MY LIFE AS A FAKE. The Sunday Times (London)
Here is a book in which unreliable narrators repeatedly warn us that other narrators are not to be trusted. Out of this intangible stuff,
Peter Carey has made a novel full of substance and conviction. It leaps around in time and space from wartime Asia to the board meetings of a London literary magazine in the 1980s, briskly touching on “taxi-girls”, decapitated heads and poisoned dogs, risking but not succumbing to the temptations of mere rambling. Incorporating a quest for a missing literary treasure, it convincingly invites us to value the solid one we hold in our hands.
The opening chapters provide a close retelling of Australia’s greatest cultural hoax, the Ern Malley scandal of 1944, in which an avant-garde magazine editor was persuaded to publish poems concocted under a pseudonym by wily writers pretending to be an undiscovered genius. Although the names are changed, the essential elements are all here: the credulous victim insisting that the false goods, however perfunctorily produced, have true value; the priggish prankster making a polemical point about the fickleness of public taste; the farcical obscenity trial with its ignorant police witness and its flailing partisanship.
Carey uses this episode as a jazz player uses a standard tune, going on to create huge, extravagant riffs filled with many other echoes and allusions. His most obvious debt is to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.Christopher Chubb, an elegant poet dedicated to chaste sestinas and villanelles, is astonished when his satirical creation Bob McCorkle furiously materialises in the courtroom and continues to dominate the rest of his existence. McCorkle is a rough roaring Aussie, with an eagle’s fierceness and its “dire unknowability”. He is “the damaged beast of the Antipodes”, who manages to escape from fantasy into the cruelty of life.
The story skips across parts of southeast Asia, visiting Kuala Lumpur, Penang and several hellish but chaotically vivifying pieces of jungle. McCorkle is angry at never having had a childhood of his own, but he snatches Chubb’s adopted child.
The subsequent pursuit fuels much of the plot. Chubb believes his creed is that “I must serve life”. But the irony is that he is driven, with all his conventionality and conservatism, by the unforeseen entanglements of literature and life until he ends up searching for leaks in bicycle inner tubes. He has been triumphantly overcome by the power of what he brought forth.
This is a book in which extremes meet. We spend most of the time being talked to by a wry middle-aged Englishwoman, an editor from a louche and classy family. She and her interlocutors mention Milton, Rilke and Auden. There are several half-hidden references to Ezra Pound’s Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, himself an imaginary poet used as a mask for satire and lyricism, whose errant adventures sometimes form a curious parallel to McCorkle’s. This snug literary province is invaded by the assaults of McCorkle’s “brutish genius”. Editorial hunches are shown, sometimes with a wilful eccentricity, to be less than fully trustworthy.
Asian smells make an inefface-able impression. At the very beginning we encounter the “alien mixture of smoke and spice and sewer and two-stroke exhausts”.
Vegetable gardens are “thick with the unholy smell of human shit”. This vividly pungent atmosphere is one in which identity itself seems to dissolve like a diffuse odour.
The atmosphere is fetid with deceit. The original hoax was an implicit attack on faked aesthetic discrimination. Nearly all the characters remake their life stories or retain secrets about their lovers. McCorkle has “ripped up history and nailed it back together” so that the “glistening green truth” cannot be guaranteed.
The multiple stories appear within one another like Chinese boxes, but the reader is not invited to sit back and admire Carey’s technique. He involves us in these concentric worlds through wit and compassion. There are moments of violent death by bombing, suicide and Bacchae-like murder. These are treated with a strange blend of lurid irony and bittersweet sympathy. There are prolonged (sometimes overprolonged) pieces of sour comedy, farcical interludes in what is often a “dark, merciless world”. The law of unintended consequences is the only consistent law.
The Ern Malley hoax began as a satire on modernism. Carey has skilfully and spiritedly turned it around in order to vindicate the creative imagination.
Frankenstein was also to be “the modern Prometheus”, and McCorkle does something to liberate Chubb from his all too human snobbery and disdain and to evoke pity for someone whose fate has been disappointment and ignominy. Chubb wanted to mock and rage at “the decay of meaning”. He is forced to realise that the body of truth is always “dismembered and scattered” and that gathering these fragments is all a writer can hope to do, accepting the necessary fakery of being human, turning life into stories and back again.