New Yorker, NOVEMBER 24, 2003
Peter Carey’s new novel, “My Life as a Fake” (Knopf; $24), is so confidently brilliant, so economical yet lively in its writing, so tightly fitted and continuously startling in its plot that something, we feel, must be wrong with it. It ends in a bit of a rush, and left several questions dangling in this reader’s mind. Unfortunately, to spell out those questions would be to betray too much of an intricate fictional construct where little is as it first seems and fantastic developments unfold like scenes on a fragile paper fan. To be brief: the narrator and heroine is Sarah Elizabeth Jane Wode-Douglass, the spinster editor of the London avant-garde journal The Modern Review, who in August of 1985 sits down in Berkshire to recount an adventure that befell her thirteen years before, in Malaysia, when an old friend of her family’s, the poet and novelist John Slater, twenty years her senior, persuaded her to accompany him to Kuala Lumpur for a week. Thus, she writes, she “entered that maze from which, thirteen years later, I have yet to escape.”
At the center of the maze lies an old Australian literary scandal, the so-called McCorkle Hoax, in which, in 1946, an obscure and, because obscure, bitter poet named Christopher Chubb passed off parodic verses of his own as the work of an authentic poet-of-the-people, the imaginary Bob McCorkle. McCorkle is supposedly dead, and his mighty works have been timidly brought forward by his unsophisticated sister. The rough-hewn opus was accepted and published with fanfare by the avant-garde journal Personae, whose editor was a rich Jew who had befriended Chubb, one David Weiss. When Weiss, on the strength of one punning line, was prosecuted for obscenity, Chubb exposed the hoax, humiliating him further; in mid-trial, Weiss died violently, apparently a suicide. Readers up on Australian artistic pranks—born, Slater theorizes, of antipodean cultural insecurity—will recognize the lineaments of the real-life Ern Malley affair, which was perpetrated in 1944, by two skillful anti-modernists, Harold Stewart and James McAuley, victimizing a Melbourne magazine called, believe it or not, Angry Penguins. The editor-victim was Max Harris, who did not die of the hoax but lived to write, in a recollection years later, “I still believe in Ern Malley. . . . I can still close my eyes and conjure up such a person in our streets.” Carey quotes this article of strange faith in an afterword, and it, taken with the epigraph from Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” perhaps gives a sufficient hint of the novel’s animating premise: Bob McCorkle lives.
A native Australian who has been resident for thirteen years in New York City, Carey has used the distance to contemplate and reshape some notable legends of his homeland: his previous novel, the epic, Booker Prize-winning “True History of the Kelly Gang” (2000), retells the tale of Australia’s most famous outlaw, Ned Kelly, in the hero’s touchingly and comically ingenuous voice. The novel before that, “Jack Maggs” (1997), takes an Australian element from Dickens’s “Great Expectations,” the transported convict Magwitch, and enlarges him into an epitome of adopted Australian nationhood. The Australian connection is understandably Carey’s lifeblood, but his inspirations depend, in these three instances, on other texts. He imposes personality upon paper rather than deriving, as novelists more customarily do, a paper work from personal sources. Novels of his that draw directly upon Australian reality, like “Bliss” (1981) and “Oscar and Lucinda” (1988), have a hectic fullness and a fond cruelty reminiscent of Dawn Powell’s novels of her native Ohio. Such brimming, jostling fullness thins a bit as Carey ventures, however nimbly, into the small continent’s historic past. “My Life as a Fake” does more than take its start from a historical literary hoax; its central theme and its dominant metaphor are paper, amid the papery passions of the writers and editors who are its principal characters.
“The tropics are not kind to paper,” Christopher Chubb observes, as the ulcerations of Malaysia eat away at his legs. His lowly position of bike repairer on a “noisy street of Chinese shophouses with the unlikely name of Jalan Campbell” has been achieved at the end of a long chain of heated events having to do with printed words. In a dirty sarong and with close-cropped hair, he makes our narrator think, in her first glance, “of both a prisoner and a monk.” But, like him, Sarah is obsessed by literary greatness; neither money nor love much matters to her. John Slater has stooped to pursue both, and she rather despises him for it; he strikes her in his worldliness as “a large and meaty man.” When Chubb calls her on the telephone, he has “a strange, papery voice,” and she will end, despite Slater’s emphatic advice to the contrary, by listening to that siren voice on and on, transcribing Chubb’s tangled tale as he tells it. Chubb is easier to listen to than to conjure as a physical presence: the corners of his lips are shadowy, and his eyelids and his hands are both “papery.” Even his one suit, old and dirty, comes back from the cleaners paperized: “The process of cleaning had so shocked the fabric that it was now broken on the creases, papery and crumbling in his hand like the wing of a dead butterfly.”
