Peter Carey

Start Free Trial

Norma Jean Richey (review date summer 1989)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 788

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), between religion and reality, between moral order (as in Kant's categorical imperative of “ought”) and the exigencies of poverty and greed.

These two mismatched individuals find each other in an odyssey that mocks English rigidity and Australian mores. The strong-willed couple are outcasts and gamblers who find themselves like each other. They bind their destinies in a glass church that they construct for transport to a near-wilderness settlement in Australia. The church, a fragile symbol of beauty and meaning, is a measure of their own values in a mediocre world in which they find themselves so strangely adrift.

Carey used the device of a figure seen passing in a boat in Bliss, when a glimpsed female was viewed as a romantic object, echoing Byron's words, “I did but see her passing by / Yet I shall love her 'til I die.” Oscar is far too weak and human to be seen as a Byronic figure as he passes in a boat (sitting inside the glass church thus transported). Oscar's destination is toward his own heart of darkness, and the savagery Conrad showed in Kurtz envelops Oscar as he sees the mindless and ambitious head of his caravan victimize both whites and Aborigines. Carey has a knack for making vignettes tell a historical chapter, as he does here in showing the mistreatment of Aborigines in a morality-play-like sketch, or as he did in showing the communist movement in one section of Illywhacker. For Carey, the small boat in which Oscar rides is a ship of the state of Oscar's sensibility, carrying Oscar's vision and his reality, his aspiration and his destruction.

Oscar dies in the church in the boat, drowned hours after having been seduced by this strange woman. He then consummates a will, leaving everything he owns to this strange woman—within hours after his first and only sexual experience. The will results in the loss of Lucinda's fortune, gambled by Lucinda to Oscar as a gesture of faith in his journey and his love for her. Lucinda is left poverty-stricken and eventually becomes a laborer and a labor activist. This does not mean, however, that all's well that ends well, but rather that the world is such a chaos that everything is a gamble, however matters turn out.

Carey's writing often balances elements which create...

(This entire section contains 788 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

a wonder of words that somehow keep emotions at a distance. Carey is not distant on the subject of death, and his account of Oscar's dying is a powerful example of his greatness as a writer.

A great bubble of air broke the surface of the Bellinger and the flying foxes came down close upon the river. When they were close enough for his bad eye to see, he thought they were like angels with bat wings. He saw it as a sign from God. He shook his head, panicking in the face of eternity. He held the doorknob as it came to be the ceiling of his world. The water rose. Through the bursting gloom he saw a vision of his father's wise and smiling face, peering in at him. He could see, dimly, the outside world, the chair and benches of his father's study. Shining fragments of aquarium glass fell like snow around him. And when the long-awaited white fingers of water tapped and lapped on Oscar's lips, he welcomed them in as he always had, with a scream, like a small boy caught in the sheet-folds of a nightmare.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1735

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Andro Linklater (review date 7 September 1991)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 819

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 19th century towards happiness until timidity and frigidity tilted them off-course and smashed their dreams to a million glassy fragments. It was such a dazzling display of fiction-making that one could forgive the relentlessly episodic structure, as though it were being serialised in 110 installments. Since the book following a success tends to be panned by reviewers regretting earlier enthusiasms, I should say at once that The Tax Inspector confirms Carey's status as a novelist of formidable power. The scale, however, is much smaller.

The action is confined to four days, in the course of which Catchprice Motors, a family-run car dealership on the outskirts of Sydney, is being investigated for tax evasion. Unlike both Oscar and Lucinda the nearest any of the Catchprices gets to considering the state of their souls is when the youngest, Benny, determines to become an angel of lust after taking a course in self-realisation, and his brother joins the Hare Krishna movement. Otherwise they are into country-and-western music, child abuse, station wagons and, in the case of Frieda, the family matriarch, gelignite. These are grotesques, but there is a normality about their grotesqueness as there is, for example, about Brueghel's peasants: in place of the blains and bulbous noses bred by rural life in the 16th-century Netherlands, this 20th-century Australian peasantry suffers from neurosis, emotional disturbance and psychopathic urges, but given their environment these aberrations are natural.

What was once farming country watered by the Wool Wash river is now a dormitory town whose awfulness is epitomised by the state of the river it has polluted:

The banks of the Wool Wash were littered with beer cans and condoms and paper cups. Petrol-heads came here to do one dusty spin-turn before screaming up through the S's for the race back to the skid-pan at the Industrial Estate. Stolen cars were abandoned here, virginities were lost here … At weekends you could buy speed and crack by the gas barbecues. It was the sort of place you might find someone with their face shot away and bits of brain hanging on the bushes.

In proper Brueghelian fashion, Carey gives each character, however minor, in this bleak landscape a distinct character, and his economy in conveying a likeness is constantly satisfying. Here is the manager of the Hare Krishna restaurant who makes just three appearances and never as more than window-dressing: ‘Govinda-dasa was not an easy man to work for. He was too often disappointed or irritated with the human material that was given him. He was kind and generous, but these qualities lay like milkskin on the surface of his impatience, wrinkling and shivering at the smallest disturbance’.

Unfortunately such deftness is less apparent in his treatment of Maria Takis, the tax inspector and the one person of integrity in this corrupted world. Although invested with the liberated woman's conventional attributes—tough but caring, pregnant but sexy—she remains a blurred figure. Since she merely serves as a dea ex machina to open up the can of worms, this is no great failing, but in what I can only presume is an attempt to make her human, she is given a love affair with a Catchprice who is smooth, successful and civilized. The device is not only unbelievable but such a bizarre stylistic flaw—as though a peasant by Annigoni had been introduced—that it threatens one's enjoyment of what is otherwise a splendid Gothic satire. Fortunately it is irrelevant to the superb melodrama of the last pages, in which every pigeon not only comes home to roost, but blows up—and unlike submarine missiles, dead on target.

Principal Works

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 95

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

Victoria Radin (review date 13 September 1991)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 566

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 matriarch of the tale, had once dreamed of creating a flower farm. And now the local swimming hole is toxic, its shores littered with condoms left by old children with “lighter-fuel breath”. We never quite learn why blonde, pretty Frieda gave up her dream, but we do eventually see her as the hag she has become. Carey's sympathy wavers near the end of the book, before she detonates Catchprice Motors in a cinema-melodramatic, rather than inevitable, gesture of spite.

He is equally wasteful of Maria Takis, open-hearted, raven-haired, eight months pregnant and single—and the tax inspector of the title. Only Peter Carey could envisage a taxation department staffed by latter-day Robin Hoods, creaming the owners of Rollers to fund child-care and hospitals. But the Department has reverted to type, Dial-a-Death threatens, and Maria's attempt to save Catchprice Motors by breaking into the taxation computer by night proves a meticulously observed red herring. Likewise her rose-coloured, though plausible, romance with Jack Catchprice, whom she drops with a display of sullen hopelessness similar to that with which the author ends his book.

Although Carey has always been unusually able to draw either sex as easily as the other, The Tax Inspector reeks of dislike for men. Running through the Catchprice males is a generational curse of child abuse that culminates in the derangement of Benny, a scary adolescent who cold-bloodedly transforms himself (transformation of a more haphazard sort being a more typical, and endearing, Carey motif) into a white-haired, depilated, silk-suited Lucifer, an Angel of Death—in fact, his own.

It is unclear if the ghastly ending, combining mass destruction and possibly one of the most horrible births in fiction, is meant to be redemptive, but it leaves an awful lot of gore on the ground. Here in Franklin, Australia, are Sam Shepard's Badlands without his warmth, crossed, when the action goes urban and upwards, with a sort of Sydney After Hours. Carey used to write of freakishness and make it seem friendly and compelling. He is now writing, in unforgiving dissatisfaction with contemporary life, of freaks.

Further Reading

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 245


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.

Porter examines the real and fictional elements in True History of the Kelly Gang.

Additional coverage of Carey's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 123, 127; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 53, 76, 117; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 40, 55, 96; Contemporary Novelists, Ed. 7; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 289; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; and Something about the Author, Vol. 94.

Peter Carey and John F. Baker (interview date 13 December 1991)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2147

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 garnered an ecstatic set of English reviews. (Edmund White in the TLS said that Carey's work was “destined to make him one of the most widely read and admired writers writing in English.”)

Carey, tall, thin and bespectacled, with an unruly shock of hair and an enormous, goofily disarming grin, greets PW in the narrow Greenwich Village townhouse he shares with wife Alison Summers, a dramatist and theater director, and sons Sam, four, and Charlie, born last year. We move swiftly up through the clutter of playpens among bookcases, to Carey's workroom at the top of the house, where he flips off his word processor—almost, it seems, reluctant at the intrusion—and perches on his desk to talk, his back to the quiet, tree-lined Village street outside the window.

One of the first things to strike an interviewer is Carey's remarkable combination of sensitivity and self-deprecation. He is very much a public figure in Australia (on a previous encounter, at the Adelaide Writers Festival in 1988, we recall him trailed everywhere by a television crew) and is obviously resigned to the necessity of giving interviews. Yet the personality that emerges, far from being media-hardened, still seems almost as gawkily school-boyish as his appearance. He gropes for the right word, grins delightedly at finding it understood, and gives the impression that he is learning as much about himself from his own conversation as you are.

The Tax Inspector is a novel that marks all sort of changes for Carey. After the epic historic sweep of Illywhacker and Oscar and Lucinda it is much smaller, more concentrated and strongly—even bitterly—contemporary. For it he has moved to a new agent and publisher—and for the first time wrote much of a book away from his native land. Perhaps partly because of his current self-exile, and perhaps for reasons having to do with traditional rivalries between Sydney, where the new novel is set, and Melbourne, where Carey was born 48 years ago, there was some critical carping about The Tax Inspector in Australia. Carey describes it as “a weird reaction,” probably related to the strange Aussie “tall poppy” syndrome, whereby success is denigrated. “One of the things I particularly like about America is that you celebrate success, you don't dump on it.”

He went back to Australia last summer on a promotion tour for the book, but for the time being is very happy with life in New York. “In many ways my life here is as narrow as this room, but I find it very rich and rewarding. We go to a lot of theater because of Alison, and have a lot of good friendships. It's hard to believe it's been two years already since I left.” And when he does return, says Carey, “I want to go back to somewhere extreme—like Townsville, say.”

He found The Tax Inspector a particularly challenging book to complete, and one that took him 12 drafts to get right rather than his usual seven or so. It is set, ironically, in a milieu into which Carey was born—his mother and father were suburban auto dealers, and he says he began it thinking that he wouldn't have to do much research into the background. “I'd never drawn on life in my writing like that before. But although I knew what things looked like, I didn't know how they worked, especially now, and I had to go and research at an auto dealership anyway.” He was also worried how his brother and sister might react, though the dreadful Catchprice clan of the book “is nothing like my family.” His solution was to use a literary occasion to make a speech in which he stressed “how writers make everything up.”

One of the book's many themes is child molestation, which came to him while wife Alison was working on a play about sexual abuse. “I thought, well, I'm a writer, I can do anything. It was some sort of bravado, though I was pleased to recognize that what I was going to do would take some courage, and that I was going to have to live with it.” As for the book's hair-raising final scene, involving mad, teenage Benny, which will certainly upset some readers, Carey felt it more passionately than anything he has so far written. “I saw Benny behind the glass, looking out—it sounds disingenuous, but I actually saw him—and I knew what would have to happen. But I also knew I had to have all my forces in order by then so that when all is in extremis, a reader has to see how it got to this point. I wrote that scene three or four times; it was a more reckless and passionate ride than most of what I've done.”

Carey is aware that he is now, having perfected his craft, allowing more emotion into his work. “You know, when I think about my earlier stories, I was moved by them, but I understand why readers weren't. They were written with a rather removed narrative tone; I realized I had to do more so that readers could react with the same emotion I felt.” Oscar and Lucinda, he thinks, is the first book where he began to achieve emotional richness.

Despite his dazzling literary career to date, Carey did not leap straight into print with a stunning first novel. According to one of his American editors, Ted Solotaroff, formerly of Harper, and quoted now by Carey, “Writers need to spend at least 10 years in the cold,” and that's what the Australian did. Impatient to begin his life, he dropped out of college and went into advertising. “I joined this very eccentric agency in Sydney. It was run by a communist and was full of artists and writers—this was the '60s, remember—and that was the first time it occurred to me that I would like to be a writer, lead a literary life like my colleagues were doing.” He began a first novel (“I had read nothing, and written very little”) and worked on it every night and at weekends: “You have to be obsessive.”

His antic imagination made him a good ad man, “which was lucky, because it meant I was well paid and that enabled me to live in the country and work.” (He has, in fact, never had to do anything he didn't want to do, and since 1976 has been able to make his living purely as a writer.) Fortunately, as he sees it now, those early novels did not get published, so that when his first, much-admired, book of short stories came along, “it looked as if I'd come from nowhere.” The Fat Man in History was issued by the University of Queensland Press, a determinedly literary imprint to which Carey has remained “doggedly loyal” as his Australian publisher ever since, despite numerous offers to move on. Faber in London took him up in 1979, where Robert McCrum became, and has remained, his editor. Deborah Rogers in London became his agent, and put him in touch with Elaine Markson for the U.S. His first appearance in this country was with a volume that combined stories from his first two collections, and was published by Random House.

Bliss and Illywhacker were both brought out by Aaron Asher at Harper & Row, and when Asher left Solotaroff became his editor. “Ted wrote me a long letter about Oscar and Lucinda—the first time an editor had ever done that. It made me quite anxious, because I'm normally a very defensive person.” He grins again. “That's why I do all those drafts, to disarm all possible criticism. But Ted assured me he would publish the book exactly as it was if I declined to take any of his suggestions, so then I felt better; yes, I did make some changes.” Despite the professionals, however, “Alison reads more of what I write than anyone, and she's a very good editor. After her, everyone else is easy.”

Although Oscar and Lucinda was much admired here, where it arrived soon after winning the Booker, Carey was disappointed with the way it was published. Harper was in considerable upheaval at the time, and the book appeared “riddled with errors and typos. It gave booksellers a bad impression.” As part of a fresh look at his American career, Carey decided to change publishers and agents; though he still has the warmest feelings for Markson, he went to Amanda Urban at ICM, and to Knopf. “I have a long history with Sonny Mehta, who did my stories in London with Picador.” Meanwhile he is gratified to note that Harper is reissuing his backlist titles to coincide with the appearance of The Tax Inspector.

