New York Times Book Review 12 February 1995
THE UNUSUAL LIFE OF TRISTAN SMITH
Peter Carey has always been a novelist of size. Previous novels like “The Tax Inspector” and “Oscar and Lucinda” were big books constructed around large ideas. Now, with “The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith,” he gives his readers a new big novel, his most ambitious to date. The word “unusual” in the title is a tossed pebble of understatement. Tristan Smith’s life is brimful of extravagant sorrows and conflicting loyalties, of self-hatred and well-tended hubris. His voice, which dominates the narrative, is the intelligent, freakish voice of an actor miscast in the world and in his body.
Tristan’s journey toward disillusionment begins in parable – the tale of an ugly, half-orphaned child – then lurches in its second half toward full picaresque flamboyance. Finally, in the closing chapters, amid a chaos of greed and compromise, Tristan arrives at a post-modern world as bleak as any we’ve seen in contemporary fiction. This is a novel crowded with incident – also with excrement, urine, blood and drool – but it is, in the end, a sustained meditation on the folly of imperialism.
An Australian by birth and upbringing, Mr. Carey is attentive to literary as well as political echoes. We’re meant to notice the novel’s kinship with Laurence Sterne’s “Tristram Shandy,” and the fact that sadness is buried within Tristan Smith’s name. But Mr. Carey stirs his bowl of allusive soup with a new spoon of social acuity. Both the oppressed and the oppressors in this novel are damaged by imperial design.
Our hero is hideously deformed at birth, looking less like a baby than like “one of those wrinkled furless dogs they show on television talk show.” His hair grows “queerly thick,” his eyes bulge and his face is severely triangular, lipless, insufficient in flesh. His speech is halting, his legs twisted and shrunken. Even his mother’s politically fastidious theater group finds him repulsive.
The boy grows up in the invented country of Efica, an 18-island geographical entity (a map is provided) populated by rebellious and nationalistic people who have been colonized for generations by the much larger nation of Voorstand, another invention. The Voorstanders store their chemical wastes in Efica’s northern islands and ruthlessly export their popular culture, particularly a trio of monstrously cute creatures who bear more than a passing resemblance to the Disney menagerie, Goofy, Donald and Mickey. Mr. Carey is shrewd enough to scramble his allegorical equivalencies, but it seems not unlikely that Voorstand gestures toward contemporary America, where he now lives.
Besides maps, Mr. Carey provides glossaries of the Efican and Voorstand languages, complete with etymological details. National mythologies, so difficult to pin down when they are attached to real countries, are here fully furnished, solidly rooted and plausible. The Efican, with their low gross national product and second-hand culture, are repelled and made self-righteous by Voorstand values. At the same time, they are mesmerized by Voorstand’s dynamic high-tech entertainment offerings, he traveling troupes of acrobats and jugglers tricked out with electronic dazzle. Young Tristan, whose mother is a leader in Efica’s purist agitprop theater movement, is bewitched by the first sight of Voorstand theatrics: the glittering stars, the extraordinary special effects and the noisy celebration of a once-glorious history.
The second half of the novel takes place in Voorstand, where Tristan, like many a young colonial before him, makes the ritual journey “home.” There he finds a nation spiritually eroded, clinging nostalgically to the myths of its founding principles. Voorstand highways are unsafe. Crime abounds. A repressive puritanism has taken hold of the culture. The infrastructure of the main center of Saarlim (New York?) is broken beyond repair, although there are citizens so obscenely wealthy they can dream of turning whole cities into theme parks.
Mr. Carey makes clear that imperialism is not limited to nation-states. The healthy colonize the weak and deformed; parents hold hegemony over their children; everyone is drugged by a bland, pervasive popular culture, which is mindlessly conceived but expertly transmitted.
This serious novel is full of incidental pleasures, little side trips into arcane avenues like pigeon fancying, theories of acting, the mystery of masks and disguises, all brought forward with authority and with what is clearly Mr. Carey’s own delight in authentic detail. It is tempting, when reading about the novels two invented countries, to reach for an atlas, checking the imagined against the possible.
The first two pages are enough to tell us we’re in the hands of a master storyteller. “Please sit in your seats,” Tristan, the narrator, begs, “while I have you understand exactly why my heart is breaking.” This irresistible invitation is characteristic of the whole novel, which is both intimae and theatrical in tone and supple and surprising in its cadences.
“The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith” is laid out with a tough, spare, considered language, and Mr. Carey knows when and how to put a torque on a sentence so that it strikes precisely at all that is fake or fatuous. His chapter endings and beginnings bite down on each other like sets of teeth, giving dramatic energy to he page like sets of teeth, giving dramatic energy to the page and a discordant, but oddly pleasing music to the ear.
If Peter Carey refuses to charm his reader with easy reconciliations, it may be because he is at heart and old-fashioned utopian trapped in a dystopian universe. The elaborate phantasmagoria of his narrative chess game clears again and again to reveal the hard emotional truth that neither the weak nor the strong have been able to make themselves a safe home in the world.
(Carol Shields was an American-born Canadian author. She is best known for her 1993 novel The Stone Diaries, which won the U.S. Pulitzer Prize for Fiction as well as the Governor General’s Award in Canada).