Carey, Peter (Vol. 183)
Peter Carey 1943-
Australian novelist, short story writer, children's writer, screenwriter, and travel writer.
The following entry presents an overview of Carey's career through 2003. See also, Peter Carey Criticism.
Carey is widely acknowledged as one of the most accomplished and successful Australian novelists of recent decades and is one of a handful—along with Thomas Keneally, David Malouf, and Tim Winton—who command an international reputation. Carey's novels and short-story collections have won virtually every major literary award in Australia, and his international reputation was confirmed when he won a second Booker Prize in 2001, a feat equaled only by the South African author J. M. Coetzee. Praised for his inventive mixture of the fantastic, the comedic, and the ordinary, Carey often creates detailed, realistic settings into which he introduces surreal and fabulous events. Usually set in Australia, Carey's works address themes of postcolonial nationhood and history as he satirizes contemporary social values, explores the illusory nature of reality, and self-consciously examines the art of fiction.
Carey was born in Bacchus Marsh, Victoria, Australia, on May 7, 1943. His parents, Percival Stanley and Helen Jean, owned a local automobile dealership. He attended Geelong Grammar School, an exclusive private school, and later enrolled in the science program at Monash University. After receiving failing grades his first year, Carey dropped out of Monash in 1962 and began working as an advertising copywriter in Melbourne. In 1964 he married Leigh Weetman, though the couple later separated. From 1967 to 1970, Carey lived in London and traveled extensively in Europe. During this period, he wrote three novels that were not published and had his first short stories published. Carey's first major work, The Fat Man in History, a short story collection, was published by the University of Queensland Press in 1974. Eventually returning to Australia, Carey moved into an alternative community near Yandina in southern Queensland in 1977. While living in Yandina, Carey wrote the majority of the stories in his second collection War Crimes (1979). The publication of his first novel, Bliss, in 1981 built on Carey's burgeoning literary celebrity and established him as a major contributor to Australian letters. In 1985 Carey collaborated with Ray Lawrence to compose the screenplay adaptation of Bliss. Carey married theater director Alison Margaret Summers in 1984, with whom he has two sons. Carey moved his family to the United States in 1989, teaching creative writing at New York University and Princeton University. His works have received numerous awards both in Australia and abroad. War Crimes was awarded the New South Wales Premier's Literary Award in 1980, and Bliss received the Miles Franklin Award, the New South Wales Premier's Literary Award, and the National Book Council Award. Illywhacker (1985) won the Victorian Premier's Literary Award and the National Book Council Award as well as being nominated for the Booker Prize in 1985. Carey eventually won the Booker Prize twice for Oscar and Lucinda (1988) and True History of the Kelly Gang (2000). Illywhacker, The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith (1994), and Jack Maggs (1997) were all recipients of The Age Book of the Year Award, while Jack Maggs and True History of the Kelly Gang won the Commonwealth Writers Prize in 1998 and 2001, respectively.
Most of Carey's short stories—collected in The Fat Man in History, War Crimes, The Fat Man in History and Other Stories (1980), and Collected Stories (1994)—center around individuals who experience sudden anxieties when they encounter surreal and absurd events in commonplace situations. Additionally, Carey's short fiction offers satirical perspective on the effects of technology and foreign influences on Australian culture and the postcolonial burden of owing one's ancestry to a former colonizing power. In such stories as “The Puzzling Nature of Blue,” “Report on the Shadow Industry,” and “American Dreams,” Carey analyzes the pervasive influence of the political on the personal as well as the illusory appeals of artistic creation. Bliss continues Carey's penchant for satire in a novel that examines different kinds of stories and storytelling. The novel's protagonist is Harry Joy, an overworked advertising executive who suffers a near-fatal heart attack. Upon recovering from life-threatening open-heart surgery, Joy believes that he died during the operation and is now living in hell. He discovers that his wife is cheating on him with a close friend, and his seemingly lethargic son is actually a drug dealer who forces his sister—Joy's daughter—to commit incest in return for drugs. Joy also discovers that his advertising company maintains a map indicating cancer density for the area, with accountability traced to the company's clients. Joy eventually renounces his work, causing his wife to commit him to a mental institution, where he ironically finds happiness and fulfillment. Carey's tone becomes less satiric and more overtly comedic in his next novel Illywhacker. The term “illywhacker” is Australian slang for a liar or trickster, which accurately describes the novel's central character, the 139-year-old Herbert Badgery. Badgery lies constantly in order to survive and improve his life, and Carey draws parallels between Badgery's picturesque adventures and Australia's development as a nation following its independence from England. In Oscar and Lucinda, Carey again endeavors to re-imagine and re-evaluate Australian history. Set in the Victorian era, the title characters are drawn together by their passion for gambling. Oscar takes a “gamble” as a young man by following what he believes is a sign from God and joins the Anglican Church, using his winnings from horse races to pay for his living expenses as a clergyman. Lucinda is an heiress who “gambles” her family inheritance on buying a glass factory and relocating to Sydney. The two characters meet on an ocean voyage and become involved in a tragicomic love affair. Oscar and Lucinda's expansive narrative is composed of numerous short chapters, gradually unfolding plot details, vivid imagery, and symbolic references to water and glass.