Carey is still slightly bemused by his new teaching career. “I never used to do any of the things writers do, readings and teaching; now I do a lot. And I'm beginning to enjoy it, because I'm getting better at it.” He has a group of about 14 students, whom he sees once a week. “What I try to do is act like an editor, have them read their work and see what's wrong themselves. I always learn something from what they say about each other's work.” Does he, like many writing instructors, urge them to write only about what they know? “God, no, I teach them to invent.” And is he worried about adding to the number of would-be writers in the world? “Well, they won't all become writers, obviously, but I feel at the very least we could be producing a new class of intelligent readers. These kids read everything.”

Which is more than Carey does himself. He's working on a new book now, about which he will say only that “It's more obviously made up” than The Tax Inspector: “I want it to be obviously creative.” And when he is working on something himself, “I find it very difficult to read my contemporaries. How can I read another writer without thinking about my own book? This sounds terrible, but I've found that it's very common among other writers, so now I feel less ashamed about it.”

Carey sometimes finds it difficult to realize how different the life of even a well-known writer in this country is from what he has been used to at home. He is, as noted, a national celebrity—“which can make you uncomfortable, but which also means you have to take on responsibilities.” One that Carey took on a few years back was a public fight with a Sydney newspaper over the price of Australian books (it was an early skirmish in the battles that led ultimately to the recently passed amendments to the Australian Copyright Act). As a result he became, he says, “a whipping boy” to segments of the press. But such visibility, he is surprised to discover, is virtually unknown here.

Arriving not long ago for dinner in a Village restaurant with E. L. Doctorow, surely one of our better-known authors, he found Doctorow sitting with his back to the door. “I asked him, in all innocence: ‘Is that so you won't be recognized?’ ‘Good heavens, no!’ Doctorow said. ‘They don't even recognize me when I sign a credit card receipt in a bookstore!’”

Still, despite his own fame, Carey is still sometimes taken aback by it. Passing through London recently, he was momentarily astonished to see a stack of his latest novel in an airport bookstore. “I had to remind myself: ‘Yes, that's right. It should be there!’”

Paul Kane (essay date summer 1993)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3493

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 neutral or value-free concept, and it invariably raises troubling questions about canonicity and the ideology of esthetics. So both terms of our subject, Australian and literature, can quickly become problematic.2 But rather than focus on these two words themselves (and all their self-reflexive implications), I would like to begin to answer the question I began with—“What space does Australian literature occupy?”—by looking at the gap between the two words, Australian literature. While this simple grammatical space holds true for other national literatures, in the case of Australia we may take it as emblematic: that blank space between the words is itself a representation of a displacement, an aporia that opens up possibilities for something we might learn to call truly Australian. And I would like to consider this possibility in looking at the recent work of one Australian novelist, Peter Carey. I am going to refer to that “gap” in a number of ways. The gap could be figured as the absence or solitude Maurice Blanchot speaks of in L'espace littéraire, but I want to consider it here under a double rubric: as an interstitial place or moment between the categories of the postcolonial and the postmodern. What I hope to suggest is that by exploiting that gap, Carey sets up a relation between the two terms, such that Australia, seen in a “postcolonial” sense, and literature, in a “postmodern” sense, converge.

Of Peter Carey, one could apply Terence's famous phrase, Humani nihil a me alienum, “I consider nothing human to be strange to me.” It is a mark of Carey's writing that the stranger the fiction the more encompassing the vision, since what is strange, what exists on the margins of normalcy, can only be known with reference to the whole—that is, to the familiar and strange together. Carey wants to take in all of humanity, or at least all that is available to him, and place it before us such that the strange is made familiar and the familiar made new (which is another way of saying that Carey is no stranger to the world of modern estrangements). Carey's last three novels, Illywhacker,Oscar and Lucinda, and The Tax Inspector, as well as his present work-in-progress, provisionally entitled The Dog, The Duck, The Mouse [published as The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith], take up this perspective or project of defamiliarization. They do so under the sign of the postmodern, however, since the strangeness insisted upon is itself integral to a mode of writing—“metafiction”—which developed out of the humour noir fiction of the 1950s. In the United States the work of John Barth, Thomas Pynchon, Kurt Vonnegut, John Hawkes, Robert Coover, and others involved characteristics we now identify as postmodern and which can be found in Carey's stories and novels as well: the self-referential allusiveness (as in Illywhacker), the parodic exploitation of conventional techniques and historical styles (in Oscar and Lucinda), the fabulist and absurdist characters (in The Tax Inspector), the hallucinogenic plots (as in the stories). Something of all these features turns up in each of Carey's works, and it marks him as a writer seriously engaged with the fictive imagination of his time. To look more closely at this postmodern aspect of Carey's fiction, we might best begin with his latest novel, The Tax Inspector.

In The Tax Inspector what I would identify as the postmodern gap opens up distinctly. This is a novel of disjunctions—a playing out of the master trope of irony—where people are self-divided, unpredictable, even psychotic; where the underside of life is flipped over and we see its vulnerable, luminous belly. Carey's characters are always offbeat, the better to reveal how out of sync humanity really is with its fond conceptions of itself. This may appear as social satire of a sort, but Carey is not really a novelist of manners. He uses the familiar conventions of the novel as a container for his volatile imagination, just as one packs explosives tightly to enhance the blast. In contradistinction to the freewheeling early stories, Carey now strains against the self-imposed confines of conventional form in order to create an urgent resistance, a force that threatens to break the bounds of form but which really breaks free into an imaginative realm all its own, a realm we denominate as “Peter Carey.” To take the example of characterization: in The Tax Inspector the three generations of Catchprices are almost a parody of a dysfunctional, repressive family: the grandfather, though deceased, continues to haunt his children, whom he sexually molested; Granny Catchprice, now wacky in her eighties, carries sticks of gelignite in her handbag; Mort, her son, molests his own son, Benny, who has transformed himself into an angel (with an elaborate tattoo of an angel's wing along his hairless, depilated body); Benny's mother, who shot him in the arm when he was three (while attempting to murder Mort), is long gone; Mort's other son, Johnny, tries to escape his family by becoming a Hare Krishna (taking the name Vishnabarnu) but cannot free himself; Mort's sister, Cathy, is on the verge of becoming a successful country-and-western singer, but she too cannot tear herself away from Granny Catchprice; and Cathy's other brother, Jack, who seems “normal,” turns out to be a corrupt real-estate developer. None escapes the mordant humor of Carey. Nabokov once said that when he sat down to write in the morning he could feel his characters cringe; the same must surely be true for Carey's hapless protagonists. Carey presents us with people on the edge, people who occupy the gaps that open up in society and who are occupied by the gaps that appear within their own minds. But Carey is not simply detailing social defectiveness; there is a deeper parable at work here about the dangers of desire, especially the desire to remake oneself (in light of the gap between desire and fulfillment, between what we are and what we ache to be). Almost all the characters are involved in this perilous enterprise, beginning with the grandmother: “Granny Catchprice had made her life, invented it. When it was not what she wanted, she changed it. In Dorrigo, she called them maggots and walked away. She had gelignite in her handbag.”3 More fearsome is the bizarre Benny, who lives in a cellar hole under Catchprice Motors, in a damp room covered with strange writing on the walls: “All around Vishnabarnu were the names of angels. They hung over him like a woven web, a net, like a map of the human brain drawn across the walls and ceilings of the world. He knew himself a long way from God.”4

Benny has remade himself with the help of a set of “self-actualization” tapes, employing a “visualizing, actualizing” exercise that gives him a psychotic belief in his own “angelic” powers. But Benny, as he well knows, is a fallen angel, a self-described angel of lust and fire and destruction; indeed, the novel ends luridly with Benny fallen upon the floor of his private hell-hole (and Benny/Satan falls as Maria/Mary gives birth). This play on both Christian mythology and the myth of Icarus casts Carey as Daedalian, as the godlike maker of the labyrinthine fictions we work our way through. It is a joining of parable with the parabolic and hyperbolic; we are made sensible of the way in which the outlandish becomes a means for serious ethical inquiry. This bears some relation to the art of caricature, but Carey's exaggerations are not meant to undermine the “reality” of the characters; we are still meant to be taken in by them (just as we are meant to resist being “taken in” by Herbert Badgery in Illywhacker).

In The Dog, The Duck, The Mouse Carey returns to the narrative device of Illywhacker and has the main character tell his own story. After introducing us to the postcolonial (and anagrammatically postmodern) land of Efica, the story opens with an account of Tristan getting born—an apparent play on Sterne's self-referential Tristram Shandy. Tristan's mother, Felicity, is an actress, and a bizarre drama begins immediately, involving Tristan's mother, his “three fathers,” and the doctors and nurses. As the story proceeds, we discover that there is something exceedingly strange about Tristan, and this thematization of postmodern eccentricity alerts us to the playful and parodic techniques that Carey will deploy with so much knowing relish. But Carey does not spin his tales with a centrifugal intent—his negations are not nihilistic—rather, he is interested in applying a centripetal force upon his readers, drawing us in toward a center or an axis of meaning and meaningfulness.

Carey, then, has a way of turning the postmodern toward humanist concerns (most evident, perhaps, in Oscar and Lucinda), but this does not alter the sense of “play” that he achieves in the ironic undertow of his exuberant inventiveness: we are carried away from the familiar shores of realist convention by a current of language that both creates the fiction and undermines it simultaneously. We get a synecdochic version of this in the names he selects: a tax inspector with the last name of Takis auditing a dealership called Catchprice Motors. In and of itself, this mode loosely associated with postmodernism is neither new nor surprising (it has been with us too long for that), but when coupled with Carey's postcolonial concerns, it begins to look more programmatic, as if Carey needed first to undermine the category of literature (as still conventionally defined) in order to get at the real issue for him, which has to do with the notion of what Australia is and what space it occupies in the world of literature and politics and power.

In his recent book, Culture and Imperialism, Edward Said notes that “the prohibition placed on Magwitch's return [in Great Expectations] is not only penal but imperial: subjects can be taken to places like Australia, but they cannot be allowed a ‘return’ to metropolitan space, which, as all Dickens's fiction testifies, is meticulously charted, spoken for, inhabited by a hierarchy of metropolitan personages.”5 Peter Carey's Booker Prize for Oscar and Lucinda in 1988 marked one of the few instances when an Australian writer was “allowed a ‘return’ to metropolitan space”—here defined as Britain, but as much could be said of the United States, even if the situation appears somewhat better there. Patrick White, Thomas Keneally, Peter Porter, Les Murray, and a handful of others have been accorded similar accolades by the “hierarchy of metropolitan personages,” but for the most part Australian writers “toil and spin” on the margins of the world's web.

It is part of Carey's project to call attention to and resist this political and cultural situation, but he does so mainly by reimagining or re-creating a version of Australia that compels our attention, forces us to accede to a recognition that the center of literature is language and language dwells in the world at large. Hence, Carey in effect dismantles the center/periphery opposition of imperial culture. One can see this force at work in certain features of Carey's prose: for instance, the obsessive detail of his descriptions, which draw us into his “new New World.” Here is a typical instance from Oscar and Lucinda, where sight, sound, and smell are interwoven, heightening the “sense” of Sydney Harbour:

Sol wiped his engine's copper piping with an oily rag and made the rag steam. Lucinda picked at a cauliflower. She did not much like the look of Sydney. A wine bottle floated in water that rippled with a rather satanic beauty: mother-of-pearl; spilled oil from a steamer. There was a stink, like tallow rendering, but perhaps this was only Sol's rag on the hot copper pipe.6

Or again, from The Tax Inspector, a description of Benny which zooms in like a camera shot, leaving us with an uneasy sense of the hyper-real:

He was sixteen years old. He had unwashed brown hair which curled up behind his ears and fell lankly over his left eye. He had slender arms and a collar-bone which formed a deep well between his neck and shoulder. He worked with a Marlboro in his mouth, a Walkman on his head, a Judas Priest T-shirt with vents cut out and the sleeves slashed so you could see the small shiny scar on his upper right arm. There was a blue mark around the scar like ink on blotting paper—he had tried to make a tattoo around it but the scratches got seriously infected and whatever words were written there were lost. He had a dark blurry fuzz on his sweaty lip, and bright blue cat's eyes full of things he could not tell you.7

This careful detailing—and delight in proper nouns—gives his prose an almost surreal verisimilitude, embedding his descriptions in a richly patterned style which conveys what might be termed a language mania. The effort to get it precise reveals a compulsive concern with naming, an Adamic desire to map out the true landscape of contemporary and past Australia. But even the past has a modern ring to it, and Carey's sense of history, when wedded to his surging style, seems akin to Herbert Badgery's own (in Illywhacker).

There is no doubt about it—I have a salesman's sense of history. I do not mean about the course of it, or the import of it, but rather its scale of time, its pulse, its intervals, its peaks, troughs, crests, waves. I was not born in some Marxist planet out near Saturn where the days last a year and the inevitabilities of history take a century to show. I am from Venus, from Mars, and my days are short and busy and the intervals on my whirling clock are dictated by the time it takes to make a deal, and that is the basic unit of my time.8

The point is that the connection between language and history is at the heart of Carey's postcolonial concern with Australia, for it is through language that one makes a usable history, a lens through which a people can view themselves and by which others can know them. Carey's recent novels suggest a sense of the malleability of Australian society, as if the monumental work of forging that society were still very much in progress.9 Indeed, one need only look around at the current ferment in the literary arts in Australia to see that the latter half of the twentieth century is likely to comprise crucial decades in Australia's attempt to see itself with its own eyes. Carey's fiction reveals an ambition or desire to be part of that process. This is not quite on the order of Joyce's Stephen Daedalus, setting out to encounter “the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race,” but it is not altogether unself-conscious either—and in the end, Joyce may turn out to be the proper model after all.

In considering The Dog, The Duck, The Mouse, it is clear that the very fact that Carey is creating a new country, Efica—settled as a penal colony by one European nation, then recolonized by another, and finally later exploited by the New World imperial power, Voorstand—is itself testimony to his need to refashion the colonial experience. Efica both is and is not Australia, just as Voorstand is and is not the United States; but what is important is that postcolonial realities are presented and, in effect, analyzed by Carey, and that this is done from a distance. Carey creates his own gap here, a space that is recognizably part of our world but is not entirely coincident with it. This is the space between is and is not, and it allows Carey to reflect upon the postcolonial condition generally as well as specifically (as Australian). It is probably no accident that Carey does this from the vantage point of New York City, which is and is not America—or, as Edward Said puts it, which is “in so many ways the exilic city par excellence.10 The distance New York affords is as much psychic as geographic, but it is precisely this distancing that draws Carey so close to his own country and at the same time turns him toward an internationalist perspective.

