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Trick mirror

Peter Carey’s iconoclastic new novel

Paul Giles, The Australian Book Review

On learning that the premise of Peter Carey’s new novel involved a test of automobile reliability on a round trip across Australia, my first response was to dismiss this as a thin conceit for encompassing the country’s remoter landscape within a work of the imagination. The Internet, however, quickly delivered old Pathé newsreels revealing not only that this Redex Trial was a demonstrable historical event, but also that no less than 50,000 people showed up at Sydney Showground to see the cars off on their cross-country journey. Truth, indeed, can sometimes seem stranger than fiction. Didn’t they have anything better to do, even in 1954?

A Long Way from Home is a major work of fiction by the writer who will probably be regarded, in a hundred years, as the leading Australian novelist from the early part of the twenty-first century. Though Carey, long resident in New York, is sometimes regarded in the land of his birth as a suspiciously deracinated figure, the unsettling power of his best work derives precisely from the way he hollows out national mythologies of all kinds and reinvents familiar narratives as ludic fables. This is the basis of his demystification of Victorian England in Oscar and Lucinda (1988) or of Tocqueville’s idealisation of US democracy in Parrot and Olivier in America (2010), as well as of the myth of bushrangers in True History of the Kelly Gang (2000). In all these cases, Carey flattens out naturalised worlds of emotional affect into systems of pastiche. Many readers hostile to Carey’s work, like those hostile to the work of his friend Salman Rushdie, are uncomfortable with the forms of structural alienation endemic to an author who envisages his objects through a strategic sense of distance that is only partly satirical in nature. The most memorable vignettes in A Long Way from Home derive from the book’s sardonic evocation of Australian domestic culture in the early 1950s: advertising jingles, radio quiz shows, competition in rural Victoria between Ford and Holden car dealers. The fact that the first section is set in ‘Bacchus Marsh, 33 miles from Melbourne’, where the author himself grew up, enhances this nostalgic ambience, and the book is anchored by vivid portraits of car salesman ‘Titch’ Bobbs and his feisty wife, Irene, who conspire to promote their professional fortunes by winning the Redex Trial.

Yet nostalgia is not the main concern of this ambitious novel. A Long Way from Home turns much more challengingly on what the idea of ‘home’ means and how a homeland is framed and memorialised. Accompanying the Bobbs on their car journey around Australia is Willie Bachhuber, a teacher apparently of German ancestry who, as the book unfolds, learns more about his own genealogical entanglement with Indigenous culture, with Bachhuber’s reluctant overcoming of amnesia effectively mirroring that of the country at large. Carey deploys again the ventriloquist idiom he perfected in True History of the Kelly Gang, one that uses a first-person narrative to get under the skin of the fictional characters. He also juggles the dialogical style that characterised Parrot and Olivier by his method of alternating chapters between different narrative points of view, in this case those of Bachhuber and Irene Bobbs. This opens up Carey’s text to illuminating (if disorienting) shifts in perspective, with the theme of exile signalled in the book’s title referring not only to Bachhuber’s own loss of his imagined ‘ancestral home’, but to a whole ontological series of geographical and philosophical dislocations. The author’s frequent use of scare quotes for words such as ‘“violent” contact’ or ““seed” money’ or an ‘“undulating” road’ introduces what one might call a rhetorical sense of dislocation, where disjunctions appear between a world of conventional signs and the more amorphous nature of experience: ‘The map showed a road but nothing was so definitive in real life.’ This is in accord not only with complex Indigenous relations to place and displacement, but also with the principled alienation promulgated in the book’s final sentence, which suggests how ‘our mother country is a foreign land whose language we have not yet earned the right to speak’. Carey’s use of the word ‘earned’ here implies a suffused sense of guilt, as though the author’s own apprehension of his native land from his New York exile could be seen as merely a heightened version of the ‘foreign’ condition haunting Australia more generally.

The acerbic comedy in this book, revolving around the arcane rules and regulations associated with the Redex Trial across outback Australia, makes for a highly enjoyable reading experience. The success of the novel’s larger ambitions, addressing as it does ‘the question of what it might mean to be a white Australian’ (as Carey himself put it), will inevitably be more contentious. The author vividly portrays the casual racism of bureaucratic Australia in 1954, but he recovers this through a retrospective method that reflects Bachhuber’s own ‘passion for atlases’ and the character’s fascination with maps of time as well as space. A Long Way from Home consequently seeks to excavate an alternative history of Australia in the mid-twentieth century, one that juxtaposes colloquial realism with an anthropological, scholarly inquiry into how Indigenous culture is measured and recognised. In the way it encompasses multiple and sometimes contradictory strands, the novel skilfully refracts, as in a trick mirror, the condition of Australia in 1954 through its parallel formation in 2017. 

The whole question of how Indigenous cultures relate to white Australian history seems recently to have run into a conceptual brick wall, blocked off by imponderable questions of authenticity. In this context, what is particularly unusual and striking about Carey’s work is its use of dark, coruscating humour as an enabling device, as when Bachhuber remarks of the ‘blackfellah’ riding in his car of how he ‘could feed from this red earth as if it were a grocery store’. This ironic idiom is designed not so much to marginalise Indigenous culture as to render it part of the complex postmodern world. When the wonderfully drawn Doctor Battery, who gains his nom de plume from the way he restores car batteries through seemingly magical rituals involving the heating of corrugated iron, remarks on ‘Tadpoles swimming in his spit’, Bachhuber says that he isn’t sure if the Doctor is ‘communicating ancient Law or teasing me or both at once’. Something of that quality of hybridity, of integrating Indigenous culture with a more opaque style of self-reflexive comedy, is the force that galvanises this brilliantly iconoclastic if inherently unstable and deliberately uneven novel. The Indigenous characters here generally appear more elusive and inscrutable than the Bobbs family, while the multifaceted Bachhuber does seem at times to strain credibility. But Carey’s magical realist dimensions, like those of Rushdie, always seek alternative ways of mapping local scenarios, and by reconceiving Australian cultural history through his double idiom of demotic sympathy and cerebral distance, A Long Way from Home provocatively postulates a state of exile as integral to the constitution of the country. 

Paul Giles is Challis Professor of English Literature at the University of Sydney

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