Carey returns to the modern era with The Tax Inspector (1991), creating a postmodern tale with plot twists, bizarre characters, and gruesome yet compelling situations. Maria—an unmarried, pregnant tax inspector—comes to investigate the Catchprice family business, a crumbling auto dealership in a suburb of Sydney. Offended by such an intrusion into their affairs, the Catchprices entrap Maria in a spiraling series of lies and insanities. The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith, Carey's first novel written entirely in the United States, comments on Australian national identity and the assimilation of American culture. The novel's protagonist, Tristan, is a citizen of Efica, an imaginary island nation that closely resembles Australia. Efica has been colonized and exploited by Voorstand, a colossal world power that is reminiscent of the United States. At the center of the story is the Eficans's struggle to retain their cultural identity, which the Voorstanders attack through an entertainment spectacle known as the Sirkus. The primary characters of the Sirkus are Bruder Mouse, Oncle Duck, and Hairy Man who closely resemble the popular Walt Disney characters Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and Goofy. Horribly deformed since birth, Tristan finally finds love and acceptance by donning a Bruder Mouse costume, which hides his physical disfigurations, and becoming part of the Voorstand culture. Carey continues his analysis of postcolonial Australian identity in Jack Maggs, a novel based on Charles Dickens's Great Expectations. In Carey's interpretation, he tells the story from the perspective of the Magwitch character, named Jack Maggs in Carey's text. Maggs is an English ex-convict who, after paying for his crimes, escapes to Australia and becomes a wealthy landowner. He repays an earlier kindness by sending money to a young boy, Henry Phipps, who helped him when he was a convict. Maggs looks upon Phipps as a son and wishes to be reunited with the boy. Risking the punishment of death upon return to England, Maggs finds that Phipps has grown into a self-centered, boring, and lazy man. In the process of his journey, Maggs also becomes involved with a young writer and mesmerist, Tobias Oates, who is a representation of Dickens himself. In reworking Great Expectations, Carey attempts to put forward an uniquely Australian perspective on a classical English text, showing Australia as a land of freedom and fairness, unlike its typical depiction in nineteenth-century literature, which portrayed the country as a rugged wasteland populated entirely by low-class citizens, cattle thieves, and hardened criminals.
One of the most popular figures in Australian history, Ned Kelly, is at the center of Carey's novel True History of the Kelly Gang. Born in 1855 to Irish immigrant parents, Kelly was a notorious gentleman bandit who became a prominent figure in Australian legend and folklore. Although Kelly and his gang murdered three policemen, they have since been immortalized as men who would not bow down to the British imperialistic government that controlled Australia in the nineteenth century. Using both conjecture and legitimate facts, Carey depicts Kelly as a poor and illiterate man who commits crimes only to settle injustices for the downtrodden—a mythical Robin Hood figure for Australia. Carey published his first work of travel writing, 30 Days in Sydney: A Wildly Distorted Account, in 2001, focusing on Australia's capital city. The text recounts Carey's return visit to Sydney during the 2000 Summer Olympic games, giving his personal reflections on the city and its inhabitants. In 2003 Carey released My Life as a Fake, a work of historical fiction regarding an Australian literary hoax, based on a real incident in 1943. The novel follows Sarah Wode-Douglass, a struggling literary editor, as she attempts to discover the truth behind a series of poems written by an author named Bob McCorkle, who may or may not exist.
Commentators have often described Carey's works as postmodern, noting that his prose and dominant thematic material clearly identifies him as a postcolonial author. Critics have lauded how Carey uses non-linear techniques to attack his reader's sense of narrative coherence, order, time, and sequence. Carey's talent for placing extraordinary events within mundane contexts and use of allegory and symbolism have also drawn extensive praise from scholars, earning him comparisons with such writers as Franz Kafka and Gabriel García Márquez. Reviewers have complimented Carey's interest in themes of nationhood, cultural identity, and colonialism as well, most notably in the novels The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith and Jack Maggs. However, some have criticized Carey's continuing emphasis on examining Australian themes and issues, particularly because Carey has lived in the United States since 1989. Such critics have faulted Carey for failing to identify himself as an expatriate author and argued that his later works display a flawed and detached understanding of modern Australian culture.
The Fat Man in History: Short Stories (short stories) 1974
War Crimes (short stories) 1979
The Fat Man in History and Other Stories (short stories) 1980; also published as Exotic Pleasures, 1981
Bliss (novel) 1981
Bliss [with Ray Lawrence] (screenplay) 1985
Illywhacker (novel) 1985
Oscar and Lucinda (novel) 1988
The Tax Inspector (novel) 1991
Collected Stories (short stories) 1994
A Letter to Our Son (letters) 1994
The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith (novel) 1994
The Big Bazoohley [illustrations by Abira Ali] (juvenilia) 1995
Jack Maggs (novel) 1997
True History of the Kelly Gang (novel) 2000
30 Days in Sydney: A Wildly Distorted Account (travel writing) 2001
My Life as a Fake (novel) 2003
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SOURCE: Richey, Norma Jean. Review of Oscar and Lucinda, by Peter Carey. World Literature Today 63, no. 3 (summer 1989): 534-35.
[In the following review, Richey examines the symbolic elements in Oscar and Lucinda, praising Carey's characterizations of the dual protagonists.]
Peter Carey has established himself as one of the best contemporary writers of fiction. His last two novels, Bliss and Illywhacker, were finalists for the Booker Prize, and Oscar & Lucinda was an early contender. Carey has both imagination and intelligence, and his writing gets better with every venture, though I am not sure anyone can write a better picaresque novel than Illywhacker.
Oscar & Lucinda tells the story of two misfits, unsuited both by nature and by parents who raised them according to personal rather than traditional communal values. Oscar's father is a religious fanatic and an erudite collector of strange sea life whose son is indeed an odd fish; Oscar is totally ill suited for being anything but an oddity in his combined ignorance and innocence, using gambling skills to support a theological vocation. Lucinda is an Australian heiress who meets Oscar between two worlds—on a boat en route from England to Australia. Their entire relationship continues as a metaphorical journey between two worlds: between England (past) and Australia (present),...