To return to our initial question of “Australian literature,” it is with that sense of an ongoing process of historical and cultural self-definition that there comes necessarily a recognition of something incomplete, unfinished, open, a space or gap which has yet to be filled or closed. Of course, cultural identity is never really static, but there are historical “moments” or periods which are conducive to the creation of lasting images or ideologies. It may be that, for Australia, the 1990s will be as crucial in this regard as were the 1890s, when the Bulletin writers helped foster (or confirm) those nationalist myths of mateship which seem so recrudescent. Carey and others may well be establishing the groundwork for a new sense of Australian identity, and at a time when Australia may be establishing itself politically as a republic.

Carey's postcolonial and postmodern sense of newness and of beginnings may also account for his penchant for apocalyptic endings. His last two novels, Oscar and Lucinda and The Tax Inspector, end with astonishing images of catastrophe: a glass church breaking up and sinking into a bay, a series of dynamite explosions touching off underground petrol tanks. As a novelist of eschatology, Carey is prophesying an end which is a beginning. The lyricism of his prose, the mad enchantment of his characterizations, the intensity (almost the fierceness) of his will to create express the recovery of an ancient artistic purpose: the shaping role of the nationalist writer (but now in a broader, internationalist context). Insofar as Australia is a relatively “new” country, positioned culturally and politically in a gap between British heritage and American hegemony (and this in an Asian geography), there remains the possibility of a writer, or group of writers, effecting a change or crystallization in the consciousness of Australians. In Carey's work the disjunctiveness of postmodernism coincides with his sense of the historical displacement of colonialism; the continuing influence of the past—the “postcolonial condition”—is transformed into a vision of the future: Australia as the postmodern society. Thus, in Peter Carey's work the postmodern is the postcolonial, and “Australian literature” comes to occupy a space of its own.


  1. The exception, of course, is the long tradition of Aboriginal writing, yet to call it “Australian” (a term of European origin) is equally problematic.

  2. For other discussions of this question, see Bob Hodge and Vijay Mishra, Dark Side of the Dream: Australian Literature and the Postcolonial Mind, North Sydney, Allen & Unwin, 1990, ch. 1; Sneja Gunew, “Denaturalizing Cultural Nationalisms: Multicultural Readings of ‘Australia,’” in Nation and Narration, Homi K. Bhabha, ed., London, Routledge, 1990; and relevant chapters in Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin, The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Postcolonial Literatures, London, Routledge, 1989.

  3. Peter Carey, The Tax Inspector, New York, Knopf, 1991, p. 288.

  4. Ibid., p. 114.

  5. Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism, New York, Knopf, 1993, p. xvi.

  6. Peter Carey, Oscar and Lucinda, New York, Harper & Row, 1988, p. 112.

  7. Carey, The Tax Inspector, p. 4.

  8. Peter Carey, Illywhacker, New York, Harper & Row, 1985, p. 343.

  9. On this point, see Ken Gelder and Paul Salzman's observation, from The New Diversity: Australian Fiction, 1970-88, Melbourne, McPhee Gribble, 1989, p. 140: “Some historical novels in Australia have unashamedly imagined ‘true history’ as nationalist myth, romanticized and patriotic. Others have been about both ‘true history’ and imaginative possibility, both reconstructive and self-consciously deconstructive: an example is Peter Carey's acclaimed novel Oscar and Lucinda (1988).”

  10. Said, p. xxvii.

Carolyn Bliss (review date summer 1996)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 615

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 uncharacteristically realist mode. Moreover, it is puzzling why these two were not included, if only to make the collection complete. Still, what the collection does give us displays Carey at his quirky and inventive best.

Among the familiar wonders for Carey fans to revisit will be the Fastalogian genetic lottery of “The Chance,” which allows people to trade their bodies for more politically correct ones; the fanciful and metaphorically devastating conceit of “‘Do You Love Me?’” in which unloved and underutilized regions, structures, and persons begin to evaporate; and the inspired absurdity of “Life & Death in the South Side Pavilion,” a description of a character caught in the Catch-22 of being unable either to accomplish or abandon the ludicrous task he has been assigned. The collection also provides the astute cultural commentary of “American Dreams,” in which a small Australian hamlet sells its soul for tourism, and the moral profundity of stories like “The Fat Man in History” and “War Crimes,” which explore how far people will go in the name of a misbegotten sense of duty or allegiance.

Collected Stories also supplies four previously uncollected items which will be new experiences even for many readers of Carey. Most impressive among these is the openly autobiographical piece “A Letter to Our Son,” written in 1987 and first published in Granta. “A Letter,” which closes the volume of stories, is an excruciatingly full, honest, and personal account of the frightening events surrounding the pregnancy of Carey's wife Alison Summers and the birth of their first son. All the jumbled emotions are there: the joy, the pride, the terror, the disbelief, the helplessness, the anger, the confusion—all out in the open and given the text's last word. Here is how the letter ends: “I held you against me. I knew then that your mother would not die. I thought: ‘It's fine, it's all right.’ I held you against my breast. You smelled of lovemaking.” What strikes me as wonderful about this recounting is that Carey is a writer whose sardonic distance from his characters, especially in his short stories, often leaves the reader confused as to how to feel about them. Yet he leaves himself emotionally naked when writing of his own experience. Having read “A Letter to My Son,” I feel as though I know the writer as I never had before. Of Carey's many gifts to his readers, this is perhaps the most wonderful of all.

David Coad (review date summer 1996)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 562

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 world.

In an interview broadcast in Australia, Carey confides that his reading of Kafka's America, Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, and Beauty and the Beast all influenced his new novel. He started with the idea of choosing for his hero a deformed character. This was confirmed when the author happened to see a grossly deformed young man in a wheelchair one day: “I couldn't bear to look at him yet I carried with me afterwards a vision, this bright, bright intelligence and this weird twisted up face.” Such a vision gave birth to Tristan Smith, referred to as a monster and a mutant in the novel. He is described as a “three foot six inches tall, bandy-legged, club-footed, rag-faced” cripple in a wheelchair. Carey's midget antihero is ugly (the author takes umbrage at the term grotesque), in the tradition of Günter Grass's tin drummer, Oskar Matzerath.

Carey's expatriation has a lot to do with his new novel. Efica and Voorstand, the two locales of The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith, obviously have some relation to Australia and America. Carey's preoccupations are typical of the postcolonial debate. In the same interview he reveals: “I wanted to deal with [the idea of America] and the notion of the centre and the periphery.” Efica seems to be based on a remembered, mythic, colonial Australia, whereas Voorstand is a mélange of historical colonizers—South Africa mixed with a phantasmagoric Disneyland. Carey's novel is about national identity viewed from the outside and the periphery. On page 117 we read: “No one can even tell me what an Efican national identity might be. We're northern hemisphere people who have been abandoned in the south. All we know is that we're not.”

This quest for identity is carried out on a personal level. The deformed mutant, Tristan, believes that he can be transformed through art and theater. He leaves his native Efica in order to become part of the glamorous entertainment culture of a fictionalized America seen by Carey in terms of metaphor. Such has been the fate of Carey himself.

Philip Hensher (review date 20 September 1997)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1230

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 parallel universe which is only partly glimpsed through its bizarre hero's nightmare existence, a fictional structure which careers with appalling velocity to the point where the orthodox novelist would begin the story. He is an excellent, individual stylist; he is fascinated by eccentric forms; he happily draws energy and inspiration from classic novels. Tristram Shandy shapes The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith; Oscar and Lucinda begins its astonishing trajectory from, of all things, Edmund Gosse's autobiography. In previous novels, the life of books has been a source of strength and excitement; for the first time, I think, in Jack Maggs, we begin to feel it as a limitation.

It's not simply by comparison, in short, with his own novels that Carey invites the reader's disappointment. Jack Maggs is an example of a curious genre, the modern addendum to a classic work of literature—in this case, Great Expectations. It is not a sequel, like Emma Tennant's two enjoyable continuations of Pride and Prejudice; it much more resembles Jean Rhys's beautiful meditation on the life of the first Mrs Rochester in Jane Eyre,Wide Sargasso Sea. Like Rhys, Carey is not, for the most part, attempting a pastiche; he is, rather, writing the pre-history of Great Expectations, the events from which the invention of Magwitch springs. Jack Maggs is, rather like Oscar and Lucinda, an attempt at a Victorian novel in Carey's own, highly distinctive style.

It will be recalled that Magwitch, in Great Expectations, returns to London after being transported for life, to reveal himself to the young Pip as his benefactor. Carey imagines the real events which may be supposed to lie behind Dickens' invention, the action of Jack Maggs concerns not just the return from Australia of a transported convict, Maggs himself, and his attempts to find his protégé, Henry Phipps, but also the fascinated intervention of a young and celebrated author, Tobias Oates. Oates, apart from being an author, is a hypnotist and a mesmerist, and by far the most interesting strand of Jack Maggs is the idea that, like the hypnotist, the artist creates his art out of unwilling and sometimes distressed subjects. The inevitable problem of Jack Maggs, it seems to me, is that though Carey can produce a big dramatic scene of near-Dickensian force, he cannot rival either the profusion or the psychological subtlety of Great Expectations; nor, one suspects, does he particularly want to; and yet it is felt as a failure by the reader.

The odd thing about Jack Maggs is that Maggs's search for the Pip figure, Henry Phipps, does not feel particularly motivated. It isn't clear, in fact, what Maggs's reasons for finding Phipps are; we readily assume that they are the same reasons as in Great Expectations, the mixture of love and a wish to be acknowledged. But, taken on its own, Jack Maggs might as well be the story of someone pursuing out of revenge, and, though Maggs occupies the centre stage, he does not loom large in the reader's mind as Dickens' Magwitch does. This is a general problem in the book; it's clear, by the end, that love and sacrifice is intended to be at its centre. Maggs's love for Phipps, the footman Constable's love for his dead colleague Pope, the kitchen maid Mercy Larkin's love for Maggs; these are feelings which surface at crucial moments, and on which Carey places emphatic weight. But all of them need more time to expand, and, as a result, Carey seems to be instructing the reader what to think rather than allowing him to discover the complex truth of a relationship.

That's not to say that Carey's characteristic laconic manner doesn't sometimes serve him extremely well. There are certainly passages in Jack Maggs which, through brevity, become poetically suggestive, wonderfully avoid the danger of labouring a point. The last ten pages of the novel are magnificent; as the strands of plot come together in a tiny dark room, the prose, quite suddenly, begins to sing like a rubbed wine glass. And, if anything, his tendency now is away from chattiness, towards extreme brevity. In Oscar and Lucinda, the vast spaces of Australia are felt as a liberating freedom after the confined spaces of England. In Jack Maggs, Australia is never directly presented, but always surfaces as a dream, or a memory which Oates conjures out of the hypnotised subject. They are the most magical passages of the book, in which the cramped attics and corridors of Carey's London suddenly give way, not to a real Australia, but to Maggs's ecstatic unconscious vision of

hatfuls of birds … the sea, the river … a pelican with a great chest, and a great scoop of a beak. It comes in like a man o'war. It is a beautiful thing, Sir, the pelican.

The concision of the description is, in itself, very moving; the book would not be improved by the addition of whole chapters about Maggs's life in Australia. The suggestive manner is more efficient, here, than Oscar and Lucinda's expansiveness.

Someone once suggested that Carey, who was educated as a scientist, has habits of thinking remote from the average novelist. He does not value the irrelevant, and it is striking how distant his passages of cod-Dickens are from the real thing, with Dickens' apparently pointless heaping-up of physical detail. It's difficult not to feel, too, on reading a line as artificial and studied as ‘Magnus exhibited the closed and shiny countenance of a freshly tipped servant’ that Carey knows what he ought to do, and just doesn't much want to do it. His novels all get from beginning to end by the shortest, least garrulous route; even Illywhacker seems a miracle of direction and spareness by the side of most novels of its length. He needs to learn, like Alice in the Red Queen's garden, that sometimes the most direct path faces away from its object. Certainly, Carey is still one of the best novelists now writing in English. It's just unfortunate that, with Jack Maggs, he has invited comparison with the master of this lesson; a comparison which would embarrass any novelist.

Peter Carey and Ramona Koval (interview date September-December 1997)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6218

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 and to stop being hard on him and to love him a little.

Why did it take you a long time to get to Dickens? Most of us had to do him at school.

I escaped that somehow. It was Nabokov who began to persuade me with those lectures that he gave at whatever east coast college he was lecturing at. He persuaded me about Bleak House and the weather at Bleak House and the mud in Bleak House. But as I got further into it I found this nauseatingly good little girl, a saccharine little creature, and I know a more adult person and a person really more interested in literature would have overcome that prejudice and found a great work of art. But I couldn't and so that really blocked me on Dickens. I was very fortunate you know in reading Great Expectations that there are no good little girls like that in it, and so, you know, I found Dickens. I didn't read all that broadly. I read The Pickwick Papers. I read David Copperfield and I read Our Mutual Friend, which was wonderful for me because there you recognize not only that you have a great writer at the height of his powers, but also a writer who is occasionally faking it, who has tremendous facility and finds his way through it into greatness. But it isn't always great and that's sort of comforting to me along the way too.

You said you may have found a perfect novel in Great Expectations. What is a perfect book?

Well, I don't know how to substantiate that at all except to say that it was a book that I wasn't arguing with and that I couldn't think of anything that was wrong with it.

Except its point of view …

Well, I don't have a problem with its point of view. I mean the point of view is a point of view of its time and its period, and I think it's perfectly fine that it should have that point of view. But I thought it would be interesting to take the other point of view, the point of view of Magwitch. And I've always been very interested in our convict history—the degree to which we deny it and the degree to which we suppress it. And I just thought it was interesting stuff to mess around with, but I could never think of a way in which I might begin to engage with it. I don't think I've finally done what I thought I might do, but it was a way in which I thought I might enter that arena. And it seems to me to be such an Aussie story. I'm sure Dickens wasn't thinking about this at all, but it is such an Aussie story that this person who has been brutalized by the British ruling class should then wish to have as his son an English gentleman, and that no matter what pains he has, what torture he has suffered, that would be what he would want. I think that that's a very Aussie thing. I hope it's like the Australia of the past, not the Australia of the future. Probably that's so, but still it is an Aussie thing of my life and it was really good to engage with that.

Jack Maggs is full of love, actually. He is a brutalized man and a tough man and a man who takes risks, but he's got this burning love for this image of this young boy who helped him. It is heart-breaking to know that the boy doesn't feel the same way about him.

