Peter Carey World Literature Analysis - Essay

Peter Carey World Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Peter Carey once said, “my fictional project has always been the invention or discovery of my own country.” His writing is shaped by an acute awareness that Australia’s earliest white settlers were criminals cast out by their own country, cut adrift from their own history. Their dilemma is exemplified by Jack Maggs, who regards himself as an Englishman, but who can only remain English as long as he doesn’t return to his home country. Carey’s novels attempt to provide the voiceless former convicts with a new set of origin myths, to reflect their new circumstances, thus initiating a new cycle of history. This is important to Carey because Australians, as he has noted, really believe in failure and seek to deny the fact that their country’s origins lie in the formation of penal colonies.

In the same way, there are no losers in Australia, only “battlers” who continue to struggle with seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Carey claims that Australians admire “battlers” more than those who actually succeed, and his fiction is populated with characters who have to deal with one setback after another. They are constantly on the brink of achieving success, only to lose everything at the last moment, often through their own incompetence. His careful portrayals of these people suggest a certain sympathy; however, he never shrinks from exploring the immensity of their self-deception. Ironically, the confidence-trickster in Illywhacker (1985) is the one character who fully understands his own capacity to deceive others, and even then he occasionally manages to deceive himself.

Carey is extremely skilled at providing a voice for those unable to speak for or to defend themselves. This is best illustrated in True History of the Kelly Gang, where Carey’s close study of the language of Ned Kelly’s Jerilderie letter allows him to tell Kelly’s full story more vividly. Likewise, with Jack Maggs, Carey gives a convincing voice to an Englishman who has been away for a long time. However, Carey’s skills extend beyond historical reconstruction, as shown in Bliss and The Tax Inspector (1991), where he reveals a flair for handling a complex ensemble of voices, while in Theft the narrative is shared between the Boone brothers, one of whom has learning problems. Only in the first-person framing narrative of My Life as a Fake (2003) does this skill seem to temporarily desert him, when he seems unable to create a convincing voice for Micks, the English poetry editor.

Carey employs a wide range of narrative techniques throughout his novels and constantly interrogates the nature of storytelling itself, as befits a man who is interested in providing his country with a set of histories. At times, Carey’s narrators are aware of themselves as characters in novels and equally aware of their audiences, whom they directly address. In other instances, his characters are themselves storytellers, using their skills to come to terms with their lives, or else aware of the power of the printed word as a vehicle of expression.

Carey’s great influences are Beckett, Faulkner, and Joyce; his narratives frequently appear to be chaotic or fragmentary, his characters acting at random rather than according to the dictates of a previously chosen plot. Carey notes the influence of postmodernism on his work, while The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith (1994) is clearly intended as homage to The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gent. (1759-1767) by Laurence Sterne. Nonetheless, Carey’s novels retain an overall narrative coherence; they often end abruptly, not always as the reader anticipates, but always in a way that, in retrospect, does provide closure and satisfaction.

Oscar and Lucinda

First published: 1988

Type of work: Novel

An unconventional young couple, who have finally found love in the face of adversity, lose the chance of happiness together when the woman bets her fortune on the man’s ability to deliver a glass church safely to its destination.

Oscar and Lucinda was the first of Peter Carey’s novels to win the Man Booker Prize. The present-day first-person narrator tells the story of Oscar Hopkins and Lucinda Leplastrier, two young people who meet on board a ship sailing to Australia. The implication, from references made, is that the couple are the narrator’s great-grandparents and that he or she is telling a love story. However, the truth is more complicated.

Lucinda, a wealthy heiress, is returning to Australia after carrying out research on the manufacture of glass in London. On a whim, once she had come into her fortune she bought a glassworks, which she is now attempting to run. Her efforts are confounded in part by the fact that her male employees, although they are willing to work for her, will not allow her in the factory and prefer to deal with her friend, the Reverend Hassett.

Accustomed to living on a farm in the bush with her father and mother, and latterly alone, Lucinda has found it hard to make friends in Sydney. Having bought the glassworks, she finds her way to the Reverend Hassett, an expert in the properties of glass though not its manufacture, and to the household of Mr. d’Abbs, her financial adviser, where she plays cards with him and his friends. Lucinda’s unconventionality is not intentional, but all her life she has been used to taking care of herself, and she finds she does not fit comfortably into the role that society assigns wealthy young women. As a result, her visit to London, where she has called on her mother’s old friends and correspondents, has been an unmitigated disaster.

Oscar Hopkins’s father was a nonconformist preacher and naturalist who had brought up his son alone, according to his own unorthodox beliefs. Queerly dressed, physically and emotionally stunted, Oscar finally rebels by rejecting his father’s religious beliefs and attaching himself to the local Church of England vicar. The church sponsors Oscar’s degree at Oxford, where Oscar discovers his latent skill as a gambler. After he takes holy orders, the church...

(The entire section is 2534 words.)