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SOURCE: Linklater, Andro. “Landscape with Peasants.” Spectator 267, no. 8513 (7 September 1991): 34.
[In the following review, Linklater applauds Carey's descriptive abilities in The Tax Inspector, though notes that the title character is the novel's weakest.]
In the old days, when kindly scientists were still trying to develop ‘smart’ weapons as the humane way to deal out death and destruction, television news once showed a subversive clip of a submarine missile being tested. It was crammed with about ＄10 millions worth of computers and enough information to navigate itself from the ocean bed through the earth's atmosphere and down the throat of a passing cod in the South Atlantic, but through some flaw in its make-up, it chose instead to describe two and a half circles of fluffy smoke and explode in a shower of orange sparks just above the surface of the North Atlantic. If they ever recovered the tail-fin, it probably said ‘Designed by Peter Carey’. This is the unmistakable behaviour of all his most notable creatures—to be bursting with possibilities, with a will-power aimed firmly at the stars, only to corkscrew hopelessly out of control due to some malfunction of nature or nurture.
Its most spectacular demonstration was in Oscar and Lucinda, the 1988 Booker Prize winner, in which God and gambling rocketed the protagonists across the firmament of the...
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SOURCE: Radin, Victoria. “Toxic Waste.” New Statesman and Society 4, no. 168 (13 September 1991): 39.
[In the following review, Radin laments that Carey's dark tone in The Tax Inspector is overly gruesome, arguing that Carey is at his best in his lighter, earlier works.]
Peter Carey can normally be relied on for weather-resistant high spirits and brazen acts of generosity. Illywacker is narrated by a con man of 139 years who has grown a pair of magnificent breasts that suckle a babe. Oscar and Lucinda builds a glass cathedral in a river, in which the hero gratefully drowns. Bliss, being the tale of Harry Joy, triumphs over dark parable. Carey's novels are all fables or follies, but their design is so nicely demonstrated, so deeply embedded in unexpected largesse, that the reader feels stroked and loved.
By the end of The Tax Inspector, this reader felt abused. A Great Point is being made, and the finger is jabbing at us. Even the writing falters, loses Carey's typical relish and precision: there are slacknesses, surprises that slam doors rather than open them. It is an ugly story, and ugliness is not Carey's forte. We have other writers for that.
Abuse is the theme of The Tax Inspector. Ecological abuse has carved a hideous housing development and stinking motor business from fields where Frieda Catchprice, the octogenarian...
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SOURCE: Carey, Peter, and John F. Baker. “PW Interviews: Peter Carey.” Publishers Weekly 238, no. 54 (13 December 1991): 37-8.
[In the following interview, Carey discusses the difficulties he encountered in writing The Tax Inspector, the influences that shape the subject matter of the novel, and the different critical receptions of the novel in Australia and the United States.]
Most writers seem to have had a harder time than Peter Carey getting to the top. Perhaps it's partly due to the hunger in his native Australia for new literary voices, but from the time he began to publish in 1974 critical recognition was swift, and was soon followed by prestigious awards. War Crimes, his second book of short stories (the first was The Fat Man in History), won the New South Wales Premier's Literary Award in 1980; his first novel Bliss the following year won three, including the National Book Council Award; Illywhacker in 1985 earned several more and a Booker nomination in London, and Oscar and Lucinda in 1988 finally took the Booker.
Now Carey, who has been living in New York for the past couple of years, teaching a class in creative writing at New York University, has emerged with The Tax Inspector, a novel about a Grand Guignol family of car dealers that is at once tender and comic, realistic and savagely horrific. It has already...
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SOURCE: Kane, Paul. “Postcolonial/Postmodern: Australian Literature and Peter Carey.” World Literature Today 67, no. 3 (summer 1993): 519-22.
[In the following essay, Kane investigates the duality of Carey's body of work and asserts that Carey's novels not only incorporate postcolonial themes but also follow postmodern styles and ideals.]
What space does Australian literature occupy today in world literature? Embedded in that question is a spatial metaphor that could easily be converted into a temporal one: what are the historical vectors that have determined the present moment of Australian literature? Taken together, the two questions open up the ground of a theoretical inquiry, all the more so since there is no necessary relationship between the two words Australian and literature. Strictly speaking, there is no such thing as Australian literature (in the way one could refer to Anglophone or Francophone literature); what we are really talking about is literature-written-in-English-in-Australia during the last two hundred years.1 And if we are going to insist upon the term literature (rather than, say, writing), then we will have to entertain the fact that, conceptually, literature tends to cut across national boundaries, and even linguistic ones, constituting a transcendental and honorific category all to itself. Literature is not a...
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SOURCE: Bliss, Carolyn. Review of Collected Stories, by Peter Carey. World Literature Today 70, no. 3 (summer 1996): 757.
[In the following review, Bliss lauds the selection of short stories in Carey's Collected Stories, particularly complimenting Carey's ability to leave “himself emotionally naked when writing of his own experience.”]
Peter Carey's Collected Stories contains little that is new, but what is new is wonderful, and what is old is wonderful as well. I intend that adjective literally: the stories excite wonder and are full of wonders.
The collection holds virtually all the short stories gathered in the books which marked Carey's debut, The Fat Man in History (1974) and War Crimes (1979), both published by the University of Queensland Press in Australia. Less than half of the stories from these two volumes were subsequently culled for The Fat Man in History and Other Stories, published in 1980 by Random House in New York and by Faber & Faber in London. In the new Collected Stories all but two of the selections omitted from the London and New York groupings have been reprinted: still absent are “She Wakes” from The Fat Man in History and “Ultra-Violet Light” from War Crimes. Both are very short and somewhat slight pieces, although “She Wakes” shows Carey confidently handling an...