Well, why would he? I mean the boy's life experience has been in no way like Jack Maggs'. I don't spend a lot of time imagining what that life might be, but you can imagine that that boy has had a very tough life and has got a whole lot of other decisions that he's had to make. He's not a fine person, he's not an altruistic person, but he's a person like all the characters in the book, who have got to worry about survival and about money in this very harsh early nineteenth-century capitalistic society, which, like modern America, in a way even like modern Australia, doesn't necessarily make people very nice. You know, one could easily imagine another whole set of circumstances in which Henry Phipps would have been a finer person, but this is a kid, five years old, about to go to an orphanage, and suddenly a benefactor arrives, money out of the blue. It encourages, I think, a certain fraudulence in his response, or an opportunism.

All through the book you are having fun with language and with Australian vernacular, set in that London environment. But the language of the book is very nineteenth-century, I think. How do we know?

Well, we don't, do we? Somebody said to me the other day, ‘I really liked your short stories but now I've read this, it's very different. You know, it's all set in the past and your stories were often set in the future in these weird places.’ And I said ‘Well, to me there's no difference.’ I mean, this is really like a science fiction of the past in a way. None of us has been there. We have a whole lot of received opinion and it's intimidating to write because there are all these experts, but we don't really know. It is terrible to admit this, because you would want to have some more substantial authority than a dictionary, but I just spent a lot of time browsing through these dictionaries of cant, criminal slang, wonderful, wonderful books, scary in a way. I don't know whether you have ever looked at Eric Partridge's Historical Slang, you know, all the sexual stuff in there, the hatred of women is really amazing, so vivid but so strong. There was also a book I found in a bookshop at Yale, which was a dictionary of eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century slang and it was really great. So I just read it all the time and when I found the opportunity to use something I'd use it.

And Dickens himself?

Well, Dickens. I stopped reading the novels because it was no longer helpful. I would not imagine my writing is in any way like Dickens' prose. But Dickens' life was interesting to me and there were all sorts of things that any writer reading about another writer could find to identify with.

Like what?

Oh, he had a lot of energy. He worried about money. He was always wanting to be loved, and I don't think this is my major psychosis or anything like that, but you can see that to greater and lesser extents writers' relationships with their audiences are often … you know. If you are a writer you can feel that thing of all these people loving you, and then you go out on a cold night and no-one even knows who you are. Dickens at the end of his life went on this huge reading tour with this special reading stand that he had built with these lights at the top and a special lectern that he used to assemble at every place, and he killed himself doing this but what he got from that tour were these huge crowds and all these people loving him and, given his feelings of neglect and abandonment as a child, I always found that very interesting.

So, Dickens. As I said, I went through this thing of being a bit mad with him because I thought there was a real Magwitch. This is not the real Magwitch. He's lied about my ancestor and so I was a little mad with him. But I began to read about him and I discovered he had been a passionate mesmerist and had treated a woman called Madame de la Roux for a condition she had called tic douloureux, which I later gave to Jack Maggs, an acute horrible pain in the face. In Dickens' notebooks there are notes of their mesmeric sessions and some very odd stuff is going on there. Different to my odd stuff, but the notion of the writer raiding, burgling the soul of his subject was really interesting to me, and especially when I realized I had this sort of oppositional force, you know, where the writer was a thief and the thief would be a writer because Jack Maggs also tells the story himself. And I like that idea—not because I ever write in that way because I never write close to life—but because I wanted the idea that there was a true story and that the writer would finally not tell the true story. And I wanted him to know exactly what the character's life had been, to steal the story.

Mesmerism was pre-, I suppose, psychoanalysis.

Yes, it was absolutely. And I was occasionally quite nervous, you know, the degree to which I was being anachronistic in the sort of insights that Tobias Oates the writer has. Tobias recognizes finally—he is not looking for this—but he realizes this thing like the pathogenic secret, the event that has caused the pain, and he has this insight well before Freud did. But it's also true of course that there is a direct like through mesmerism to Freud, and before traditional Freudian analysis was begun hypnotism was the way into the unconscious. So I guess I've been a little bit out of time in a way, but I thought it was OK.

Talking of time, I remember your saying you would never write something in the nineteenth century again after Oscar and Lucinda because it was all too difficult to research and all of that. What did you think when you found yourself drawn to the nineteenth century again?

Well, I only ever have one idea at a time for a new book and there was my idea and it was to do with Magwitch, so I had no choice. I think this time I was less apprehensive because I knew it was possible. When I began Oscar and Lucinda I really felt I had no right to possess the English past, that it was not my past but their past. Of course, it is as much our past as it is that of anyone alive in the United Kingdom today. But it still remains a little bit weird for me to have English readers. The early responses have been very enthusiastic, but I always feel a little fraudulent. I was talking to a friend of mine, an English film director, and he said ‘I read your book and I was in the Seven Dials just two nights ago and I was thinking this is what he means. This is it! That's the door!’ And I suddenly realized that he was carrying in his head a huge London that he could apply to my book, and my London was a much smaller London, little corners here and there, but it could connect with his bigger London. And his London, the London that he reads, is a much bigger, richer world than anything I can imagine, but together through that wonderful thing that happens in reading, he got this big world. I didn't make it. He just thinks I made it.

Tell me where you stand on the debate about whether a writer can write about anything or only about what he knows.

Well, firstly, I would always say to people that it is a writer's responsibility to imagine what it is to be others. It's an act of empathy, and it's not only what we do, it's a socially useful act to imagine oneself to be other than one is. So I think a man can write as a woman and a woman can write as a man and a straight can write as a gay and whatever. But, at the same time, I do remember coming to Sydney and not having lived there very long and writing Illywhacker and feeling anxious about it because it was not my town. I can't write about Sydney: what do I know about Sydney? And then I realized that you could research things and you could find things out. But writing about England or Britain is more complicated, and I think some colonial issues do come up that have to do with possession of territory in the sense that (and this is for me, I'm not going to speak for everybody) I would allow them to possess us, but it wasn't right that I could possess them. In the process of writing Oscar and Lucinda I found indeed that I could possess them just as much as they could imaginatively possess me.

Lots of literary critics, especially overseas ones, call you a postcolonial writer. Is that important to you, that kind of classification? Do you think that means something?

I suppose I feel like those people in those old war movies, you know, just spell the name right. We are a postcolonial culture, there's no doubt about that. I mean, we are a barely postcolonial culture and I think it's a very interesting state to be in and so, to that degree, I am. What that means to them and what that means to me are probably two quite different things. I don't spend an awful lot of time reading criticism and, you know, some of that's to do with the fact that criticism has moved into areas of language beyond what I understand, frankly. It's become like a very specialized form of poetry that I can't have access to. Maybe I could, but I don't feel one thing or the other about that. I mean, I know these people are having discourses and I just don't feel part of that conversation.

It must be strange to have people building careers on what you've written?

Hell, I don't know. I'm not at all hostile to the notion. I'm not even perhaps as uninterested as I seem to be pretending to be. The world is full of readers and academic readers are a sort of reader and everybody brings their life to bear on the text and whether your life is, you know, life as an insurance salesman or whatever it is, you bring your baggage and different ways of illuminating the text. Academic readers have particular ways of illuminating the text. I don't think that they are in any way worthless or anything like that. That isn't how I think. I guess I've been lazy, that's all.

Have you ever read anything that made you think: Is that what I'm doing? Oh, I see it now.

Occasionally, I've read things that illuminated patterns in my work—of abandonment, orphans—and made me recognize that where this pattern came in from my life was probably the trauma of going to boarding school, which I had never thought was a trauma. I mean, I was the happy camper: a lot of energy and enthusiasm and getting on with it. The homesick kid was that kid over there weeping in the corner; it was never me. And so, finally, reading somebody else writing about my work, I recognized what the psychological roots of some of my invention were, that I continued to have orphans and I continued to have abandoned children and so on. Having seen that, I really don't think it helps me. In fact, I felt a little less strong and less powerful for knowing it; self-consciousness was not helping me there. So, I like to say to my friends in New York, who are all totally committed to their therapists, I like to say to them that the unexamined life is the only one worth living, and I get a cheap laugh out of it, I suppose.

Since we're talking about you, the unconscious, and whether one ignores it or what one does with it, I was wondering, given the magical surreal writing that you have gone in for and done so well, whether you have vivid dreams. I wonder if someone who has your sort of imagination dreams at all or if you just pour all of your unconscious life into your books.

I think it's the latter. I mostly no longer remember my dreams. All my life, in a weird way, I've been very good at denial. I've been very good at not looking at what's going on and so, no, I hardly ever remember my dreams. There's a woman in the United States, a literary escort, you know, those people that pick you up on tours to take you from one gig to the next interview, and she was like many of these people that do that work, very interesting and well-educated and just good to be with. Anyway, she wrote a book. She used her time to interview authors about their dreams and she got all these famous American writers talking about their dreams and it was quite interesting. And I would have loved to have been in her book but I didn't have a single dream to tell her. I mean it's embarrassing, I would like to have some dreams that I can remember.

Over ten years ago you told Candida Baker that your father never read your books and that your mother said she never liked any of your books and that that didn't bother you, and I read that and I wondered whether it really didn't bother you.

Well, this is really like the dream question. It's the same sort of thing. I really don't know whether it bothers me or not. I think in the case of my father, it's pretty clear to me that it doesn't. I mean this was a wonderful, wonderful man who was kind and funny with a lot of courage and humour and who was very poorly educated and never read any books, and I didn't take it amiss. I know, in my heart, that I didn't take it amiss that he never read anything. The things we used to read together were Biggles books on holidays, and he'd always go to the end just to see that it all ended OK and then we'd sit back and we'd read them. I was probably about ten and he was probably about fifty and we both read Biggles books on holidays.

What was he checking for?

He just needed to know that it ended happily or that everyone was OK, and then his anxiety being reduced he could enter into the beginning of the narrative. So I don't feel mad at all with him. And also I think that my mother probably read the books and found them upsetting, you know, that she read The Fat Man in History and found all this weird stuff there that she would really not think her son was thinking. And I think, given who she is and where she is coming from, that that's perfectly fine. So, they were, in their different ways, proud of me and I really don't feel hurt. It's hard for me to think of it as in any sense a hostile act, I think it's just fine.

I believe your next book is about the Ned Kelly story. What do you think needs to be retold about Ned Kelly? Because, as far as I understand, even though Ned Kelly was supposed to be a criminal, everyone in Australia admires him.

Well, I think it's still very split actually. And even if they did all admire or all hate him, then even that would not be the point. We all think we know it so well, but when you start to read about it, it's like a white map with these little dots and some clusters around the dots. Some contemporary writers have written good books about the subject: Rob Drewe, Jean Bedford. I still can't get Douglas Stewart's play out of my head. For me, it's the Jerilderie letter, which is the letter that Kelly wrote or dictated to defend his actions that was meant to have been printed and distributed and never was, that has this amazing voice. It's finding a bit of DNA which you can somehow make the creature from. And the wonderful thing about it is that there are all these big gaps to get from, say, point A on the map to point B, there is all this white territory. So I like that. I saw Nolan's paintings in New York and I was quite anxious going there, saying, I like these paintings but they're probably not going to look any good here. I'm going to see them and I'm not going to like them. And I went there and the opposite happened. They seemed more powerful there and real and had this great grace and awkwardness and then I started. I went there a few times. And I'm telling my American friends the story and it gets stranger and stranger as you tell it.

What do they find strange?

Oh, well, where to start? They try to understand quickly as you tell the story and they say, oh well, it's like us and Jesse James. I say, no, it's more like you and George Washington. By which I mean the size the story occupies. I mean, we don't have a George Washington story. Is there a story in the big culture about a political figure? Billy Hughes? I don't think so. Parkes? I mean, who's going to occupy that space? Ned Kelly comes close to occupying that sort of space in a national story.

A kind of revolutionary without a revolution.

Well, I'm inclined to believe that. Well, I don't know. No, enough, enough, because I don't want to start talking out my book.

You must live in your head a lot to live in a place like New York and be writing about the nineteenth century in other places in other countries—London, New York, Australia.

Writers always live in their heads. I think one of the things that I really know is the degree to which young writers really don't see the world. It's not just that they don't see the weather, they don't see what people look like, they don't see how they move. Writers are very good at knowing how they feel, and some of us then get sort of moved beyond that. It's very rare to find a writer who is actually really naturally good at seeing the world. So, I think writers as a caste mostly do live inside their heads, and then we get given credit for being able to see into other people's souls and knowing what other people feel, when really we are very inward-looking and self-obsessed.

I've just come back from America, where everyone's got a Master's from somewhere. Now you're a man who left university after one year and started to write. And you wrote and you wrote and you wrote lots of things that didn't go anywhere or that you weren't happy with and you did it until you did it right. Now that you have been teaching writing …

Well, obviously, no teacher can give anybody talent, and if they haven't stuff to write about you're not going to give it to them. If they can't work and if they haven't got any discipline you're not going to be able to make them do that. But I think you can save them some time. And you can certainly see them get better, which is sort of a relief if you are teaching the course. And a small proportion of them will go on to be writers, but a lot of others will do other things and they will have an understanding of writing and of literature and probably a lot of them will never give up writing either because, as one student said to me ‘If I was a painter and I came out every Sunday and painted because I loved to paint no-one would ever think that it was weird that I kept on doing it because I had never had an exhibition.’ And he said ‘I really hope that I'm going to be successful and publish but if I'm not published then I can't really imagine that I'm going to stop because I like to do it.’ That was such a wonderful answer, I mean it had such dignity and integrity, it was very nice. But others will become agents; some will become critics. I think it's OK. First I thought it really was some sort of a scam and I suppose there is a certain degree of self-deception that everybody engages in, you know, they're applying different standards to what they would apply out in the world. And the students support each other and go to each other's readings and call each other writers and play at that life and, in the end, life will catch up one way or the other, and some of them will be writers and some of them will be critics and …

Do you wish you had that kind of mentoring when you were younger?

I did. I had Barry Oakley. They say to me ‘Did you ever go to a creative writing thing?’ And for a long time I'd say ‘No, not me. I never did that.’ And then I started to realize that that was in fact what Barry had provided me with, as a friend, an older friend and a better educated friend—books, criticism, encouragement. And I think anybody at Columbia or NYU would probably rather have that—one person who would pay some attention to them and give them some help—although they do recognize that one of the things they get in their course, apart from a $60,000 debt that will take half their life to pay off, is a network of friends whom they expect to go on to positions of influence.

I was just thinking then about the kinds of writing you've done and I remembered that you had written a children's book called The Big Bazoohley. What made you try children's literature?

