My Life as a Fake (Peter Carey)

Posted: August 14, 2014 in fiction
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Peter Carey won the Booker Prize twice, but not for this book. I wouldn’t have given it one either.

The novel begins as contemporary fiction often does: first-person narrator with a screwed-up childhood meets the friend of her parents whom she believes drove her mother to suicide, and all the childhood stuff comes rushing back to fuck with her adult life. But then we dip into Heart of Darkness, as Sarah Wode-Douglass and John Slater then head off to Malaysia together. They spend most of their vacation avoiding the discussion they came there to have, a discussion of the mother’s suicide, and Sarah meets an Australian poet, who has gone quite as native as Mister Kurtz.

Sarah is at least mildly interested because she edits a poetry journal, but Slater warns her to run away because Chubb was involved in a big literary hoax several years earlier. Several of the details of this part come from an actual literary hoax, that surrounding Ern Malley. Chubb is angry with a certain editor, so he submits intentionally bad poetry in the ‘correct’ literary style of the time under the assumed name Bob McCorkle. Then the hoax is revealed, the editor is shamed, and that should have been the end of it. But then the editor is put on trial for obscenity because of the McCorkle poems, and he commits suicide. So Slater doesn’t want his young editor friend to get anywhere near this guy. Obviously, she does anyway, because otherwise their meeting wouldn’t initiate the action of the novel.

Christopher Chubb teases Sarah with a bit of poetry, then makes her listen to his story before he’ll let her take it to be published. The plot of this story is lifted directly from Frankenstein. At the famous trial, a man starts shouting and claiming to be Bob McCorkle. He claims that Chubb created him, and he goes on to write poetry in the style of Chubb’s sobriquet. He then kills the editor and makes it look like a suicide. He becomes problematic when he insists that Chubb supply him with a birth certificate. Chubb doesn’t know if this guy is real or a projection of his subconscious or what, but other people meet him too so apparently he has some independent existence. McCorkle keeps blaming Chubb for his miserable life, implying that they’re doppelgängers and such, and then he kidnaps Chubb’s adopted daughter. Chubb only had the girl for a week, but he spends years searching for this girl. Eventually he finds her in the jungles of Malaysia, but of course she doesn’t recognize him as her father. As Chubb tells this story, he occasionally digresses and his characters tell their stories.

Normally, this type of narrative is ordered logically. The frame story begins, then it is put on hold until the interpolated story is complete or until an interinterpolatedpolated story begins. No such luck here. John Slater keeps barging in and interrupting, demanding that we come back to the frame story and refuse to believe anything Chubb says. The constant interruptions make things a little hard to follow at times. Another difficulty is the lack of quotation marks for dialogue. It’s clear when you consider each paragraph as a whole, but it demands that we delay our construction of meaning until we reach a speech marker or the end of the paragraph, or sometimes the end of the next paragraph. I suppose it makes sense that we should delay deciding what the story means because our narrators are so unreliable, but all the same, the mental work seems unnecessary.

About halfway through, Slater and narrator finally have that discussion they were meaning to have, and she faces the fact that her memory of the suicide was off. She reconstructed events to blame him and exonerate her parents; it turns out that her mother killed herself because she was ashamed of her bisexual husband. When you’re a little kid, you don’t always think through things like, Dad was always taking young men up to the stable to see the horses during Mother’s garden parties, but only one at a time. And of course, this tells her more about herself:

I have said that I do not like sex, and if you say a thing like that clearly enough and manage to make yourself look sufficiently frightful people do tend to believe you. Fortunately or not, it is untrue. And while I had always imagined my secret nature as being perverse and original, I now began to wonder if I was nothing more unique than my father’s daughter.

It seems necessary to the contemporary literary novel that it include some homosexuality, as if the twenty-first century novel isn’t real without it. Being gay is fashionable, in the right circles. But what does this contribute to the narrative? Almost nothing. This is a book about an editor’s quest for perfect poetry and a poet’s Ancient Mariner-ish need to tell his story. The bit about the mother’s suicide and blaming Slater is a pretext to get Sarah to Malaysia to meet Chubb. Revealing the father’s series of gay lovers shifts our understanding of Slater, maybe he’s more trustworthy than we thought, and of Sarah, maybe she’s not a reliable narrator either. But her own sexual preference occupies a page or two and then is ignored. It’s not an important part of this story, so why bring it up? Because Peter Carey writes award-winning literary novels, and therefore he needs the token homosexual.

Perhaps this is why I didn’t enjoy reading the book. Carey writes a novel that fits the description of the hoax poetry: it does everything that the literary establishment seems to require, intertextuality, complex narrative structure, unreliable narrators, and a little token homosexuality, but it lacks real heart. The book feels fake. I spent 266 pages inside the mind of Sarah Wode-Douglass but I cannot conceive of her as anything other than a series of black marks on a white page, a voice whispering in my ear. There’s no physical presence. The other characters seem much the same. Even when amazing things are happening to them, they’re just not real. Each character can manage one motivation, one emotion at a time. It’s as if every sailor on the Pequod were Captain Ahab and they’re all after the same white whale. I have never been to southeast Asia, and I have met several British and Australian people. Yet, the setting of the novel seems more real to me than the characters. Some of them are racist stereotypes, which also bothers me.

Back when I was an undergraduate taking too few hours to compensate for my lack of a social life, I asked my academic advisor for some advice on what to read. He recommended prize-winning authors, and it took less than a semester for me to realize that I liked the winners of Bookers and Nobels more than winners of Pulitzers and National Book Awards. So Peter Carey has been on my list of things to read for quite some time now; it’s a relief to put a tick by his name. I can see myself reading this book in an undergraduate class on contemporary literature, particularly post-colonial or Australian lit, we’d talk about Bakhtin’s heteroglossia, but it’s too self-important to be loved. Maybe that’s on purpose, but that doesn’t make it any more worth holding onto. Some books need to be released back into the wild.

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