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SOURCE: Coad, David. Review of The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith, by Peter Carey. World Literature Today 70, no. 3 (summer 1996): 757-58.
[In the following review, Coad notes the postmodern style of The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith and comments on Carey's decision to live in the United States as an expatriate writer.]
Peter Carey's fifth novel, The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith, won the 1994 Age Book of the Year Award in Australia. This is Carey's first novel to be totally written outside his native country, since he has been a resident of New York for over five years now. The title makes us think of the picaresque and the hero's eighteenth-century namesake, Tristram Shandy. Carey's Tristan, however, has been democratized to an anonymous Smith.
Billed as a postmodern tragicomedy, Tristan Smith certainly falls into the post-modern allegorical genre. There is a ludic, ironic dialogue with the past. The diegesis is at once strange and familiar. Carey invents a mythic time and setting in order to avoid a simplistic allegorical interpretation. The first half of the novel takes place in the Republic of Efica, an archipelago of islands, beginning in the year 426 EC—that is, “by the Efican Calendar.” The second section is situated in a continental Voorstand some years later. Defamiliarization distances the reader from Carey's imagined spatio-temporal...
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SOURCE: Hensher, Philip. “Great Expectations Disappointed.” Spectator 279, no. 8825 (20 September 1997): 36, 38.
[In the following review, Hensher appreciates the control Carey employs while writing the characters in Jack Maggs but argues that Carey's abrupt prose style clashes with the subtlety of Charles Dickens's Great Expectations, the novel on which Jack Maggs is loosely based.]
Jack Maggs is something of a disappointment, but the reader's disappointment is rather a compliment to Peter Carey than anything else. It contains so many excellent things; its constrained and stifling atmosphere is so distinctive that, in the end, it only disappoints because it feels so much smaller than its splendid predecessors. It tries to do one thing, and succeeds in its confined ambition. The best of Carey's other novels—Bliss, Oscar and Lucinda and The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith—seem to establish what they want to do only as they progress, and leave the uncontainable impression of an exploding bomb of images, a milling crowd of ideas.
Oscar and Lucinda is probably the most admired of Carey's novels, but for me the most remarkable of them is his last, The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith. In it, his very characteristic, tersely epigrammatic style creates an extraordinary world of dark confusions and carnival terrors; an invented...
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SOURCE: Carey, Peter, and Ramona Koval. “The Unexamined Life.” Meanjin 56, nos. 3-4 (September-December 1997): 667-82.
[In the following interview, Carey discusses the works of Charles Dickens, his inspiration for writing Jack Maggs, and the impact writing has on his life.]
[Koval]: When I read Jack Maggs, I thought, of course he's our hero. Why did we ever think that anybody else in Great Expectations was the main person? Is that why you wrote that book?
[Carey]: Well, it's one reason. I was a bit slow in coming to Dickens for all sorts of reasons, but there's no doubt that what that book encourages you to do—what so many of the books we grew up reading encourage you to do—is to take the British point of view. And with that view, you love Pip, he's your person, and so suddenly Magwitch is this dark terrible Other. And then I read the book, you see, and I put it down at once recognizing that I'd read a truly great book—maybe a perfect book. But I was sort of mad with Dickens too. I mean why was Magwitch's money worse really than Miss Haversham's money? And so when I entered into re-imagining this book and putting a writer in the narrative, a writer who knew the truth but distorted it, I was angry with the writer figure, the Dickens figure, the character who finally became Tobias Oates. And it took me a long time to complicate that character...
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SOURCE: Hassall, Anthony J. “A Tale of Two Countries: Jack Maggs and Peter Carey's Fiction.” Australian Literary Studies 18, no. 2 (October 1997): 128-35.
[In the following essay, Hassall examines the differences between Jack Maggs's characterization in Jack Maggs with the character of Magwitch in Charles Dickens's Great Expectations.]
‘And did you like Dickens at the end of it?’ ‘I never did like or dislike him … All I wanted to do was understand him.’
‘You are planning to kill me, I know that …’ ‘Not you, Jack, a character who bears your name …’ ‘You are just a character to me too, Toby.’
(Carey, Jack Maggs 332)
1: REINVENTING MAGWITCH
Peter Carey has generally preferred to fictionalise Australia at a remove, to re-imagine it, shape-shifted out of its present appearance by science fiction transformations, or by movements out of present time. The mirror his fiction holds up to late-twentieth-century Australia and its international context never simply reflects, like Stendhal's, but distorts, like those in the amusement parks that recur in his work.1 In this sense, his imagination has always been Dickensian, so it is intriguing to find that in his latest novel Carey has rewritten the story of Magwitch, the convict in Great...
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SOURCE: Kermode, Frank. “Pooka.” London Review of Books 19, no. 20 (16 October 1997): 8.
[In the following review, Kermode praises Carey's tightly controlled plot and imaginative ideas in Jack Maggs.]