I've got two kids and The Big Bazoohley is a story about a kid who sleepwalks out of a hotel room and has adventures and my oldest son, Sam, who is now ten, did such a thing at the Harbour Castle in Toronto on a literary tour. In the middle of the night he went to the bathroom and opened the wrong door. The door shut behind him and he was out in the passageway and the air-conditioning was loud in the room and the doors were thick and his only way out of it was to walk down the hallway knocking on doors. Anyway, we got him back. The security rang us, but the thought of your kid walking down the hallway in a foreign city, knocking on doors and being dependent on what sort of person answers the door is pretty scary. So I guess I wrote it for a number of reasons, but I think it was just a sort of reinvention of history for both him and me. He wouldn't read it until it was in proof because then it was a real book, and then he read it and I hovered around like the most anxious, needy writer you can possibly imagine. He put it down and then I came to the door and I said ‘What did you think?’ And he said ‘Not bad.’

Oh—horrible children!

Oh, no. He was being honest. He wasn't being at all mean to me. He said ‘Not great but not bad either.’ He meant it wasn't as good as R. L. Stine or something like that. And so I said OK. I thought it was a pretty good answer and I said ‘Well what did you like best?’ And he said he wasn't scared. So that to me was a really good answer for the book. So that's why I did it. But I did think it would be a lot easier, to tell you the truth. I would always be very impatient with someone who wanted to patronize children's writing and say it was easy. I would have always said ‘Oh, rubbish!’ But in fact, in my secret heart, I thought I would do it in a couple of drafts and it would be done. But it was as hard to write as anything I have ever done. And as it got harder to do, I first got very irritated that it should be so hard and, of course, in the end got a lot more satisfaction and pleasure from the fact that it had been hard.

But you said before that you don't write from life.

The beginning is from life, I mean the notion of the kid. Then I started to do all this stuff with it, like I made the father a gambler. So then the kid's choices as he goes down the hallway are a lot to do with the culture of gambling—which door he will select—and the notion of chance and risk became thematically part of what it was about. I suppose I entered into that situation and it was a ‘what if’ thing. My short stories were all ‘what if stories’, what if this happened and that happened? And this was a ‘what if’ story too.

What is this gambling business with you?

I really don't know. I've never really gambled. I don't know too much about it. Although the one thing I did think, when I made this father a gambler and the mother an artist, was that they are the occupations not unlike writing for a living. It always seems to me like a very risky business that here you have these two children in this household and what are you doing? You're making up all this stuff and hoping you can sell it and so it feels a gambling sort of a business. The father in The Big Bazoohley seems to me to contribute to the family very well. They both do. But I was a little shocked to find people disapproving of the father. It had not been my intention to say that he was a gambler and was therefore irresponsible. I think there is no evidence in the book at all that he was irresponsible, but I guess there is a lot of prejudice against gambling.

I can't believe that you still feel that what you are doing is a gamble. I mean after all your success, and you had a successful advertising agency as well, and you talked always about the fact that you could chuck away a book if it wasn't working out.

Well then I could. Now I can't. Looking back on it, I was often very, very angry working in advertising but the one thing that it did give me was the time and the freedom to not worry about whether a book sold or didn't sell. Now, I live for my writing, so it's a whole different ball game. But what can you do about it? So the paradox is that you have this anxious person writing for a living, only being able to find any sort of safety in doing something that terrifies him. I would be very bored doing something that I thought I knew how to do. I've got to do this thing that is risky, so I go and do it with a lot of bravado, but then I spend a lot of time doubting myself and that's how it all goes. I have this brief period, like now, and I come out and smile about it and sort of act like, Oh, isn't that funny, he's so anxious, and I feel momentarily successful and then I go back to that other state.

When you said that things about advertising made you angry, is that why you decided to trade the freedom that it bought you for whatever it was?

Almost from the very beginning when I met Barry Oakley and Morris Lurie, all of these people who were writers and who were writing, I decided I was going to be a writer. So all the time I was in advertising in my head there was only one thing that I was and that was a writer of literature and I only did this other stuff because I had to do it and the minute that I would be able to just write all the time that was what I was going to do. I'm stubborn and that was my idea and that's what I ended up doing. So that wasn't the sort of anger that I felt. The things that made me angry in advertising were not necessarily anything to do with morality or politics or issues of consumerism or anything like that, but just with control. There were people stopping me from doing what I wanted to do. And that made me mad.

I saw Morris Lurie yesterday. He was running around the Botanic Gardens in Melbourne when I was driving into work about quarter to eight in the morning. I read that Morris had actually told you not to be a writer.

Oh, yes. But mind you, he would have told Sidney Nolan not to be a painter. I was so impressed with Morris. He was twenty-four years old. I think I had seen about three art exhibitions in my life and the Kelly paintings were the second and I went with Barry Oakley to Georges Gallery. Georges the store had an art gallery at that stage in Collins Street, and I was in there with Barry looking at paintings and Morris walked in, walked briskly around the paintings, occasionally pausing to give a full frontal sort of assault on a particular painting, looked around the room and said ‘Sorry, Mr Nolan, 'fraid not,’ and walked out. I was shattered because I had been very impressed with the paintings, but I was really impressed with his confidence in making this assessment and walking out like that. During the period that I knew him he wrote some amazingly good short stories and, yes, I think he told me not to write anymore. He certainly told me not to write advertising any more and not for moral reasons but because I was no good at it. And then later, when the The Fat Man in History was reviewed in, I think it was Nation Review, Morris took it upon himself to review the book badly.

Have you spoken to him since then?

Absolutely, yes. I feel … well, you can see, I'm smiling all the time I'm talking about him. I don't feel hostile to Morris.

But it must have been something to get over, someone telling you not to write.

I'm not even sure that's totally true. I suppose if I've said it before it must be true but the thing I remember is the review and it did take me a little while to get over that. Because when I first knew Morris I had just crashed an MG and I had a broken tooth at the front before there had been time to put the cap on it. And Morris, years later, like ten years later, reviewing my first book, wrote about ‘broken-toothed, rhythmless prose’. So I did understand that he was carrying a lot of personal baggage about me that I had not been aware of.

Things must have changed now when you are so successful.

Oh, I doubt it! He can see through my caps!

Anthony J. Hassall (essay date October 1997)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4674

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.’

(Ackroyd 896)

‘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)


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 Expectations. In doing so he has made many changes to Dickens's original: switching the centre of interest from Pip (renamed Henry Phipps) to Magwitch (renamed Jack Maggs) and Dickens himself (renamed Tobias Oates); telling a tale of two countries and two characters; and claiming the story as an originary Australian narrative.

Carey is not given to repeating himself, and Jack Maggs is yet another striking departure from his earlier work, particularly from his last two novels, The Tax Inspector (1991) and The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith (1994), which were themselves unlike their predecessors, or each other.2 Like Oscar and Lucinda (1988), Jack Maggs draws on nineteenth-century English writing as it intersects with the beginnings of European Australia, but the tone here is remarkably different, more optimistic and more overtly compassionate. In Oscar and Lucinda, Boat Harbour in 1866 is an ugly and brutal outpost of an arrogant, racist empire. Its sustaining ideology has been mortally wounded by the double failure of the Established Church to controvert Darwin's Theory of Evolution, and to establish a strong foundation in New South Wales. While the Wingham where Jack Maggs and his family settle some thirty years earlier is geographically close to Boat Harbour, it is altogether more benign. In London Jack Maggs was offered no life but a criminal's, and his wife Mercy Larkin no life but a child prostitute's: Wingham however readily accommodates them, and recognises their fundamental decency. This outcome is in stark contrast to the bleak and despairing ending of Oscar and Lucinda, in which the terrified Oscar Hopkins drowns as his broken glass church sinks into the Bellinger River. With an ending more optimistic than that of any Carey novel since Bliss,Jack Maggs suggests that Carey's vision of early Australia has undergone a profound metamorphosis, from despair to something like hope.


The narrative present of Jack Maggs covers three weeks at the beginning of the summer of 1837, the time when Maggs has returned to London illegally, at the risk of his life, to explain himself to his adopted son, and to enjoy the fruits of his investment in that gentleman. Maggs's origins are as unpromising as those of any earlier Carey protagonist, but he is more humanly engaging, and portrayed with more open sympathy. When he was three days old he was thrown off a bridge on to the mudflats of the Thames, then rescued and raised as a child criminal in turn-of-the-century London. Betrayed and transported for life, he experiences the sadistic brutality of Captain Logan's Morton [sic] Bay. The story of his early life, which is narrated retrospectively while the present action moves forward, chronicles his attempts to transform himself, and so to escape first from his deprived and criminal London childhood, then from his imprisonment, next from New South Wales, and finally from his attempt to reinvent himself, through the person of Henry Phipps, as a Victorian gentleman.

The reader meets Maggs as a mysterious stranger arriving in London, and from that moment he pursues his quest with single-minded determination, all the while facing the threat of exposure and hanging. For most of the book Phipps, the adopted son he has come to seek, evades Maggs's pursuit. Phipps is eventually exposed as weak, snobbish, ungrateful and even willing to murder his benefactor. This present-time, single-line narrative is not only interspersed with the analeptic narrative of Maggs's earlier life, but also with the story of his entanglement with the affairs of the young novelist Tobias Oates, whose career mirrors Charles Dickens's. The central relationship in Jack Maggs is not between orphan and convict, as in Great Expectations, but between Maggs and Oates, who wants to turn Maggs into a fictional character. Experimenting with mesmerism, Oates blunders amateurishly into Maggs's subconscious memories, pretending to liberate him from his ‘phantom’ while in fact appropriating his story for a planned novel, The Death of Maggs. The combination of all these stories is structurally complex, but a spirited pace is maintained, the progressive release of information is skillfully calculated, and the suspense is worthy of a first-rate thriller.

In the elegantly constructed and tensely narrated climax, Maggs confronts the looming dangers, and plays his contest with Oates to an honourable draw. He turns away from the false ideal he has constructed for Phipps and accepts the true self recognised by Mercy Larkin. Returning to the New South Wales he no longer despises, he marries Mercy, who turns his discounted and troublesome Australian sons into a real family, and in time has children of her own. Doubly unexpected, the ending is determinedly Australian and optimistic.

The Maggs created in this cracking yarn is powerful, dangerous and yet basically decent, well versed in the rough side of life, quick to use violence to defend what he values, and determined to put his life in order and to tell his story. While he is more resilient and more formidable than most of Carey's protagonists, and less subdued than the older Magwitch, he is also vulnerable, literally and psychologically scarred by his experiences. His is not, however, the vulnerability of the profoundly and inescapably damaged, like Tristan Smith or Benny Catchprice of The Tax Inspector, and his strength and integrity ensure that he is not finally a victim.

The outcome of the major subplot, the love between Tobias Oates and his sister-in-law Lizzie Warriner, is altogether more sombre. Having achieved the first triumph of his career as a writer, and having set up the happy home and family that he longs for after the emotional deprivations of his childhood, in a rash moment Oates seduces his wife's sister. The consequences of this self-indulgence are the wasting of Lizzie's young life, and the poisoning forever of his marriage. If the conclusion of Maggs's story is unusually optimistic, the bleak account of Oates's failure to maintain the family life that he, like Herbert Badgery, so craves is more familiar Carey territory.


There is no avoiding the similarities between the story of Tobias Oates and that of Charles Dickens, which is almost as celebrated as his novels, and which of course appears in those novels in various degrees of disguise and transformation. Carey has Lizzie Warriner die on 7 May 1837, the date on which Dickens's sister-in-law Mary Hogarth died, causing him great grief (Johnson 195-204). This clearly invokes the various accounts of Dickens's emotionally-charged entanglements with his sisters-in-law. Magwitch, on the other hand, has no widely recognised original(s).3 Carey not only invents a transparently fictional ‘original’ of Magwitch: he invents a story of how he found his way into the pages of Oates's novel The Death of Maggs, which according to Jack Maggs was published in the same manner and at the same time as Great Expectations.4 Playfully named characters like the rotund lawyer Makepeace (Oates is anxious to emulate the success of his rival Thackeray), and Ma Britten (Mother Britain), the foster mother who criminalises Maggs and then rejects him, further interrupt uncritical immersion in the narrative illusion.5

In addition to this overt intertextuality there is metafictional emphasis throughout Jack Maggs on the ways in which stories are written, and the complex relationships between fictional characters and the figures who inspire them. The nineteenth-century setting, recreated graphically and with generous detail, and the use of language and ideas that approximate their nineteenth-century originals while retaining a degree of late-twentieth-century sensibility, make Jack Maggs intriguingly cross-referential, like Oscar and Lucinda,Possession and The French Lieutenant's Woman.

Although Great Expectations is a first-person narration, the process of writing and the creation of fiction are naturalised and hence largely occluded in the narrative. In Jack Maggs, by contrast, the business of writing is insistently foregrounded. The book is full of the actual mechanics of Maggs's and Oates's writing: it includes, for example, a lovingly detailed description of Oates's writing portmanteau, as compact and functional as any laptop. Carey has maintained an interest in the nature and functions of stories and their telling throughout his career, from his early self-referential short stories through Bliss and Illywhacker, but no other work is as deeply concerned as Jack Maggs is with the actual processes by which novelists gather, transform and inscribe their material.

At the centre of the nest of stories written and told in Jack Maggs is Maggs's own account of his past, his determined attempt to transcribe the story of his childhood and youth into a written record. He is riven by contradictory desires to reveal and conceal his story. His desire to conceal it derives not only from his fear of exposure as an absconder, but also from his feelings of shame for being a criminal. The obverse of this shame is his ambition to make a Victorian gentleman out of his adopted son Henry Phipps, a goal which is linked to his desire to return to the simplified, idealised England of his memory, which he has kept as a talisman to help him endure the punishments of the convict system. These desires, together with the vividly recalled memories of his childhood and his youthful love for Sophina Smith, make up the personal narratives which have sustained Jack through a harrowing life. He does not want them scattered abroad, but he does need to record them, to ensure that they will not die, and to justify himself to Henry Phipps, whom he believes to be his true heir, the person who will preserve his story.

Phipps, however, has no wish to meet Maggs or to receive his record, and indeed we never learn the ultimate fate of the manuscript so painstakingly encoded into mirror-reversed writing and disappearing ink, except insofar as it appears in Jack Maggs. Tobias Oates, on the other hand, is desperately anxious to acquire Jack's story, both as raw material, and as an insight into the Criminal Mind. He therefore sets up an elaborate subterfuge designed to enable him to purloin the story while Jack is mesmerised, and unaware of the theft. To cover his deceit and to pacify his subject, Tobias manufactures yet another text, a false account of what he pretends Maggs has revealed in his hypnotic sessions. Eventually Oates fictionalises Maggs's story in a classic English novel, The Death of Maggs, which Jack does not see, but which his widow Mercy reads and collects.6 What Jack would have made of all this publicity is not clear, but he bitterly resents Oates's deception and theft of his story, and forces him to destroy both the early drafts and the false journal.


