Sydney Morning Herald,10 October 1981
Once you have got over your chagrin with Peter Carey for calling his first novel Bliss, thereby rousing the lofty, supercritical and presumably irked shade of Katherine Mansfield – you will be won over by this tour de force.
In a single bound it has brought contemporary Australian fiction out of its last, stubborn crannies of provincialism into a new universality and sophistication.
Carey, who won the Premier’s Award last year for his second book of short stories, War Crimes, has ventured out of the enclosed, exotic dream world of symbolism into the infinitely more complicated, bizarre world of reality. And his courage has paid off.
Harry Joy cursed with an affable nature and a love of the soft life, has drifted into the cocoon of marriage and a job running an ad agency. He doesn’t ask too many questions, and the tug of eternity does not graze his consciousness.
But an accident happens. He dies. He ascends through filo-paper-thin layers of reality and looks down upon his life and finds it wanting. His marriage has a worm in the center, a certain Joes by name, and his job in the agency involves advertising carcinogenic products.
Joy is quickly resuscitated. Reborn, he looks around him and observes life with eyes that have a piece of eternity lodged in them. Very inconvenient. He suspects that he is in Hell. He keeps a notebook and gathers evidence to this effect. And of course his new attempts to “be good” cause havoc in this world run on the well-oiled, silent assumptions of evil.
He has had examples of goodness in his lyrically recalled childhood: a father who told tall stories about the world being his oyster, full of discoverable pearls; and a mother who never ran out of patience or love, like a magic well.
As soon as Joy tries to fire the agency’s most lucrative client, Krappe Chemicals (worth two million) because its products cause cancer, his colleague Joel starts a movement to have him institutionalized.
If he had found someone he half-trusted he might have confessed, initially, that the chances of this being Hell were about sixty-forty. But as the weeks rolled on the evidence has mounted and he is not, according to his own checks, mad…This is not the childish hell of the Christian Bible with its flames. Here, obviously they planned more subtle things.
But one night, concealed in the branches of a tree, pestered by inquisitive neighbors, he sees his wife and her lover Joel larking about in adulterous camaraderie below and his two children in an incestuous act upstairs. This is Hell indeed.
Hiding out in a suite at the Hilton he studies a cancer map of the city which indicates, by shading, the areas of greatest prevalence. He is convinced this is a map of Hell. Soon he engages the services of apart-time prostitute, who becomes his benefactor and teaches him some of Hell’s survival techniques.
She becomes his Virginian guide through the inferno, the bottom layer of which is the asylum where he is eventually hurled. In there he is so reduced that he loses all his charm and style, which had always seemed so ingrained, and discovers that even there a social hierarchy exists and certain rules of survival must be observed.
The fragility of the cocoons people wear around themselves, the instantaneousness of others’ indifference if you suddenly fail, become punishingly clear to Joy. He perceives that we navigate perpetually through the Scylla and Charybdis of contempt (for losers) and envy (for winners).
The crispness of the writing, the lack of sententiousness while dealing with huge subjects that pulverize the imagination and fatigue most writers’ wrists is Carey’s serious achievement. And all over the surface of these depths there glints a seductive lightness and wit.
His characters, like Joy’s wife, have a real adder’s bite to them. She is one of those creatures in Hell one can’t help liking because they sing the best tunes. While the prostitute, who is a hippy in disguise, Honey Barbara, redeems him ultimately, she is a bit dim withal, and humorless.
Carey makes his home inside these paradoxes. The scenes of the communal dinners at times reach a peak of Waugh-like vitality, conjunctions of opposite forces that clash and occasionally chime in incongruous unison. Honey Barbara is cooking, obsessed with wholesome food (though she grows and sells marijuana); Mrs. Joy is in the dining room snarling out wisecracks – one of those water-snakes that actually flourish in polluted waters.
Joy atones at the end, when he works for five years in a cleansing rainforest, and the final Happy Ending is pure fairy story, a fit ending for a moral fable. What matters is Joy’s severe pilgrimage through a life that seems to be a roulette wheel weighed on the side of diabolical management, and his ability to see it all with stark clarity after giving up, cold turkey, all the ordinary lies, deceptions and evasions that buffer most of us through the day.
Bliss is a work of fiction that is extremely entertaining, and it remains so while it explores such rugged heights as moral responsibility, sin, atonement and the fear of cancer. It is set in a sub-tropical town somewhere “on the outposts of the American Empire” – almost certainly Sydney – but it could be anywhere in the world. Harry Joy’s plight is universal.
(Jill Neville published seven novels in the 30 years 1966-96 and was the author of The Poet and the Goddess, a play about Robert Graves and Laura Riding.. For many years shewas the Sunday Times chief fiction reviewer; latterly she wrote in the Independent. She also had a controversial London column in the Australian, Sydney.)