The Bulletin, 6 October 1981:
The art and craft of the short story and the novel are related, but not so closely that a writer who succeeds with one may not fail with the other. The good news is that Peter Carey, a young Australian writer whose short fiction is collected under two titles, The Fat Man in History and War Crimes, has overcome whatever difficulties occur with a change of pace and has produced a quite strikingly original novel. If you wanted a one-line description you could say that it glitters, in a specially dark kind of way.
It is about Harry Joy, an advertising man in Townsville (or is it Cairns? Anyway, somewhere on the tropical east coast) with a wife named Bettina, teenage children named David and Lucy, an assistant named Joel and a favorite restaurateur, Aldo. Harry falls on his own front lawn with a heart seizure, and dies, or at least does that thing that Americans keep describing, i.e. leaves his own body for a few minutes and explores celestial frontiers. His heart is pummeled back into a degree of working order and he wakes up to the certainty that he is in hell.
Meanwhile Bettina and Joel carry on a rather boozy love affair. Bettina is a nuggety intense woman obsessed not with an ambition one would cheerfully confess to – “I want to be the world’s greatest concert pianist” or “I want to find a cure for spina bifida” – but with with the aim of becoming a famous and rich creative advertising director and live in New York, advertising’s peak location. Lack of opportunity, for which she blames Harry, has curdled her spirit as wife and mother, and pretty much as lover, too. David and Lucy, not often noticed by their parents, have together established a working agreement which involves the traffic of sex and money.
When it becomes clear that Harry really does think he is in hell the general opinion is that he should be committed to an asylum. He holes up in the Hilton but eventually the bin claims him. I wouldn’t want to say any more about the plot, except to introduce Honey Barbara (member of the alternative society, flower-child/beatnik/hippy, cannabis cultivator and merchant, part-time call-girl when funds are needed to support those living in shack on the side of the mountain), who is the mover and shaker of events as much as is Harry. Honey Barbara is the character you will remember when the others have faded from the mind, if they do.
Harry, Bettina, Honey Barbara, David, Lucy and a man named Alex who has been writing reports on the cancer-producing products Harry Joy’s firm advertises come and go, together and apart, across the scene, from coastal city to the mountains, in and out of hospital and congregated in the house in Palm Avenue. On the lawn, scene of Harry’s collapse, Lucy and her boyfriend Ken are restoring an old model Cadillac which will eventually become Harry’s chariot of fie and take him to the hills and Honey Barbara. But before that, here is a domestic scene.
Bettina and Joel are lying on what is literally their love nest, a mattress on the kitchen floor. Honey Barbara, having given them a vegetarian dinner, sits with a glass of demineralized water in her hand. Harry, David, Lucy and the others are discussing cancer, in which Bettina says she does not believe.
“You don’t have to believe in it,” Lucy says. “You just get it.”
“It’s a communist plot,” Bettina shouts, “but I am prepared to discuss it.”
Nobody in this novel is free from the threat of destruction, but nobody is free from hope, either. The mixture of fact and fantasy, commonplace events extravagantly embroidered and parodies is the extension of Carey’s short story style. I am not sure that the account of David’s progress from Palm Avenue to Bogotá, and his ultimate fate, actually fits into the novel’s structure, but one wouldn’t be without it.
Bliss is intensely Australian in tone, but luckily it has some non-Australian extras – intellectualism, argument, fervor and fantasy. I can’t imagine that it won’t have a big audience, here and overseas.
Elizabeth Riddell was a distinguished Australian poet and journalist.
Her poetry won the Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry in 1992 and the Patrick White Award in 1995. She died in 1998.