Hypnotism nowadays enjoys a mixed reputation: part parlour-game or stage-show, part serious psychiatric therapy, and part means of access to recesses of memory not normally reachable by the conscious mind. The effects of hypnotism, or magnetism/mesmerism as it was called in the nineteenth century, are similar to those of the electroconvulsive treatment of mental patients in the twentieth century. In Bliss an inmate named Nurse tells Harry Joy about ECT:

Then they take you to the shock table and they put these two bits of an, bits of metal, on your head. Here. And then the doctor turns on the juice … It is a darkness you can't imagine. A blackness. Cold black ink. Like death … They steal your memories from you … They take away all your faces, all your pictures.

(Bliss 161)

To forestall this theft, Nurse is writing down all the memories he had left in a book which he wraps in plastic bags and buries in the garden. Unfortunately he tells everyone about the book, so ‘even his notebook memories would be stolen from him’ (161). In Jack Maggs, Oates mesmerises Maggs, using magnets rather than electrodes, in an attempt to cure him of his tic douloureux; but he quickly discovers that he can steal the memories which Jack has also been writing down and concealing. Near the end of the book Jack still has the tic douloureux, and the phantom that Oates has been trying to rid him of, which he says he did not have until Oates unearthed it, is still frighteningly present: ‘he could feel the Phantom pulling with his strings inside his face … He imagined that horrid half-smile upon his patrician face’ (323).7 In an even more serious failure, Oates is blamed by Dr Grieves for having killed Percy Buckle's butler Spinks with his threats and talk of ‘Mesmeric Fluid’ (206).

The phantom which Oates finds in Jack's psyche eventually transmogrifies into a soldier of the 57th Regiment who flogged Jack when he was a convict at Morton Bay. When Jack finally confronts Henry Phipps, who coincidentally has just joined that same hated regiment, Phipps appears to be this phantom flogger:

There, in the firelight, he beheld his nightmare: long straight nose, fair hair, brutal dreadful uniform of the 57th Foot Regiment. The Phantom had broken the locks and entered his life … I am to die before I meet my son.


Phipps is clearly something of a shape-shifter. The four-year-old orphan Jack remembers would obviously have changed as he grew up, but not as much as is suggested by the miniature portrait he has sent to Jack. When Oates sees this treasured portrait, he recognises that it is ‘to all intents and purposes, a copy of Richard Cosway's portrait [of King George IV] which Tobias had viewed, only last year, at the Royal Academy’ (311). In an ironic epiphany, Jack perceives Phipps as his flogger, the phantom/demon who haunts and torments him. This perception releases him from the dream of creating an English gentleman that has consumed a significant part of his life, and frees him to leave England in imagination as well as in fact. The recognition also lets Phipps escape from the script that someone else had written for him into his own life and his preferred sexuality. For years he had been falsely complicit with his benefactor's fantasy, writing with the help of his tutor Victor Littlehales concocted replies to Maggs's letters, ‘lies’ which could also be called ‘comfort’, designed to gratify the needs of ‘him who signed his letters “Father”’ (387). Phipps knew he would eventually have to forsake the comfortable life that those lies supported:

He had known this time would come ever since that day sixteen years ago when Victor Littlehales, his beloved tutor, had rescued him from the orphanage. Now this privileged tenure was ended and he must leave his house, his silver, his rugs, his paintings. He must be a soldier.


It is therefore not inappropriate that Phipps's eventual confrontation with Jack Maggs is a violent one, in which Phipps is literally and metaphorically clothed in the hated uniform of the 57th Regiment. Neither he nor his benefactor can escape without violence from the fictions which have structured their lives.


Carey has always been interested in the power of stories—truthful and otherwise—and in the ethics of their tellers. Vance Joy asserts in Bliss that stories have to be paid for, and Tobias Oates, who makes his living by appropriating other people's stories, pays all sorts of Londoners for theirs, as Jack Maggs learns:

Did he tell you to wait? … Said he was going to fetch you a shilling? Said you were to tell him your story, is that so? … He cannot help himself … It is not that he hasn't got a heart … But he is an author … and he must know your whole life or he will die of it.


Oates's hunger for stories and his desire to penetrate the Criminal Mind prompt his bargain with Maggs, in which he agrees to introduce Maggs to the Thief-taker Partridge, who in turn will help him find the absconding Henry Phipps, but only in exchange for two weeks of mesmerism.

Jack Maggs learned the value of knowing other convicts' secrets in the penal settlements of New South Wales, and he has no intention of surrendering his own to Oates. As a child he saw his ‘brother’ Tom Britten inform on Silas Smith, Ma Britten's partner in crime (186), and if Oates's account is to be believed, Tom later betrayed Sophina to the gallows, causing Jack to incriminate himself and be transported. In Morton Bay, then a hell-hole, a prison of last resort for intractable convicts, Jack learned the ultimate value of secrets, as he tells his fellow footman Edward Constable, before they exchange theirs:

There a man might be killed on account of knowing another man's secret … every man would be a spy on every other man. It was how they kept us down. If you and I were lads together in that place, then you must give me a secret of yours, should you chance to stumble over one of mine. That way we were in balance.


Later in the book Maggs insists on establishing a similar balance of terror with Tobias Oates. Maggs is angry that Oates has obtained his secrets under false pretences, and is now in a position to betray him: ‘The truth is: you have had me reveal secret information in my sleep … You'd tell my frigging secrets to the world’ (276). Maggs then proposes a deal: ‘If you had a very bad secret of your own … it would take you out of danger’. Oates responds:

‘You imagine I would give you the power to blackmail me?’ ‘That's the one I want,’ said Jack, in a much lighter tone. ‘By Jove, if you have one like that, you can sleep like a babe all the way to Gloucester and know no harm will come to you’.


And so Tobias confesses his relationship with his sister-in-law, and the pregnancy which threatens to expose them. The balance established by this bartering of compromising truths ultimately enables Maggs to force Oates to destroy what he has to that point written about him.

Carey's characters repeatedly seek to escape from the bodies, the lives or the narratives in which they believe they are trapped, and his novels suggest that countries are similarly trapped by the stereotypical, theme-park versions of themselves with which they once identified.8 In the course of his life, Jack Maggs suffers many forms of imprisonment. As a child, he was imprisoned from birth in a criminal life, and he and Sophina were confined to the Islington house of Ma Britten: ‘Silas in his penitentiary had more freedom than we did’ (254), Maggs recalls. Their only escape from the drudgery of cleaning the downstairs rooms where Ma Britten received her ladies and carried out her abortions were burglary expeditions, and the chance these provided to spend time in the luxurious houses they robbed, and to fantasise that they owned them. Later Maggs was imprisoned literally in New South Wales and imaginatively in his dream of an idealised English summer. His passionate identification with the England which expelled him leads him to deny the freedom he finds in Australia: ‘I am not of that race … the Australian race … I am an Englishman’ (372); ‘I'd rather be a bad smell here than a frigging rose in New South Wales’ (273). And finally he is imprisoned by the belief that he can protect the four-year-old ‘orphing’ (313) he met briefly in the smithy's forge, and transform him into a gentleman, the self of his dreams. As so often in Carey, the attempt is partly successful, but it also goes terribly wrong. Phipps is corrupted while being educated by his Oxford tutor, and is so unhappy in his imposed identity that he can be persuaded by Percy Buckle to attempt to kill his benefactor.


Carey's comparison of New South Wales and England is foregrounded in the final pages of the book, which resonate back through the narrative, decisively altering it. Throughout his earlier, brutal time as a convict, Jack used his memories of England to maintain his will to live; but when he returns to London he finds that it is a different place from his imaginings, and indifferent to his emotional attachments. It is significant that Jack is constantly constrained by fear and the threat of betrayal in England, whereas he is free, socially acceptable and prosperous in Australia. His return to the social order which made him a criminal, which he has romanticised from afar, enables him to recognise the freedom offered by the social order of his former prison, which has itself begun to metamorphose from a penal colony into a site of liberation.

Subsequent generations of fictional Australians returning ‘home’, like Richard Mahony, found England small-minded, class-ridden and unwelcoming, and the lives that it offered them clearly and irrevocably inferior to the lives they had established in Australia: lives they had seen as provisional and makeshift until the cold douche of reality provided by the trip home revealed how the new had supplanted the remembered forever. Henry Handel Richardson and Martin Boyd are the best known exponents of that sub-genre of Australian writing which chronicles disillusioning returns to the motherland. Jack himself is finally transformed from an Englishman into an Australian, opting for the more open, generous and egalitarian Australian culture he has come to recognise.

For their part, the English have not been reluctant to remind colonial revenants of their convict origins and alleged criminal tendencies. Even Tobias Oates, who knows better, cannot finally resist demonising Jack:

… in his grief Tobias began to heap up all his blame upon him. It was now … in the darkest night of his life, that Jack Maggs began to take the form the world would later know. This Jack Maggs was, of course, a fiction.


Not only is the ‘real’ Jack Maggs nearly killed by the son he has risked his life to see, his fictional namesake is actually killed off by Tobias Oates in the fire planned as the climax of The Death of Maggs. But Carey's Maggs does not die at ‘home’ in London, like Abel Magwitch. When Mercy Larkin saves him from Henry Phipps's bullet, he is finally free to abandon his misguided Victorian dream, and return to live a long and fruitful life, including two terms as president of Wingham shire, in the colony of New South Wales.

Like a good many of its convicts and early settlers, Australia's early fictions came from England. Dickens was the greatest and most popular novelist of his time—perhaps of all time—in England, and his time spanned the decades in which New South Wales transformed itself from a forlorn penitentiary on the backside of the world into a prosperous colonial settlement with aspirations to nationhood. To create a national repository of their own, uniquely Australian stories, Australians have sought to (re)claim and (re)write those English stories which constituted their first meta-narrative, as well as inventing new ones. At the end of Bliss, Harry Joy adapts the stories he learned from his father Vance, which reflect many different cultures, to his new culture at Bog Onion Road. In this sense, Jack Maggs continues Carey's project in that earlier work, a project he shares with other mythmakers like David Malouf and Alex Miller, to (re)mythologise Australia in its own terms.

Many Carey characters struggle with little or no success to escape from the social and psychological prisons in which they find themselves. Jack, however, who starts off with almost nothing in his favour, escapes from both his man-made and his self-made prisons: not, like Dickens's Pip, into some uneasy middle-class Victorian status, with an ambivalent and rewritten ending to his unrequited passion for Estella, but to the place of a respected citizen surrounded by a loving family. The contrast is clearly in Australia's favour. Perhaps Peter Carey too is coming home in imagination, and finding it more rewarding than the dreams of over there.


  1. In a celebrated comparison, Stendhal has characterised the novel as ‘a mirror carried along a high road’. See Stevick, p. 389.

  2. Carey's last novel, The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith, was not short-listed for the 1994 Miles Franklin Award, perhaps because it did not actually mention Australia. But beneath the allegorical disguise of a partly invented language and a largely invented geography, Efica and Voorstand are unmistakable versions of Australia and America, whose complex interrelations Carey has explored throughout his career. In Jack Maggs, the colony of New South Wales is a haunting absence for most of the book, but when it appears in the final pages, it dramatically alters the reader's interpretation of all that has gone before. It will be interesting to see whether this makes Jack Maggs sufficiently ‘Australian’ for the Miles Franklin judges.

  3. For the supposed originals for Miss Havisham, see Ackroyd, pp. 886-87. While no originals have been suggested for Magwitch, his appearance in Great Expectations has been followed by a number of fictional, film and television extensions, many with an Australian perspective. These include the Australian Broadcasting Commission's 1987 television series, Great Expectations: The Untold Story, Michael Noonan's 1982 novel Magwitch, and Kathy Acker's 1982 fiction/plagiarism Great Expectations. In The Potato Factory Bryce Courtenay describes the Australian experience of Ikey Solomon, who is alleged to be the character on whom Fagin in Oliver Twist is based.

  4. The Death of Maggs by Tobias Oates was ‘abandoned by its grief-stricken author in 1837’ and ‘begun again in 1859’. The first chapters appeared in 1860, the year in which Great Expectations was first serialised in All the Year Round, and then appeared in book form (Jack Maggs 391-2).

  5. British history includes two celebrated Oateses, with very different reputations. One was a notorious conspirator, opportunist and turncoat. The other was a famously selfless hero who accompanied Scott on his ill-fated journey to the South Pole.

  6. Mercy donates her collection of Tobias Oates's versions of The Death of Maggs, together with Jack's letters to Henry Phipps, to the Mitchell Library in Sydney (Jack Maggs 392).

  7. In 1845 Dickens mesmerised Madame Émile de la Rue to alleviate a facial tic, and encountered her belief that she was pursued by a phantom. See Johnson, pp. 541-42 and Ackroyd, pp. 449-52.

  8. See in particular ‘American Dreams’ and Illywhacker.

Works Cited

Acker, Kathy. Great Expectations, in Blood and Guts in High School, Plus Two. London: Picador, 1984.

Ackroyd, Michael. Dickens. London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1990.

Byatt, A. S. Possession. London: Chatto & Windus, 1990.

Carey, Peter. Bliss. St Lucia: U of Queensland P, 1981.

———. Illywhacker. St Lucia: U of Queensland P, 1985.

———. Jack Maggs. St Lucia: U of Queensland P, 1997.

———. Oscar and Lucinda. St Lucia: U of Queensland P, 1988.

———. The Tax Inspector. St Lucia: U of Queensland P, 1991.

———. The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith. St Lucia: U of Queensland P, 1994.

Courtenay, Bryce. The Potato Factory. Melbourne: Heinemann Australia, 1995.

Dickens, Charles. Great Expectations. Oxford: Clarendon, 1993.

Fowles, John. The French Lieutenant's Woman. London: Cape, 1969.

Great Expectations: The Untold Story. Dir. Tim Burstall. ABC 6-part mini-series. From 7 Feb. 1987.

Johnson, Edgar. Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph. 2 vols. Boston: Little, Brown, 1952.

Noonan, Michael. Magwitch. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1982.

Stevick, Philip, ed. The Theory of the Novel. New York: Free Press, 1967.

Frank Kermode (review date 16 October 1997)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1606

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. It took time for Australians to insist in this way on difference rather than resemblance; a point gently made by Carey when speaking of an autobiographical Sydney writer who chose to dwell on her eight months in Paris and ignore her 28 years in Australia. ‘Typical,’ he remarks; ‘but we will not go into that now.’

