keep his prize money. Like Oscar, he is the son of a pastor, and feels dislocated in Australia, convinced that he’d be better off back in Germany, where, he thinks, his family originated. But he’s also frequently taken—by barmen, usually—to be a mixed-race Aboriginal man. “I had my own ancient scars and fears,” he says, “my deep sense of displacement, that I was not from here, that this was not my landscape, that I had been denied my natural land which had been accurately depicted by Caspar David Friedrich.”
In Bacchus Marsh Willie is given the task of teaching a difficult class and suspended from the school when—after some provocation—he dangles one of his students out of a window by his ankles. A scholar of maps and atlases, he becomes interested in local history, especially relating to Aboriginal culture, and wanders around thinking about the people who “walked where I was cycling now when Jesus hung upon the cross” but who are, in 1950s Australia, largely invisible.
In order to drum up publicity for their garage, Titch and Irene enter the Redex Trial, and Willie, taken on as navigator, becomes a bleak tour guide, giving lessons about the dark colonial past of the landscape through which they travel. Titch is unimpressed with these asides. “You’re the navigator,” he says, “you tell us what is happening now. I could not give a fuck about what happened a hundred years ago.” When it transpires that Titch’s father, Dan, has also entered the Redex, the race becomes an Oedipal Wacky Races, during which competitors let off gelignite booby traps, sabotage each others’ engines, and disconnect their brake lights so as to cause accidents on the road behind. The plot forks when Willie is marooned at a cattle station, Quamby Downs, deep in the outback. Irene and Titch go on to complete the race, but Willie, cut off from civilization due to a lack of gas, begins teaching a group of Aboriginal children, and is paid twenty pounds a week by the government “to erase the past, to modernise the blacks, to make them as white as possible.”
A Long Way from Home is full of loving detail. Carey has always seemed to delight as much in technical descriptions of processes and activities—farming, natural history, gambling, glassmaking, horology—as in descriptions of the weather, say, or the landscape, or of the inner lives of his characters. He is, as he characterizes Oscar’s father in Oscar and Lucinda, “one of the great literal describers of his age,” and often you feel that the glittering things he catches so attentively on the page have been pressed into service to make up for a certain dereliction of duty regarding the other things that make up a novel.
In A Long Way from Home Willie’s quiz-show credentials allow Carey to tell idiosyncratic histories of all sorts of odd objects: he gives us lectures on carbon paper, circular saws, chicken feeding, vulcanization. But here the exuberant joy of description is extended to the landscapes his characters pass through. It’s the road that benefits most from Carey’s attentions, with its “long stretches of sand, sudden jump-ups, blind crests, cattle grids,” its “boulders, dry creeks, tidal creeks, ruts, deep holes, scrubby floodplain,” the road that undulates “its way through dreary subtropical brigalow, brownish grass, sleepy creeks,” and across the unmapped country.
His novels have always been helped rather than hindered by their frantic descriptive energy. In nearly every paragraph of A Long Way from Home potential subplots—sometimes whole other novels—are buried suggestively. His sentences generate runners and offshoots: new thickets of story that are often left unexplored. When Willie says in passing, after he’s taken on as navigator, that he “did not reveal that neither my mother nor father had any sense of direction and my Nazi brother was forever getting lost on the way to meet with his fellow Aryans in the Barossa Valley,” it is both the first and the last we hear of it. Later he encounters an English clerk named Toby at a German pearl-dealer’s office. Toby is vividly drawn: “tall and blue eyed with a long top lip and curly smile.” “I liked him,” says Willie. “I did not know him. I never would. Toby was a flipper in an existential pinball machine, a god who sent me pinging towards my fate.” This is the last we hear of him, too, but Toby is more present, more carefully realized, than the central characters of many other novels.
Reading Carey for plot can feel as if you are trapped in an existential pinball machine, but A Long Way from Home is more restrained and less manic than some of his previous books. He has taken many of the elements of those works—the idiosyncratic, voice-driven narrative, the improbable plot development, the unexpected modifying sentences that come at the end of so many of his paragraphs and cast into new relief what’s gone before—and compressed and tightened them. The novel that emerges is as efficient and smooth-running as a well-maintained Redex rally car.
Carey is attracted to the baggy forms of the tall tale and the cartoonish picaresque because of the Victorianism he sees as innate to white Australian culture and experience. In the past he’s spoken of the way in which Australia, cut off from the metropolitan centers of empire, “kept on being Victorian long after the British stopped being Victorian.” He confronted this sense of displaced historical homelessness in Jack Maggs, a retelling of Dickens’s Great Expectations in which Magwitch, after a lifetime of exile in the colonies, returns home to a London that he no longer recognizes.
Another way this interest in the nineteenth-century novel announces itself is in his use of voice. Many of Carey’s novels are ventriloquist performances in which how things are said is almost more important than what is said. He’s attracted to first-person narration because it allows him to tell us something about the world his characters spring from—whether it be nineteenth-century London or America, or Australia in the 1950s—without having them actively consider it, or to drop all the tedious temporal markers (brands, the names of celebrities, descriptions of political events) that so many historical novelists reach for to bolster their claims over a particular era.