According to its dust-jacket, Jack Maggs is ‘by the author of Oscar and Lucinda’. It is in some respects unlike that novel, being shorter, darker and less furiously though still adequately inventive. Its economy may shock some folk, for Peter Carey is known to be an exuberant novelist, copious, various and fantastic. It is possible to admire his books for their lack of respect for boundaries, for the qualities they share with the work of modern Latin American novelists. However, they are always Australian. Antipodean glossaries are sometimes needed. The Old World is usually present for purposes of unfavourable comparison, implied rather than stated. There is a detectable ground-bass in almost all these fictions: despite the privations, indignities and suffering imposed on it by its colonists, all the repression they continued to exert until quite recently, all that self-consciousness about being the refuge of ‘second-rate Europeans’, Australia can at last be interested primarily in its own othernesses, in what occurs in a culture that is as remote from the protocols of the mother country (not that the expression can now be used without irony) as its fauna are from those of Europe....
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SOURCE: Eder, Richard. “Bleak House.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (1 February 1998): 2.
[In the following review, Eder describes Jack Maggs as a brilliantly written novel, likening Carey's text to a work Charles Dickens might have written if he were not constrained by the social mores of the nineteenth-century.]
A former convict, deported to Australia and prospering there, returns illegally to England in the 1830s to present himself to the young recipient of his mysterious benefactions. It must be Magwitch, of course, Pip's patron in Charles Dickens' Great Expectations. It must be, that is, except that it is Maggs, protagonist of Peter Carey's new novel [Jack Maggs].
Like Magwitch, Jack Maggs moves amid a swirl of sights, smells, passions and plots that limn a time of radical British expansion and grim misery. He too must conceal himself for fear of hanging. He too finds the child he idealized at a distance grown into something less admirable, and in this case villainous—as Dickens may originally have intended his Pip to be.
In fact, though the suggestion of pastiche is blatant, Carey is doing something different and more interesting in this neo-Victorian novel. He is writing Dickens darker; the Dickens—as the late Irving Howe suggested—who may have held back, out of caution or advice, from following his darkness all the way....
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SOURCE: Allen, Brooke. “A Novel as Rich as London.” New Leader 81, no. 3 (23 February 1998): 13-14.
[In the following review, Allen provides a favorable assessment of Jack Maggs and offers insights to the novel's underlying message.]
The question of how much or how little “real life” influences the construction of an author's characters has long been debated by both readers and writers. In Jack Maggs, a historical novel that is partly an homage to Dickens' Great Expectations, the Australian novelist Peter Carey—whose previous books include Oscar and Lucinda—enters the fray by inventing a fateful meeting between a figure very much like Charles Dickens and one of his great characters, the convict Abel Magwitch.
It is 1837, the year of 18-year-old Victoria's accession to the throne. The Industrial Revolution is in full swing and London, the epicenter of the industrialized world, is in the process of radical change. The Haymarket, for example, a street once famous for its outdoor market, is so transformed that “a man from the last century would not have recognized it; a man from even 15 years before would have been confused.” The poor are everywhere. There are no unions to uphold the interests of the working class; there is no welfare system for the destitute except the poorhouse and the prison.
To this teeming and unpredictable...
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SOURCE: Miller, Karl. “Late Expectations.” New Republic 218, no. 16 (20 April 1998): 40-1.
[In the following review, Miller contends that Carey's purpose for writing Jack Maggs is to refute the stereotypical portrayal of Australia as a land of criminals and brutes.]
Peter Carey first saw the light in Bacchus Marsh, Australia, in 1943, and went on to write books which are steeped in Bacchus Marsh and its extensive environs. He now lives in New York, having come up from down under like the hero of his new book, which is set in nineteenth-century London. He is an Australian and a cosmopolitan. He has a fine body of work behind him, and in front of him too, we are entitled to hope, for all the distance that he has placed between his native country and first subject-matter, which have served him so well. His energy and versatility, his fertility and flair, are prodigious.
He has a head for history, and for intertextuality. His novel Oscar and Lucinda owes something to Edmund Gosse's Victorian memoir Father and Son, and his new book, Jack Maggs, a Gothic entertainment, also interested in fathers and sons. It derives from a novel by Dickens. Great Expectations has in it a boy and a marsh, where this boy aids a convict during an escape, a convict named Abel Magwitch who is then transported to colonial Australia, and who returns to haunt his snobbish...
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SOURCE: Ross, Robert. “Expectations Lost and Found.” World and I 13, no. 7 (July 1998): 250-58.
[In the following essay, Ross offers a laudatory review of Jack Maggs and analyzes the novel along with Carey's other works in terms of the political, social, and cultural issues Australia faces as a postcolonial nation.]
Although Peter Carey's Jack Maggs owes its origins to Great Expectations, familiarity with Charles Dickens' tale about the convict Magwitch befriended by Pip need not be a prerequisite for appreciating this striking novel. In fact, ignorance of the classic—unlikely for most readers—could even be beneficial. There would be no reason then to draw comparisons, figure out parallels, or recall blurry details from a high school English assignment. Even while Great Expectations lends resonance to Jack Maggs, Carey's novel stands firmly on its own.
Most of the recent attempts, whether in fiction or drama, to rewrite a classic have been mimicries that neither enhance nor expand the original. But Carey intends more than an update, more than a stab at relevance. Through a fictional sleight of hand he has managed to address the contemporary issues of postcolonialism by setting his story foursquare in nineteenth-century England, the era and place where colonialism reached its zenith.
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SOURCE: Larsson, Christer. “‘Years Later’: Temporality and Closure in Peter Carey's Novels.” Australian Literary Studies 19, no. 2 (October 1999): 176-85.
[In the following essay, Larsson argues that, despite his label as a postmodern writer, Carey frequently invokes the use of prolepses and foreshadowing in his novels, giving the reader a discernible end to his stories and providing a sense of closure not typically experienced in the postmodern genre.]