Readers will probably differ in their responses to these Antipodean, antinomian demonstrations. Some will love the exotic plotline of Oscar and Lucinda, which culminates in the building of a glass church and its passage down a tropical Australian river, splintering and gleaming, as trapped dragonflies beat the inside of the glass and the hero, a man who has a pathological dread of water, sweats, prays and will shortly drown. The book is well informed about glass, also about gambling, not only on horses but on cribbage; and about religion, especially of the Plymouth Brethren variety. It is the work of a writer who makes sure he knows a great deal about everything he decides to put into his books. Paxton, for instance, is in there, strongly associated, via the Crystal Palace, with glass. There is a fascinated explanation of the glass teardrops or tiny ampoules called Prince Rupert's drops, or larmes bataviques, which will not break if struck, though if you cut off their tails they explode. (An allegory of the writer's theme and his assault on it?) The story takes off from the Gosses, father and son, naturalist and memoirist. Carey acknowledges help from the Gosses and also from a man who taught him about glass and Prince Rupert's drops. Another introduced him to horse racing. In finding things out Carey is following the rule that was long since laid down for his remote ancestors, the epic poets, of whom encyclopedic knowledge of everything, however out of the way, was required.

In this mood he writes the kind of thing you either like a lot or can easily do without. Oscar and Lucinda won the Booker Prize, which is one reason its title is emblazoned on the covers of Carey's other books, not least on Bliss, the first and possibly the best of them before this one, but also on the even more fantastic Illywhacker, which is about a confidence trickster who starts the book by announcing that he is 139 years old. The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith takes place in an imaginary country and begins while the hero is still in the womb, hence his first name.

This new novel is firmly set in the London of the 1830s, but Australia still broods heavily over the story. Maggs, a name with a Dickensian echo, was transported to New South Wales ‘for the term of his natural life’, a sentence which had earlier provided the title of Marcus Clarke's book, published in 1871 and venerated as the first important Australian novel. Clarke wrote about the penal settlements, more recently and more harshly described by Robert Hughes. While Carey's hero was held in such places he was flogged with unforgettable violence, his back permanently scarred and furrowed, and two of his fingers severed. (There was a specially destructive New South Wales double ‘cat’.) Having made money on his release in Australia, Maggs returns illegally to England, where the penalty on recapture is death, with the same fate decreed for all who harbour or help the offender. He is dedicated to his search for a young man he regards as his son. Almost by mistake he becomes a footman, in the house next door to that in which his ‘son’ is supposed to live. There he falls under the spell of Tobias Oates, novelist, journalist and mesmerist, who is interested in the man's terrible tic douloureux, which he believes he can help by mesmerism. Meanwhile, as he waits to be led to his ‘son’, Maggs begins to write the secret story of his London youth as a rather Dickensian boy thief.

So the ends of the earth meet again, the links being crime and punishment. Oates the novelist acts in the guise of the hack who likes to fool with ‘magnetism’, which allows him to discover Maggs's secret: seeing that wounded back, he pronounces Maggs an Australian scoundrel, though he is persuaded not to turn him in.

The London scene is convincing. Carey knows what it meant to be a footman, how footmen managed their hair, what it was like to ride with dignity on the running-board of a coach. He knows what is worth stealing (hallmarked silver), and what is not—Trafalgar Dalton, a middle-class sort of china, which signifies the low origins of Maggs's aspiring master, Mr Buckle, a fish frier who has come into money. (It is unknown to the OED, which, however, understands ‘Trafalgar chair’ in something like the same sense, rather vulgar furniture bearing mementoes of the battle.)

There is quite a lot of contemporary slang, here not glossed, so you have to guess that a ‘Bilboa’ is a sword or dagger of some sort, carried by thugs and by Maggs; and you need to believe that Victorian convicts said things like ‘easy peasy’ and ‘I tremble tremble’, and called a policeman an ‘esclop’ (some kind of anagram, perhaps, though the OED has ‘esclopette’, a ‘primitive handgun’) as well as a ‘peeler’. Is a ‘racehorse’ a male homosexual, possibly a rent boy? What is a ‘pooka’? Doubtless a malignant sprite. One needs what one hasn't got: a dictionary of 19th-century underworld slang.

Tobias Oates, chronicler of the London streets, a minor Mayhew, has enough trouble already, having impregnated his wife's sister. He is also broke, and sees the exploitation of Maggs as a financial opportunity. But his main problem is that his magnetic experiments have added to Maggs's suffering and made him even more dangerous than he had seemed on arrival. Oates's irresponsible activities, as well as his passion for ‘characters’, his extraordinary memory and his powers of improvisation, make of him a sort of mirror image of a novelist. One of his sallies, involving the impersonation of a doctor pretending to find the Contagion in the house where Maggs is a servant, turns out to be a highly imprudent plot turn. Oates, in some respects merely a bright charlatan, is—so it is hinted—doing no more than novelists always must do when they risk chronicling a great city and its society, and make and break their subjects. This novelist sends out Mercy, the housemaid heroine (and Buckle's bedfellow) and at the time underage, into the Haymarket among the child whores, to give her youthful experience parallel to that of Maggs, the boy who slid down chimneys to open doors for fellow thieves. Both have led the criminal lives of the London poor, and their experiences are recounted with every appearance of exactness. For Carey must always seem exact, whether about the topography of Great Queen Street and Lamb's Conduit Street and Covent Garden, or about the methods of thieves and the conduct of lawyers.

The book, alive with detail and incident, sometimes sounds quite like a 19th-century novel—as in the escape of Maggs and Oates down the Severn and their encounter with the Bore, or in the potentially murderous London climax. But there is a sweet Australian epilogue in which Maggs and Mercy are pastorally redeemed. Meanwhile, inside this novel, there is another, by Tobias himself, called The Death of Maggs. Published long after the events it purports to describe, and after Maggs's quite natural death, it has its place in Mercy's library. It portrays Jack as a murderer, as an instance of the criminal mind, as one proved a scoundrel by the ‘hallmarks of New South Wales’ indelibly inscribed on his back. This Maggs, unlike Carey's, meets a terrible end. There is no Mercy in Oates's novel.

The counterpointing is deft. The novelist inside Carey's books is the muddled, ironic double of the writer who manipulates words and people, seems absolutely in charge, is a master of dialogue (often unexpected, never redundant) and is calculatedly liberal in the proliferation of event. This book has qualities in common with its predecessors, but it benefits by its narrower focus. It is a more complex, more profoundly excogitated, more self-critical achievement, and future reprints of Oscar and Lucinda may well bear the legend ‘by the author of Jack Maggs’.

Richard Eder (review date 1 February 1998)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1176

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.

A dazzling chiaroscuro of violence and virtue, Maggs has a full chokehold on the story's mysteries instead of merely haunting them, as Magwitch does. The melodrama is splashier, if anything, and there is a touch of blitheness that recalls, as much as Dickens, his friend and fellow writer Wilkie Collins. And there is one character of thoroughly modern self-reflexiveness: a writer who exploits Maggs to engineer his own rise in class and fortune at a time when all manner of people from modest backgrounds were doing it: manufacturers, merchants, speculators.

Naturally it all begins with a figure in a red waistcoat debouching from the Dover Coach. He pushes with mysterious intent through the gaudy nighttime streets of London and confronts a glittery-eyed old woman at her front door. The exchange, more detailed than this but no more revealing: “I'm back, Ma,” says Red Waistcoat, in effect. “You'll be hanged,” Old Woman says.

They knew how to begin novels back then, and today, for his own rather different purpose, so does Carey. At times we may question the purpose but hardly ever, the skill. The author, who wrote Oscar and Lucinda and The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith, is always stimulating and almost always enthralling. He holds a perplexity long enough to goad the brain but not so long as to blur it.

After Maggs' encounter with “Ma,” who raised him years earlier as a child member of a ring of silver thieves, he goes to the elegant house he had bought and furnished, long distance, for his young protégé, Phipps. (When Maggs was on his way to deportation, Phipps, a child bound for an orphan asylum, had shared his food.) Although advised of his patron's arrival, Phipps has decamped, and the house stands empty.

Mercy, the serving girl next door, takes it into her head that Maggs is looking for a job. Buckle, her employer, has an opening, so she advises the housekeeper that the man is “a footman, most tragically positioned.” Measured and found to be the exact height of the other footman—serving symmetry being essential—he is hired.

Thus the story begins, a gnarled drama of mutually colliding purposes. Maggs' obsession is to find his foster son while avoiding capture by the authorities; the footman post next door seems a perfect cover. Buckle, his employer, a poor man suddenly enriched by an inheritance, is obsessed with his beautiful house and his money. Mercy, who sleeps with Buckle, is concerned mainly to keep her position until, meeting Maggs, she finds a grander passion. Phipps, when he finally is found, turns out to be a figure of cold degeneracy and arrogance.

Maggs' counterpart and antagonist is Oates, a writer who dines at Buckle's house and gets up to help Maggs, who is hit suddenly by the devastating pain of a recurrent tic douloureux. A muckraking journalist with a genuine anger at society's evils, Oates is immensely ambitious. Author of a potboiler novel that has made him a minor celebrity, he is casting about for material for another one.

Oates, an enthusiast for the new technique of mesmerism, sees in Maggs a perfect subject. Ostensibly to rid him of his agonizing pain—which Oates speaks of as the work of devils and which Maggs dimly recognizes as shadows of a terrible past—he offers a course of hypnosis. In fact, realizing that the man is a deportee, he looks for revelations of his sensational past. “It's the criminal mind awaiting its first cartography,” he exults, already sketching out a book to be called The Death of Jack Maggs.

It is not safe to exploit Maggs, a man both humane and violent, and at once the book's most out-sized and most finely developed character. He has surmounted terrible things in order to make his way; he will not fall back. When he realizes that Oates and Buckle both know that he is a convict and, in England, an outlaw, he takes action.

He locks up Buckle in his household, nailing shut windows and doors. He keeps close watch on Oates. As surety for his silence, he insists that Oates tell him some mortal secret of his own; the latter confesses that he has made his wife's sister pregnant. Several times Maggs comes close to killing to protect himself, but he is a man whose life asserts a slow, painful curve upward; one that will give the book an ending that is both radiant and oddly prosaic.

Mercy will also curve upward. Carey has written a touching portrait of someone seemingly crimped but only, in fact, starved. Nourished, as the story charmingly does, she unfurls. Buckle, on the other hand, curves down. A man of modest decency as long as he was poor, he is knocked off his fragile moral balance by his inheritance. His townhouse is a miracle he does not know how to cope with. When Maggs desecrates the miracle by making nail-splinters in the window-frames, it unleashes an inquisitorial passion and mean revenge.

As for Oates, the unquiet modern man, he is as unstable as Boswell recounting his nighttime knee-tremblers. Despite his virtues, he spatters suffering around, a heedless by-product of his ambition. He too suffers—as when his sister-in-law, carrying his baby, dies from an abortion—but he files away the pain for future literary use.

Between Oates and Maggs, the writer and the written-of, Carey stakes his claim for the latter; if only in the way that a cow, if it could speak, might argue the virtues of still-ungrazed pasture. Writers—and no doubt Carey does not spare himself, nor Dickens either—are a transparent lot, whose job of illuminating manages to catch them in one or two useful lights as well.

Brooke Allen (review date 23 February 1998)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1743

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 city returns an outlaw who was banished forever more than 20 years ago. Jack Maggs is an imposing and mysterious figure:

He was a tall man in his 40s, so big in the chest and broad in the shoulder that his fellows on the bench seat had felt the strain of his presence. … His brows pushed down hard upon the eyes, and his cheeks shone as if life had scrubbed at him and rubbed until the very bones beneath his flesh had been burnished in the process. … His eyes were dark, inquiring, and yet there was a bruised, even belligerent quality which had kept his fellow passengers at their distance all through that long journey up from Dover.

Maggs, who had been deported from England to the Australian penal colony of New South Wales, has come back—surreptitiously and under threat of execution—to satisfy an irrational longing. Years earlier, when he was being taken by coach in manacles to the port where he would be shipped out, a little orphan boy named Henry Phipps showed him a momentary kindness. The image of the innocent child haunted him throughout his lengthy incarceration. He vowed to make enough money to enable Phipps to live in comfort, enough to “spin him a cocoon of gold and jewels … weave him a nest so strong that no one would ever hurt his goodness.”

After being pardoned, but required to remain in Australia, Maggs did indeed make a fortune as a brick manufacturer. Keeping his vow, he lavished his wealth on the boy. Phipps is now living in style in a handsome establishment on Great Queen Street.

Afraid of the authorities and unsure of his reception, for Phipps has not answered his recent letters, Maggs does not approach his beneficiary directly. Instead, he secretly finds employment as a footman in the house next door of one Percy Buckle, Esquire. Formerly a humble grocer, Buckle came into an unexpected inheritance and was elevated to the rank of gentleman. He is a mild-mannered fellow with literary interests who fancies himself a patron of the arts. In particular, he cultivates writers who have not quite arrived and plays host at what he flatters himself is a salon.

Buckle's prize catch is Tobias Oates, a young author who is as much of an upstart, and as socially insecure, as Buckle himself. Oates (based in almost every detail on the young Dickens) is brilliant, facile and unstable. The author of Captain Crumley, a comic first novel that met, like Dickens' Pickwick Papers, with staggering and unprecedented success, he is tormented by a devouring ambition closely allied to the “unholy thirst for love” that his impoverished childhood has given him. He hopes and believes he will one day make his name “not just as the author of comic adventures, but as a novelist who might topple Thackeray himself.”

In introducing Oates to Maggs, Carey cleverly imagines the effect a powerful and suggestive personality might have on a receptive artistic consciousness. Oates was forged in frightening circumstances, and as an artist he developed the technique of confronting the sources of his anxiety: “He feared poverty; he wrote passionately about the poor. He had nightmares about hanging; he sought out executions, reporting them with a magistrate's detachment.” Jack Maggs personifies the poverty, rage and despair Oates dreads, as well as the strength that attracts him. When the odd-looking footman collapses in a fit of tic douloureux while waiting on Mr. Buckle's guests, Oates decides that Maggs is an ideal subject for the study of mesmerism. An enthusiastic amateur practitioner of the then fashionable science, Oates “would be the archeologist of this mystery; he would be the surgeon of this soul.” Maggs reluctantly agrees to go along.

Under hypnosis the ex-convict slowly begins to reveal his secrets. It turns out he endured a childhood that, for want of a better word, one can only describe as Dickensian. Abandoned as a baby on the mud flats under London Bridge, he was brought up by a tough abortionist and her sinister son, and apprenticed to a silver thief. The thief trained little Jack to recognize valuable silver. His job was to climb down the chimneys of fashionable houses and to let in the thief's daughter Sophina, with whom he would proceed to rob the house. As teenagers Jack and Sophina fell in love, but their innocent idyll ended in tragedy.