The great achievement of True History of the Kelly Gang, which earned Carey his second Booker Prize, was to conjure a voice that was captivating and fluent without ever being too knowing, treading a careful path between lyricism and inarticulacy. When Ned describes, in a breathless, comma-less stream, making an “oath beneath a mighty ironbark it were 8 ft. across as old as history its bark so black and rough it were like the armour of a foreign king,” or when he recalls the fate of his parents “ripped from Ireland like teeth from the mouth of their own history and every dear familiar thing,” we allow him his descriptive prowess and figurative gifts partly because they let us catch glimpses of Carey’s own deftness behind that of his creation.
This tension—between the studied exuberance of his sentences and the rough representation of his characters—is used by Carey to draw attention to what he calls in True History of the Kelly Gang the “historic memory of UNFAIRNESS” that permeates Australian history but is often left unspoken. It also invites a question that Carey confronts directly in A Long Way from Home: Who exactly should be allowed to write about Australia’s downtrodden and marginalized communities? And is an act of ventriloquism inevitably one of appropriation?
There’s not a great deal to distinguish the two central speakers of A Long Way from Home. Irene is slightly folksier, going in for “fiddle-faddle,” “bobby-dazzler,” and “by jiminy” (she’s also an example of what Carey does so well—writing complex and conflicted female characters who neither love nor hate themselves). Willie is fussier, scattering scholarly observations and self-defeatingly pedantic corrections throughout his narrative. After Doctor Battery tells a story, he says he will save white readers “the inconvenience of learning the convention of Aboriginal English wherein a woman is called he (’e) and referred to as him (’im),” while teaching us precisely that convention. But in the final section of the book, Carey also gives us the voices of a series of Aboriginal characters, something he’s not done much in the past. (One exception is Oscar and Lucinda: in a brief passage near the end of the novel an Aboriginal man named Kumbaingiri Billy tells a story about the appearance of the glass church and what it signified to his community.)
Carey has spoken in interviews about the responsibility he feels to get these things right. “It’s my job to take creative licence, and it’s my job also to imagine what it is to be ‘other,’” he said recently, “and it’s my job to do it in such a way that I’m not making a dick of myself.” That he succeeds in not making a dick of himself in A Long Way from Home is a testament to the seriousness with which he’s taken the task. In Quamby Downs, Willie is taken under the wing of Doctor Battery, who along with a man named Tim Tailor teaches him the “new Law” of the people he finds himself among. Tim and Doctor Battery take him on walkabouts and spirit quests to show him how to be a “blackfellah,” teaching him the songlines of their people as he goes.
Doctor Battery speaks in a stripped-down pidgin, an extreme version of Ned Kelly’s voice: “Blackfellahs got no fence,” he says. “No fence, no bloody map neither…. Whitefellah cut’em up my country…. Surveyeor map. Whitefellah peipa. Western Australia. South Australia. Kartiya lock the gate. Blackfellah stay out.” The most startling story, an origin myth about the arrival in Australia of Captain Cook, is buried at the end of the novel, told in stark, rhythmic language by one of the Aboriginal children Willie is teaching. It starts like this:
Captain Cook came out from Big England. He got to Sydney. He git all the books from London, Big England. Bring a lot of men, a lot of horse, rifle, bullock. “Ah, this nice country. You got fish here?” Yes, we got plenty fish kangaroo everything. Captain Cook look around. “Very pretty country. Any more people around here?”
The entire thing reads like a compressed Peter Carey novel, but really it is, Carey says in his acknowledgements, a “lightly edited” version of a story originally told by an Aboriginal community leader named Hobbles Danaiyarri.
One reason, you suspect, that Carey has been so hesitant to tie up the loose ends of his maximalist plots in the past is because any neatness threatens to tame what he sees as untameable: the lives and landscapes of the country that has been the source of so much of his work. He often likes to give the last words of his novels to characters who haven’t appeared in the main narrative. There’s often a sense of lineage, of passing down the lore from one generation to the next. Many of his novels are written by or addressed to readers who are also descendants of their central characters (True History of the Kelly Gang is written for the outlaw’s daughter; Oscar and Lucinda is narrated by Oscar’s grandson). This habit, of filling his novels with a plurality of voices that are often not quite in agreement with one another, is used to suggest just how arbitrary the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves can be.
Aboriginal culture has for the most part been thought of as an oral tradition. It has no need for maps, but it also has no novels and no great interest in or need for linear narrative. For a long time white anthropologists thought this meant that it was a moribund culture: that the stories and songlines of the dream time were fossilized forms, inherited rather than created afresh by the people. Theodor Strehlow, an anthropologist whom Willie quotes in A Long Way from Home, argued in 1947:
The thoroughness of their [Aboriginal] forefathers has left to them not a single unoccupied scene which they could fill with creatures of their own imagination. Tradition and the tyranny of the old men in the religious and cultural sphere have effectively stifled all creative impulse; and no external stimulus ever reached Central Australia which could have freed the natives from these insidious bonds. It is almost certain that native myths had ceased to be invented many centuries ago…. They are, in many ways, not so much a primitive as a decadent race.
In fact, there are many variations of Aboriginal culture, and they are by no means static. Prejudices like Strehlow’s persist, however, which means that conjuring a new mythology from the same old landscape, and acknowledging that the novel only provides one way of mapping a continent, still feel like radical acts.
July 19, 2018
Tipping the Scales
A Work of Art