The Fat Man in History
The Australian, 21 September 1974
Run as far as you like, and resist, but sooner of later there will be a moment of decision. Then it will be time to choose – shall unicorns live forever, or shall you bestow upon them “the gift of death?” Now go everywhere, do everything – no more words. Sit about and you might live your days between the covers of a book!
“My own feelings about the shadows are ambivalent, to say the least. For here I have manufactured one more: elusive, unsatisfactory, hinting at greater beauties and more profound mysteries that exist somewhere before the beginning and somewhere aftter the end.”
This is how Carey concludes his story, Report On The Shadow Industry. It completely eludes any small clue, there is hardly a suggestion, but there’s no doubt it is about the unicorn. “I have manufactured one more” – It would be comforting to a rational person to read the “one more” as another story, as a cipher for the creative process. Peter Carey’s work is never so singular, nor is it as romantic.
The Fat Man In History, Carey’s first collection of stories, has been invented in the same spirit as that curious horse and it’s not difficult to imagine it grew from similar wants. He is a unicorn maker – though he writes far better than most gods, particularly literary deities. Carey has the gift of being able to giveth or taketh away. So much has to perish for so much to live: in this sense The Fat Man is a very political story.
Carey’s imagination is fired with genius, while his relentless intellect is terrifyingly cannibalistic. These stories are so well written, they flow on so easily, that unless the reader is careful the story’s entire meaning may be passed over in the way that some fables seem simplistic in their moralizing. Some of Carey’s work has the quality of Blake and this surface resemblance comes across in the visual quality of the work; some of these stories are perfect maps for possible films.
In Life and Death in the South Side Pavilion, the narrator is in charge of a herd of sheep horses. His position is Shepherd 3rd Class. As the story moves out from the initial situation, the narrator becomes more involved with his lover; it becomes apparent to him that each time he goes to bed with her one of the horses falls into a pool and drowns. This develops and becomes a study of an individual at odds with some unknown an un-described Company or State. The interesting thing is, however, the relationship between the man and his responsibility not to his society but to his charges.
“I have no wish to remember the manner in which I drove the horses into the pool. It was sickeningly easy. They fell into the water like over-ripe fruit from a tree often before the whip touched them. In five minutes the pavilion was empty and the pool was boiling with horses.”
As often as he creates some hope for a possible life, Carey will take it back. His mind dwells in solitary places, even when in the center of, say, a drive-in, surrounded by hundreds of people. In the story Crabs, all manner of detail and information is gathered up into the narrative at such a rapid pace, that the actual dynamics of the dramatic component become secondary to Carey’s hope for mankind.
Often as the stories become more visual, they turn in mid-stride and become conceptual theories and the prose becomes more interested in exploring “the way it looks” against the more usual “way it feels”. It doesn’t matter how wretched the situation, or how desolate either the mindscape of the planet becomes, Carey’s prose holds out for the more hopeful conclusion. Even in confusion, the stratification of Carey’s “History” is open to attack and it is not the eventual visitor that is important, but the possibility of defeat; and through defeat another uprising of the imagination:
“He has accepted some new knowledge and the acceptance makes him feel strong although he has no real idea of what the knowledge is.”
Alexander finch, the Fat Man in History, is often passing though some psychic state of mind-wave similar in feeling and tone to this.
This book should be read by everyone interested in the future of the imagination’s health. It is the equal of the best works of the science fiction writers like Fritz Leibe, J.G. Ballard and John Brunner. Don’t confuse it with those names, they are simply my way out. The Fat Man In History is by far the most exciting book I have read this year.
Robert Adamson spent much of his teenage years in Gosford Boys Home. He discovered poetry while educating himself in jail in his 20s.. He is the author of many poetry collections and the winner of many prizes including the Grace Leven Prize for Poetry for Selected Poems, the C. J. Dennis Prize for Poetry for The Clean Dark, the Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry for The Clean Dar, The National Book Council Banjo Award for The Clean Dark the FAW Christopher Brennan Award for lifetime achievement in literature, New South Wales Premier’s History Award for Inside Out, The Age Book of the Year Poetry Prize for The Goldfinches of Baghdad.