The slick post-modern magic realism narration never interferes with Carey’s first and greatest strength, which is that of a terrific storyteller. Although the story moves quickly, the writing is almost always tight, beautiful, and compelling, interlaced with delicate puns, and resonant with history and cultural references.
Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
My Life As A Fake
by Peter Carey
Knopf (Random House)
Aug 2003, hc, 288pgs, A$45
Sarah Wode-Douglass is editor of The Modern Review, a literary journal. She is persuaded by family “friend” and poet John Slater to visit Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, secretly hoping that he can help clarify the circumstances of her mother’s suicide. While there, in the gloom of a bicycle repair shop, Sarah discovers Christopher Chubb, a middle-aged Australian with sore crusted legs reading a rare copy of Rilke. As Slater explains it, Chubb turns out to be the perpetrator of a literary hoax gone wrong – the mean spirited, jealous and anti-semitic destruction of a talented Jewish editor. After meeting Chubb, and reading a poem which she is profoundly moved by, Sarah begins to listen, in fits and starts, to Chubb’s own extraordinary story, and becomes obsessed with obtaining the full manuscript of the complete works of the Bob McCorkle, Chubb’s fictional creation.
Amidst the twists and turns, My Life As A Fake is a fun, imaginative, and fast moving story which reads very easily. The slick post-modern magic realism narration never interferes with Carey’s first and greatest strength, which is that of a terrific storyteller. Although the story moves quickly, the writing is almost always tight, beautiful, and compelling, interlaced with delicate puns, and resonant with history and cultural references. Readers outside of Australia may not be familiar with the 1940s Ern Malley hoax on which the story is based. In rough outline, two anti-modernist poets James McAuley and Harold Stewart put together a series of joke poems designed to poke fun at surrealism, and sent them to the editor of literary journal Angry Penguins, Max Harris. Harris published, and publicly lauded the work, and was later taken to court on obscenity charges for doing so. Carey takes the Malley story as his outline, and even quotes, word for word, from Malley’s poem “The Darkening Ecliptic,” which was published in Angry Penguins. Carey also quotes from the transcript of Harris’ trial, and his later writings on the topic, and is particularly intrigued with Harris’ belief in the Platonic reality of the character Malley which was presented to him. Carey takes this one step further, and with his usual narrative brilliance, turns the Platonic Malley into a real man – a golem, or a living Frankenstein monster, with all of its tenderness, anger and strength.
As with True History of the Kelly Gang, Jack Maggs, Tristan Smith, and even Illywhacker to a certain extent, the play between true history and “true fiction,” (the lie that tells a greater truth) is part of the narrative power. The ‘truth’ is never certain, nor is it exactly the point, since truth in itself is an illusive concept, varying according to the eye of the beholder. What does matter, in all of Carey’s work, is the verisimilitude of the narrative – the strength of the characters, the tension in the plot, and the power of the word. There is also that sense of pure truths – timeless things that really matter, regardless of circumstance, a judge’s decision, or fashion. Having been fully warned of Chubb’s role in the McCorkle hoax, Sarah is wary, and also a tough, experienced editor who knows her work. Though she approaches Chubb warily, wearily, and with a large measure of irritation, she is nevertheless intensely moved by the poetry he shows her:
I doubt it needs saying that I read with a full consciousness of the old man’s history. I approached these twenty lines with both suspicion and hostility, and for a moment I thought I had him. It was a sort of oriental Tristan Tzara, but that was too glib a response to something with very complicated internal rhymes, and unlike Tzara, nothing felt the slightest bit false or old-fashioned. It slashed and stabbed its way across the page, at once familiar and alien. I wondered if the patois – Malay, Urdu – was disguising something as common as cod Eliot. But that did not fit either, for you really cannot counterfeit a voice. All I knew now in my moment of greatest confusion and suspicion was that my heart was beating very fast indeed. Reading the fragment, I felt that excitement in my blood which is the only thing an editor should ever trust.” (25)
Sarah’s real excitement makes the hoax story almost irrelevant as she endures much in order to try and obtain the whole manuscript. Her own backstory is also critical, and as she both hides from, and drives towards the truth behind her mother’s death and her father’s demise, she begins to discover her mistaken self-image. We all concoct our own fictions, create our own Frankensteins:
I went to bed with the disconcerting knowledge that almost everything I had assumed about my life was incorrect, that I had been baptised in blood and raised on secrets and misconstructions which had, obviously, made me who I was.(136)
Her fears, her built up self-image, and the combination of fascination and repulsion in her relationship with Slater all make her a powerful narrator. Her own construction of meaning out of language is the basis for the underlying truth of the book:
Yet to finally glimpse my white dress dyed with my mother’s blood was, quite honestly, not much worse than the horror I’d invented for myself. If my life had been shaped by my misunderstanding of John Slater, I was not unhappy with the shape itself. For no matter what crooked road I had travelled, it led me to the moment when I first opened ‘The Waste Land’ and found the laws all broken, and in the dazzling eruptions and disconcerting schisms I saw a world off it, puzzled at it, peered into it, scratched its scabby surface to uncover the coral reef below. (136)
We get Sarah’s story firsthand, and she provides second and thirdhand, Slater’s narrative on Chubb, and Chubb’s narrative on McCorkle and the women whose lives have become intertwined with his. Chubb’s voice is persuasive, and after a few chapters, you may also begin to think in his perfectly created pigeon English/Malay – “can or cannot,” “lah,” and “mem.”” His story is totally implausible, but like Sarah, the reader is taken in by it, moved, and alternatively fascinated and repulsed. Aside from the poem, the women, and a conviction that McCorkle is real, and separate from Chubb, there is no confirmation that the book exists, no firsthand glimpse of McCorkle. And yet McCorkle remains a critical character. Believable? Perhaps not. There is plenty of magic realism in Chubb’s descriptions of McCorkle’s antic in the jungles of Penang with McCorkle writing, doing car repairs on the Kaya Kaya’s vehicles, and taking care of Chubb’s stolen daughter who has begun to love her Bapa. McCorkle’s tenderness and sense of responsibility towards young Tina is moving, despite his disregard for Chubb’s pain and loss. His belief in his own tragic creation myth is also moving as the fiction begins to progress and he finds himself dying of an invented disease. When the disease turns out to leukemia rather than Graves disease, and like the poetry, moves beyond invention, we begin to wonder if perhaps there is an element of madness rather than magic. But who is mad? Is it McCorkle? Is it Chubb? Is it Tina and her female carer – the scarred woman? Or is it Sarah herself? Never mind. The book, “pulpy, puffy, interleaved with small blue markers” has its own kind of reality.
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