Peter Carey's novels are usually treated as works of postmodern fiction. This is obviously appropriate, but it can also be limiting. A. J. Hassall makes an important point when he reminds us that, in spite of playing postmodern games with the reader, Carey has a ‘classic, unfashionable concern with morality’ (Hassall 72). In order to do justice to the richness and beauty of Carey's novels, it is necessary to remind ourselves of these unfashionable aspects of the works. Indeed, Carey does play games with his readers, but he is also skilled in more traditional methods of storytelling, and this blend of innovation and tradition makes his novels extremely complex and intriguing. In line with the treatment of his novels as postmodern is the insistence on the open-endedness of the texts. While this is justified to some extent, it is also necessary, if we want to do justice to the complexity of the novels, to recognise that revelation and closure are...
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SOURCE: Taylor, D. J. “A Ventriloquist's Tale.” New Statesman 130, no. 4519 (8 January 2001): 42.
[In the following review, Taylor comments that although Carey's conjectures regarding Ned Kelly's thoughts and actions in True History of the Kelly Gang are enjoyable, they ultimately render the story as a work of historical fiction rather than biography.]
For a work explicitly promoted as a defence of the historical novel, A. S. Byatt's recent On Histories and Stories (Chatto and Windus) is oddly light on references to Peter Carey: just a couple of glancing mentions in among the analyses of Fitzgerald, Fowles, Golding and co. While no one expects exhaustiveness from a book with less than 200 pages, this neglect is something of a surprise, as few English language novelists of the past 20 years have played such dramatic and energetic games with history.
Jack Maggs (1997) wove all manner of devious patterns from the fog of early Victorian London. True History of the Kelly Gang, on the other hand, turns the compass point in the direction of more distant ghosts: Herbert Badgery, the 130 something fabulist of Illywhacker (1985), or the idiosyncratic cleric-and-heiress pairing of Oscar and Lucinda (1988). Although Carey's new novel is “true” in the sense that Kelly and his associates are historical figures—whatever liberties are taken with their...
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SOURCE: Charles, Ron. “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly in One Man.” Christian Science Monitor 93, no. 37 (18 January 2001): 20.
[In the following review, Charles offers a positive assessment of True History of the Kelly Gang, asserting that Carey's ability to give believable voices to historical figures identifies him as a “genius … of literary ventriloquism.”]
Finally, a true history of the Kelly gang. No doubt, you've long suspected all those other tales about the outlaws who terrorized Australia in the 1870s were infected with English prejudice or Aussie pride. If you want the real scoop, you've got to read Ned Kelly's own words—God's honest truth—as brought to us in Peter Carey's avalanche of a novel [True History of the Kelly Gang].
“I know what it is to be raised on lies and silences,” the legendary bushranger writes to a daughter he will never see. “You are presently too young to understand a word I write but this history is for you and will contain no single lie may I burn in hell if I speak false.”
If that's not a gunshot of dramatic irony, what is? But Ned's breathless testimony quickly submerges all skepticism. You can't help but hope he'll somehow out-run the English landlords, the army of police, and even the record of history that insists he was hung in a Melbourne prison at the age of 26.
(The entire section is 884 words.)
SOURCE: Jones, Thomas. “Full Tilt.” London Review of Books 23, no. 3 (8 February 2001): 24-5.
[In the following review, Jones provides a detailed plot summary of True History of the Kelly Gang and examines Carey's narrative style in the novel.]
In the penultimate chapter of David Copperfield, David and Agnes, after ten years of uneventful but blissful marriage—‘I had advanced in fame and fortune, my domestic joy was perfect’—are sitting by the fire in their house in London, one night in spring, when they receive a visit from an elderly stranger. This man turns out to be Mr Peggotty, who emigrated to Australia with what remained of his family ten years previously, together with the Micawbers. And they have all ‘thrived’: Em'ly has recovered her virtue; Martha has married; even Mrs Gummidge has received a proposal; and Mr Micawber has not only paid off all his debts but been appointed District Magistrate. It's quite a paradise, Australia: ‘What with sheep-farming, and what with stock-farming, and what with one thing and what with t'other, we are as well to do, as well could be’; when a traveller comes along, ‘we took him in, and giv him to eat and drink, and made him welcome. We all do that, all the colony over.’ It is in pursuit of such myths that Peter Carey's Oscar and Lucinda set out for the promised land; they learn the realities of life in the colony the hard...
(The entire section is 3068 words.)
SOURCE: Carey, Peter, and John Bemrose. “Dialogue with a Desperado.” Maclean's 114, no. 13 (26 March 2001): 48, 51.
[In the following interview, Carey discusses the importance of Ned Kelly to Australian history, the folklore surrounding Kelly's past, and the events that led up to his writing True History of the Kelly Gang.]
In the boardroom of his Toronto publisher, novelist Peter Carey is wondering out loud where he might pose for a photograph. “We could trash the lobby and do it there,” he jokes, intimating, that as the author of a best-selling novel about the Australian bandit and hell-raiser Ned Kelly, he'd look appropriately roguish sitting among the ruins of expensive leather armchairs. The moment seems quintessentially Australian. First there's Carey's accent, which, despite his 11 years of living in New York City, still makes “trash” sound like “tresh.” And then there's the Aussie macho thing, whereby a direct and rough-hewn mateyness—with its intimations of physical prowess and even fighting ability—is de rigueur. Carey slopes off to the lobby, but the sound of breaking furniture is not heard. A few minutes later, the 58-year-old author returns to the Random House boardroom and folds his lanky, bespectacled frame into a comfortable chair. “That wasn't so bad,” he drawls, as if he'd just had a molar extracted.
Propped up on the large table before him,...
(The entire section is 1393 words.)
