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.