And yet books, at least the sacred volume of McCorkle’s poetry, have an unexpectedly various, organic quality: “It was much heavier than I had expected, and very strange to touch—a peculiar texture, slightly oily in places, scaly in others.” When this book is at last opened and read by our heroine, its contents are visceral: “Whoever he was or had been, Bob McCorkle was indeed a genius. He had ripped up history and nailed it back together with its viscera on the outside, all that glistening green truth showing in the rip marks.” The work puts her in mind of Ezra Pound, the ineffable, unfathomable Pound of the Cantos. She triumphantly claims, “This was worth being born for, this single giddy glimpse, on this high place, with the sound of my own blood singing in my ears.” A book is not just paper but humanity, flesh and blood, as Chubb finds when he comes to nurse the dying master poet: “To be so intimate with Bob McCorkle was disgusting, as unnatural and frightening as holding one’s own vital organs in one’s hands.”
Along with Pound, Milton, and the fictive Ern Malley, Joseph Conrad haunts “My Life as a Fake.” Teeming, torrid Malaysia is “Lord Jim or even worse,” and Chubb, who talks “all day and almost half the night,” resembles Conrad’s dreamily long-winded narrator Marlow. Narratives within narratives uncoil as Malaysia ousts English-language literature at the emotional center of the book. Chubb makes a new friend, the dark, wall-eyed Tamil Kanagaratnam Chomley, called Mulaha, who teaches school and makes a hobby of poisoning. Mulaha’s tale of slaughter and vengeance under the Japanese occupation takes us far afield from the theme of literary fakery and from the pursuit of the white whale McCorkle, who has kidnapped what seems to be Chubb’s infant daughter, sprung from a resourceful, shape-shifting beauty called, when Chubb first meets her, Noussette Markson. (Down, plot!) And, indeed, now that the European colonization of Southeast Asia is a bittersweet memory, preserved in the words of Conrad and Orwell and Graham Greene, who will mediate this vast region for the Western imagination but the Australians? They seize it as their nearest escape from insularity, a vacationland and possible sphere of influence.
Carey’s prose is up to any task he sets it. His novel has many voices: Sarah’s taut blithe fluency, that of an upper-class intellectual; Slater’s bluff, irresistibly British effrontery; Chubb’s defensive meander punctuated with Australian and Malay expressions; Mulaha’s elaborate courtesies; a Chinese-Malaysian woman’s aggressively fractured English—all without benefit of quotation marks. Usually I simply resent deprivation of these helpful, clarifying indicators, but Carey (who didn’t use them in “True History of the Kelly Gang,” either) almost persuades me that human speech, thus unified with the narrative sentences, acquires a certain stateliness, as in the Bible. McCorkle, like the also heroic Ned Kelly, speaks in the near-Biblical accents of a common man whose dignity has been offended:
I continued strolling until I found a café run by a little reffo fellow in a dirty singlet. I got him to make me a chicken-and-lettuce sandwich and a chocolate malted milk. At dusk I returned to Birdsing’s residence. . . . From the middle of his iris beds I could clearly see the accused through his window. He had a bottle of Victoria Bitter and a meat pie for his dinner. I also live alone and know what it is to spend these hours of solitude when I would rather have a wife and baby and the smell of stew bubbling in the pot. But what civilised person can sit down to a meal like this and not pick up a book to read?
Even Sarah, confessing to lesbianism, warms into an innocent lilt: “I shocked her often but delighted her all the more, and there was no part of her that was secret to me.” Chubb, though demoralized by his experience of the word made flesh, brings the odd detail sharply to life:
[Mulaha] was very fierce, very definite, like someone accustomed to giving orders, also like a small bird with fixed ideas. He took out a pen and rapped McCorkle’s nose with it.
Carey’s own voice sounds in an arrestingly apt simile: “McCorkle quickly made a bamboo frame on which to lash the naked, mud-caked woman. She was a tiny thing but dense as a bulldog.”
Other reviewers of this folded and refolded tale of mental and physical adventure have claimed its moral to be that everyone depicted is a fake. I don’t see this; the characters are as genuine as their words permit them to be, though all, being characters, are caught up in the business of fiction, which is fakery.