SOURCE: Ross, Robert. “Heroic Underdog Down Under.” World and I 16, no. 6 (June 2001): 251-56.
[In the following review of True History of the Kelly Gang, Ross explores the Australian glorification of the outlaw Ned Kelly, viewing Kelly's adulation as a statement against the imperial power of British colonialism.]
Australian writer Thea Astley once commented that after a dozen or so novels she sometimes thought that she had written the same book over and over. Much the same might be said of Peter Carey, whose new novel, True History of the Kelly Gang, continues his chronicle of Australia's quest for national identity. If he is indeed writing the same novel again and again, he has done so with flair and infinite variety. His first major book, Illywhacker (1985), spirals through 150 years of Australia's past. Its title taken from a slang word for con artist, the novel exposes the country's history as a string of lies. In Oscar and Lucinda, the 1988 Booker Prize recipient, Carey examines how British values and Christianity clash with the Australian landscape and the ways of the continent's original inhabitants.
In The Tax Inspector (1992), Carey looks at the underside of contemporary Australia and insinuates that corruption and depravity continue to infect a nation that had its beginning as a convict colony. His most original work so far, The...
(The entire section is 2122 words.)
SOURCE: Porter, Peter. “A Month in the City.” Spectator 287, no. 9029 (25 August 2001): 35-6.
[In the following review, Porter finds 30 Days in Sydney: A Wildly Distorted Account to be superficial and elitist, commenting that Carey focuses only on the trendier and more upscale areas of the city.]
Love or hate Sydney; love and hate Sydney; love to hate Sydney—most Australians fit into the first two of these categories, while Melbournians are chiefly found in the third. But nobody is indifferent to this great city, one of the most mythologised in the modern world. Before writing about it—even when judging somebody else's view of it—you should declare your interest. My mother came from Sydney and looked on her Brisbane life as exile. I went there each Christmas in the Thirties, and ever since have regarded it as my authentic Babylon. I have lived there only briefly but visited it often. I am a Category Two admirer: arriving in Sydney elates me, listening to its denizens praising their city depresses me. Sydneysiders are inveterate nourishers of their local legends, the majority of which are self-serving. Unfortunately, Peter Carey's short book [30 Days in Sydney: A Wildly Distorted Account] perpetuates some of the most venial of them, though it gives them a high-gloss magical polish. Perhaps Carey wants to present Sydney to the world as the latest and grandest of super-cities, a sort...
(The entire section is 880 words.)
SOURCE: Gaile, Andreas. “The True History of the Kelly Gang at Last!” Meanjin 60, no. 3 (September 2001): 214-19.
[In the following review, Gaile argues that, although Ned Kelly is a real figure in Australian history, Carey's personal storytelling and political agendas in True History of the Kelly Gang are glaringly obvious.]
‘Such is life,’ said Ned Kelly on 11 November 1880, before the hangman put the noose around his neck. ‘Such is life,’ wrote Joseph Furphy in his classic Australian novel roughly two decades later, paying homage to Kelly's famous last words. Over the past 120 years, Kelly's life has intrigued more creative writers, artists, journalists, historians and filmmakers than any other historical figure since European settlement. Each publication and re-creation of the life of Kelly adds a new layer to the historical mist. The ‘true history’ becomes more and more inaccessible—with Ned receding into his ironclad armour.
It has taken more than a century for the ‘true’ history of the Kelly Gang to be published, by none other than Peter Carey—an outspoken critic of historical legends and lies. In his latest novel, Carey seeks to peer through the impenetrable veil of historical half-truths. He tries to find the man behind the inscrutable iron mask, forged indelibly into the Australian imagination by Sidney Nolan's famous series of Kelly paintings....
(The entire section is 1921 words.)
SOURCE: Maliszewski, Paul. Review of 30 Days in Sydney: A Wildly Distorted Account, by Peter Carey. Review of Contemporary Fiction 22, no. 2 (summer 2002): 247-48.
[In the following review, Maliszewski praises the “detail and insight” of Carey's travel writing in 30 Days in Sydney: A Wildly Distorted Account.]
In the summer of 2000, while the world focused its attention on the pockets of Sydney given over to hosting the Olympic games, novelist Peter Carey returned to the city he had left for New York some ten years before. Carey wrote about his month-long experience for Bloomsbury's The Writer and the City series. While this is Carey's first book-length work of nonfiction, he doesn't seem at all out of his element, as 30 Days in Sydney gives him ample opportunity to exercise his interests in rich historical detail and a lively, never dry analysis of the way the past shapes the present, interests always apparent in his novels. Carey subtitles his book “A Wildly Distorted Account,” and perhaps it is, since he does talk almost exclusively to his old friends, all of whom he hunts down, has dinner and drinks with, and then tape-records, tapping them for their stories. When Carey comes across a copy of Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman at a friend's house, he thereafter adopts O'Brien's use of an internal interrogator, who questions Carey on his perceptions, testing him on the...
(The entire section is 344 words.)
SOURCE: Lobe, Cliff. “Reading the ‘Remembered World’: Carceral Architecture and Cultural Mnemonics in Peter Carey's Illywhacker.” Mosaic 35, no. 4 (December 2002): 17-34.
[In the following essay, Lobe examines the postcolonial nature of Australian architecture and cultural memory as portrayed in Illywhacker.]
Things are not universally correct in achitecture and universally incorrect in men.
