By Laura Cumming, Sunday Times,
August 13, 1995
When Peter Carey’s first volume of short stories was published in 1974, it immediately became one of the great critical and commercial hits of Australian literary history. The Fat Man In History sold in its thousands. Reading it, said the Sydney Morning Herald, was like ”being shot by a firing squad of angels”.
Somewhat skewed as a compliment, that description does at least suggest something of the impact you get from these and all of Carey’s stories, collected here for the first time. Set in unspecified place and time, they begin as deceptively distant fantasies about talking unicorns and magical birds and rapidly tighten into precise, laconic fables of cynicism, greed and tyranny.
Take his Report On The Shadow Industry, which documents an international craze for packaged shadows. An enchanting luxury, you might think, or an innocent necessity on overcast days. But addicts insist that these shadows can offer psychological insight. Prices soar, bootlegs flood the market and poverty ensues. Substanceless abuse leads to overdoses and suicide. In Exotic Pleasures, the panacea is an exquisite foreign bird which inspires infinite euphoria with the mere brush of its lovely blue wings. At a time of intergalactic unemployment, the person who can procure such a creature may pimp its body and live off the proceeds. Until, that is, the wretched bird literally turns out to carry the seeds of mass destruction.
The implication of these early stories, with their multiple references to muzak and TV dinners, is that Australia is being directly corrupted by America. In American Dreams, Mr Gleason builds a miniature replica of his home town, complete with all its inhabitants. Civic pride is shortlived. Busloads of American tourists soon start arriving to snap the locals beside their tiny effigies for the going rate of a dollar.
The genius of these stories partly derives from their rendering of improbable worlds with the detail and logic of our own. A man’s job may be to prevent truckloads of suicidal horses from drowning themselves, but what he really frets about is the delivery docket. A mime artist with a miraculous talent for invoking terror arrives on Alitalia. Then a local theatre critic pans the show, the mime turns despondently to comedy and his career is over in seconds. Even The Fat Man In History, Carey’s stunningly compact analysis of revolution and counter-revolution, is set in a household where the washing-up rota is in dispute and there’s trouble paying the rent.
The fat men in that story are enemies of the people because ”to be fat is to be greedy, to be pre-revolutionary”. Indeed, the more extreme the invented phenomena, the closer the fit with reality.
The first story in the collection, Do You Love Me?, concerns a mysterious landscape that gradually vanishes ”like the image on an improperly fixed photograph”. Carey opens with a typically playful tilt at Australian culture. Maybe the outback has been deliberately mislaid by racist cartographers creating a socially acceptable map. But when multinational conglomerates also start dematerialising, it emerges that whatever is not loved is doomed to disappear.
Carey once diffidently wrote that he had ”made a whole career out of making my anxieties get up and walk around”. One of the oddest preoccupations in this collection is anxiety about writing. Here is a man who can put you into the head of Homer in the blistering heat (”light falls on his blind eyes like coloured rain on a tiled roof”) as he exhaustedly rearranges the ”small coins” of his characters within the great epic; yet Homer is also depicted as a tyrant killing off his heroes just for the sake of irony. And the shadow story concludes ambivalently, too: ”For here I have manufactured one more: elusive and unsatisfactory.”