—Theodor Adorno, “Functionalism Today”
Western architecture has always been close to memory. This proximity can be figured as two interrelated mnemonic modes: a systematizing of memory placement in which imagined built spaces (loci) are imposed upon an individual's memory in order to facilitate the recall of information, and a housing or dwelling in which memories of the past accumulate in architectural structures in the present. Such a subdivision of memory reflects two ways that architecture functions in the discourses of individual and cultural recall. The first of these is the technique of the ancient ars memoria, in which architecture is used as a trope of memory function to order—to arrange or train—individual memory: “We all know how, when groping in memory for a word or name, some quite absurd and random association, something which has ‘stuck’ in the memory, will help us...
(The entire section is 7789 words.)
SOURCE: Review of My Life as a Fake, by Peter Carey. Kirkus Reviews 71, no. 17 (1 September 2003): 1086-87.
[In the following review, the critic offers a positive assessment of My Life as a Fake, calling the novel a “Nabokovian masterpiece.”]
The two-time New Zealand Booker winner (True History of the Kelly Gang, 2000, etc.) traces the honeycombed ramifications of a brazen literary hoax (based on a real incident that occurred in 1943 in Australia) [in My Life as a Fake].
Carey's initial narrator is Englishwoman Sarah Wode-Douglass, who edits a struggling magazine, and, more or less impulsively, accompanies renegade writer John Slater on a trip to Kuala Lumpur—despite “hating him all my life”—for what she believes was Slater's adulterous responsibility for her mother's suicide. That's one complication. Then, in Malaysia, Sarah encounters poet maudit Christopher Chubb, now a homeless indigent subsisting as a bicycle repairman, who claims a history with Slater that the latter hastily disavows. Chubb makes an extravagant claim: that he had perpetrated a hoax by circulating his own poems as the works of nonexistent genius “Bob McCorkle” (the fallout from this deception caused the death of a young editor, and destroyed Chubb's career); and that “McCorkle” came to life, swore vengeance on his “creator,” and went on to ruin several...
(The entire section is 337 words.)
SOURCE: Barnacle, Hugo. “Poetic License.” New Statesman 132, no. 4656 (22 September 2003): 52-3.
[In the following review, Barnacle asserts that, despite the novel's unique style, My Life as a Fake is ultimately unsatisfying and overly ambiguous.]
“If I had only stayed in bed, I would not be where I am today, struggling in a web of mystery that I doubt I ever shall untangle.” This is Sarah Wode-Douglass, editor of a London poetry magazine, recalling a trip to Kuala Lumpur in 1972 [in My Life as a Fake]. She was talked into going by a raffish old writer called John Slater, a family friend. The reasons for the trip are unclear, but may have something to do with plot requirements.
Walking the streets, Sarah and Slater notice a shabby man reading Rilke while he minds a bicycle repair shop. Slater says “Christ” and moves Sarah on. The next day, when she possibly should have stayed in bed, Sarah goes to give the man a copy of her magazine: it includes “a very fine translation of Stefan George, which I expected a reader of Rilke would admire”.
Slater later admits to knowing the man hut warns that he's best avoided. He is, in fact, Christopher Chubb, a failed Australian poet, now remembered only for a hoax he played on the editor of a pretentious literary magazine in Melbourne in 1946. He invented a young, working class poet named Bob McCorkle,...
(The entire section is 788 words.)
SOURCE: Porter, Peter. “Spooked by a Spoof.” Spectator 293, no. 9138 (27 September 2003): 54, 56.
[In the following review, Porter praises Carey's “inventive” narrative in My Life as a Fake, though notes he is concerned that Carey “is drawn increasingly to archetypal Australian legends.”]
Readers who have heard that Peter Carey's new novel [My Life as a Fake] is a ‘roman à clef’ should be warned that they will need a whole bunch of keys to unlock its mysteries. Carey seems to have decided that one good template deserves another, so that the Ern Malley swindle of 1944 in Melbourne is coupled with a makeover of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, the whole topped up with some Somerset Maugham Malayan expatriation and a haunted pursuit out of Mr Norris Changes Trains (the dreadful Schmidt becomes Carey's implacable poet McCorkle). It hardly matters how the modules Carey plays with are adapted: what counts is the knowingness of the fictional typology. The book is haunted by literature. As Auden, one of many writers almost in the story, puts it, ‘All is stale yet all is strange.’ It should take courage for a novelist to enter the self-referential world of poetry, but Carey is one of several champions of more popular forms to have recognised recently that while poems don't interest the public the scandals of poets' lives are prime fictional real estate. Go to the...
(The entire section is 770 words.)
Bell, Pearl K. Review of The Tax Inspector, by Peter Carey. Partisan Review 59, no. 2 (spring 1992): 282-85.
Bell provides a mixed assessment of The Tax Inspector, praising Carey's descriptive details but arguing that the story tends to be overly gruesome.
Bradley, James. “Bread and Sirkuses: Empire and Culture in Peter Carey's The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith and Jack Maggs.” Meanjin 56, nos. 3-4 (September-December 1997): 657-65.
Bradley highlights the postcolonial themes in The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith and Jack Maggs, focusing on the displacement of actual or self-imposed exile.
Carey, Peter, and Lisa Meyer. “An Interview with Peter Carey.” Chicago Review 43, no. 2 (spring 1997): 76-89.
Carey discusses the profession of writing, his novels, and the underlying symbolism in his works.
Krist, Gary. “Classics Revisited.” Hudson Review 51, no. 3 (autumn 1998): 623-25.
Krist praises Jack Maggs as an ironic statement against Charles Dickens's Great Expectations but takes issue with Carey's upbeat and unexpectedly forgiving ending.
Porter, Peter. “Made Noble in the Fire.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5101 (5 January 2001): 19-20....
(The entire section is 245 words.)