Oates and the other frequenters of Buckle's salon are titillated but disturbed by the unfolding tale; they worry that Maggs is a dangerous man. Nevertheless, they continue to protect him from the law, Buckle out of pity, Oates out of artistic arrogance and curiosity. He sees his greatest character to date in the making.

Meanwhile, Maggs begins to uncover the truth about the man he looks upon as his son, and it is not pretty. The handsomely underwritten Phipps has developed expensive tastes and come to view himself as a true gentleman. But he is revolted by the fact that the source of his fortune is “convict gold,” and feels only distaste for his benefactor. As long as Maggs was a safe distance away, Phipps could go about his dissipated life in peace. When he receives a letter announcing that Maggs is planning to return to London, he realizes he will not be able to keep his place in society if he is forced to share it with a brutish former thief. This prompts him to run off, first to an underground “gentleman's club” (for Phipps is homosexual), then to the Army, where he purchases a commission in a second-rate regiment.

Tobias Oates is fascinated by everything he hears from Maggs, whose mind, he reflects, “is a world as rich as London itself. What a puzzle of life exists in the dark little lane-ways of this wretch's soul, what stolen gold lies hidden in the vaults beneath his filthy streets.” The author accepts Maggs as a gift from heaven, for he has long been intrigued by what he conceives to be “the Criminal Mind,” and sees Maggs as a prototypical example of it.

Of course, there is nothing so simple as a criminal, or a noncriminal, mind. Before long we learn that Oates has fallen out of love with his wife and in love with her sister. Morally and emotionally vulnerable, he becomes entangled in activities that can be construed as criminal and finds himself fleeing with—and at the mercy of—Maggs. Who is the criminal now? Who has the criminal mind? Neither man, according to Carey. He argues that our circumstances make us what we are, and it is the cruel exigencies of early 19th-century society that have turned Jack Maggs, an affectionate boy, into a nearly-hardened criminal. “I am an old dog,” he says, “who has been treated bad, and has learned all sorts of tricks he wishes he never had to know.”

Equally important to Carey's contention is the question, Who is the stronger man? In this contest Maggs wins hands down. Oates proves vacillating, panicky and treacherous when faced with pressure. Maggs, although frequently misguided, remains steadfastly true to his principles and unflinching in his pursuit of them.

As the book progresses it becomes apparent that the author, who lives in New York and has set this work primarily in London, is writing from the point of view of his native land. Integrity is rare in the England of Jack Maggs. It may be a fluid society that permits even Buckle, Phipps and Oates to rise to the rank of “gentleman,” but despite this potential for mobility, class lines, once established, are absolute. Maggs thinks of Australia, where he spent so many years in cruel servitude, as a sort of hell. At the same time, however, it is the place where he was free to make a fortune completely unhampered by his origins or his accent, and where the question of whether he was a gentleman was on the whole meaningless. It is also the place to which, in the end, he willingly returns.

Carey's depiction of the artist as a lesser person than the creature he makes use of implies something that is surely true: Creative fire is, finally, a gift that has little or nothing to do with virtue. Tobias Oates is a great artist and on some level that excuses his portrayal of Maggs. Carey is more interested in raising than settling questions, though, and undercuts Oates' ideas about his craft. Oates invents what he considers to be an artistic denouement that has an apocalyptic fire consume his convict-hero. Carey reveals the “real” and much less dramatic story: Maggs lives out his days back in Australia as an unremarkable paterfamilias. Which ending, the author is clearly asking, is more appropriate?

In plot, incident and irony Jack Maggs is as entertaining a piece of work as the Victorian novels it is modeled on. It is effective, too, as straight historical fiction. But most of all Carey's book is, as he intended, a telling meditation on the nature of the creative process, on how the artist finds and distills art from the chaos of raw experience.

Karl Miller (review date 20 April 1998)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1697

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 helper, to be hated by him, but eventually loved. Magwitch has prospered in the colonies, and has secretly financed a rise in the world for his helper. “Yes, Pip, dear boy,” the old lag exults, with hideous fatherliness, after his repatriation, “I've made a gentleman on you.”

Now read on, says Carey in effect. Except that Jack Maggs is not a sequel, it is the reauthorized version of an old story. It stands in relation to Dickens's book more or less as John Le Carré's recent Panamanian novel, The Tailor of Panama, does to Graham Greene's Our Man in Havana. It is the same but different. Here, too, a prodigal father returns, and Pip is found sprawling in a gay club, none too pleased to be tracked by his benefactor. Among the departures and the innovations is a version of the young Charles Dickens, alias Tobias Oates, a writer who wants to make a book of this savage arrival, knife in sock, from the back of beyond, to cash in, if you like, on the colonial's delicious period sufferings, those of a literary culture prone to victims and dark corners.

The novel begins in Clerkenwell. This is a district to the east of Central London which has a small literature of its own, now enlarged by Carey. Oliver Twist proceeded through Clerkenwell, past Sadler's Wells Theatre, on his way to Fagin's den. Eliot speaks its name in Four Quartets, and Arnold Bennett used it in 1923 in Riceyman Steps, a powerful novel about a miser, in which he says that baths are rare in Clerkenwell, and manages to commit the offense of also saying that, in general, “some women are eager to be beaten.” Clerkenwell sits on a hill which overlooks Bloomsbury to the west: to go down in that direction is to go up in the world. In Carey's novel, “a humble grocer” of the district, bathless presumably, by the name of Percy Buckle, is enabled by a stroke of fortune to descend to a house in Great George Street, a real street, still standing. He is joined there incognito by Jack Maggs—in the role of servant, and in pursuit of his sentimental journey of paternal reunion—to the fascination and the disruption of the household. Nearby, in Lamb's Conduit Street, also extant, Oates mesmerizes Maggs, extracting from him, under the hypnotic spell, confessional stuff about his penal past.

The novel reeks of English smells and English secrets. There are no secrets and no orphans like those of last-century Britain, and this is not lost on the author of Jack Maggs. The terrain is subtly handled, and the language of the novel draws, subtly too, on an ancient and modern London vernacular. A phrase like “ever so cross” feels at once old and new. The novel portrays a colorful about-to-be Victorian London, but it doesn't behave like the conventional historical novel, and it is sparing with scenery sentences like “he went out into the drizzling night where he discovered nothing more than a passing whore with a cane basket and a boy with a lantern holding a horse.”

Jack Maggs is a stern fellow. There develops a tenderness between him and the gently depicted housemaid Mercy Larkin, but he also carries the darkness of his ill-treatment and hard times. Hand her the pills, he orders the adulterous Oates, with reference to Oates's pregnant sister-in-law. If he doesn't do so, adds Maggs, “I will have to hurt her.” Emotions are often unexpected in Carey's fiction. “Strong emotions” come “like unexpected guests” to “illywhacker”—the liar and confidence man—in Carey's marvelous comic extravaganza of that name, which appeared in 1985. Illywhacker is set during the aftermath of the First World War. Jack McGrath, a rough diamond and self-made magnate, responds to a tale of childhood woe from the grown confidence man by suddenly and oddly saving: “Here's a pound.” The illywhacker, who is both indifferent to money and hungry for a quid, hangs on to that particular quid, gives it to a passing swagman, but then reclaims it. This is an episode which is fairly low on predictability, but is nonetheless lifelike for that. It is later found to supply a motif for the novel.

Carey's new novel, too, springs surprises of that kind. You don't always know what the characters are going to feel, or what some of the secrets which excite them are. These people are sometimes quite mysterious and out of the blue. At times there is a sense of untethered, free-floating affect. Late in the book, “having finally begun to understand the extent to which his secrets had been burgled, Jack Maggs became, by degrees, severely agitated.” You'd expect him to have understood this long before.

What also remains a little mysterious is why Carey has chosen to play, as he does with such brilliance, this game of repeating with variations what someone else has already written. But Illywhacker provides a clue.

Carey has powerful feelings about the Australian past and the red-fisted, broad-beamed, house-building, bullock-driving inhabitants of its early days, its Frontier. Among them are the old lags who became bosses and were sometimes to become and to beget English gentlemen, “Imaginary Englishmen,” he calls them. These ancestral rough diamonds—who are proud of their posh sons, but also appear to have produced the anti-English swagman Rupert Murdoch—are well worth their pages. Some of them turn into imaginary Englishmen. Others don't: Jack McGrath, for one. The illywhacker is no Englishman either, and he complains of those perfidious forefathers who have sold out to the oppressor:

The minute they began to make a quid they started to turn into Englishmen Cocky Abott was probably descended from some old cocknev lag, who had arrived here talking flash language, a pickpocket, a bread-stealer, and now, a hundred years later his descendants were dressing like his gaolers and torturers, disowning the language, softening their vowels, greasing their way into the plummy speech of the men who had ordered their ancestors lashed until the flesh had been dragged in bleeding strips from their naked backs.

The old man was as rough as bags but he was proud because he had sired an Englishman.

No wonder Carey took to the plot of Great Expectations. He has plenty to say against these forefathers, but he likes them when they are like Jack McGrath, and Jack McGrath prefigures Jack Maggs. McGrath is reckoned by his fellow citizens not to have a bad bone in his body, which is more than can be said about Maggs. But there is certainly a resemblance. Both McGrath and the illywhacker contain elements of Maggs. They are deceivers and pioneers.

Carey is very far from speaking up in either of these novels for gentility and the siring of Englishmen. But he has a taste for the old Oz of the sires in question. This can hardly be the whole story of why he chose to write the present book, but it may be part of it. A part of what drives the new New Yorker is a nostalgia for the primitive virtue of his ancestors, bless their broad beams. The manipulative relation to Maggs of Carey's brilliant young writer, his Dickens figure, is very different from his own, as the author of the book. He is on the side of his Jacks.

This might be thought a sentimental suggestion. Perhaps it is. Maggs, after all, is a mixed blessing, and the ambivalence that went into his imagining could be taken to express an ambivalence about Australia, of the sort that many feel about their native place. Yet it may help to explain why Peter Carey has rewritten Great Expectations, and why he might be thought to be objecting here to that novel's colonial presuppositions, its (surely not unqualified) regard for the English gentleman.

There are no indications in the book that some women are eager to be beaten. Carey has as much time for the difficulties faced by dependent women, it should be said, as he does for any beefy forebear. One of his finest passages is awarded to the crossing of a road by a destitute female, who falls before an approaching brewer's dray.

She had been carrying onions in her apron and now all these treasures went rolling out across the coal-black road. The Clydesdale's soup-plate hooves scattered the onions. The wheel of the brewer's dray passed by the woman's head. She rose hastily and began to gather up her onions.

Carey knows these onions. He writes well about poverty. And in writing well about his ancestors, as he also does. Carey has written both about poverty and about something worse. Whatever else it is. Jack Maggs is a post-colonial response to an effete England that has tortured its delinquents.

Robert Ross (essay date July 1998)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2947

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.


No matter what the novel's implications about the harm empire builders of the last century did to this century, the strong narrative dominates and makes Jack Maggs first and foremost an absorbing and breathless reading experience—qualities not always found in modern fiction.

A victim of the British “transportation system,” Jack Maggs had escaped hanging for thievery and been transported instead to the Australian penal colony of New South Wales. There he eventually served out his term, then prospered financially as a brickmaker in the booming new city of Sydney. Twenty-four years after leaving England, which he still considered his rightful home, he returned to London in 1837, where he could be put to death if discovered. (Of course, most British settlers in Australia referred to England as “Home” well into the twentieth century.) Maggs had made the foolhardy trip mainly to meet a young man named Phipps, an orphan who had befriended him on his way to deportation. In repayment, he had provided funds to educate Phipps and to turn the destitute but kind boy into a gentleman. So far the plot all sounds familiar enough to anyone remotely acquainted with Great Expectations. But these events unfold in the background; what happens in the foreground is Carey's own invention.

The novel opens with Maggs' return to a much-changed London, which the sharp-edged prose captures exquisitely:

The city had become a fairground, and as the coach crossed the river at Westminster the stranger saw that even the bridges of the Thames were illuminated. The entire Haymarket was like a grand ball. Not just the gas, the music, the dense, tight crowds. … Dram shops had become gin palaces … This one here—it was like a temple, damned if it was not, the door surrounded by stained panes of rich dye: rosettes, bunches of grapes.

This overlay of rich detail that recreates nineteenth-century England spreads over the text, whether applied to the streets, exteriors and interiors of houses, clothing, food, the countryside, or lodging places.

Maggs, a rough-hewn innocent, finds the elegant house he had bought for Phipps empty. On receiving the unwelcome news of his benefactor's arrival, the ingrate had fled to temporary quarters in what appears to be a male brothel. The idealized foster son, whose image had supported Maggs through all his antipodean hardships, is homosexual; but his sexual preference turns out to be the least serious of this despicable character's faults. Disappointed with his long-anticipated homecoming but not defeated, Maggs takes a job as a footman in the neighboring house so he can watch and occasionally sneak into the place next door.

Once Maggs has settled into the motley household headed by Percy Buckle, a former shopkeeper who has assumed the trappings of a gentleman after receiving an inheritance, the plot moves steadily forward with economical force, and the colorful characters appear in quick succession. The staff of the Buckle home forms an odd gallery in itself: Buckle's maid and mistress, Mercy Larkin, whom he had rescued from the streets; the other footman, who is mourning the suicide of his fellow footman and lover, whom he had betrayed by carrying on an affair with Phipps—along with the housekeeper, the butler, and others, all lacking respect and showing subtle contempt for their master, who is not a true gentleman.

Buckle has devoted himself to literature in his leisure and is flattered when Tobias Oates, a rising young writer, comes to dinner. It has been pointed out and substantiated through tedious biographical details in earlier reviews of Jack Maggs that Oates resembles Charles Dickens, a likeness that seems obvious enough. Through introducing the created character, if Maggs is indeed a refurbished Magwitch, to his creator, if Oates is indeed a newly minted Dickens, Carey offers an insight into how a writer creates a character, which makes an absorbing subtext throughout the novel. Does the writer plunge into another's innermost thoughts and steal what he wants? Does he plunder emotion? Does he destroy in order to create?

As the story unfolds, Buckle and company fade into the background, and the focus moves to the relationship between Oates and Maggs. Ostensibly they team up because Maggs believes that Oates can lead him to Phipps. A series of adventures undertaken by the mismatched pair, the struggling writer and the ex-convict, follows. They also engage in sessions where Oates mesmerizes Maggs to learn more of the criminal mind and at the same time to gather material for a novel about his subject, a work that the ambitious and debt-ridden author believes will bring him the fame and fortune he desires. Interspersed are scenes in the chaotic Buckle household and accounts of Oates' turbulent domestic life.

Carey relates the immediate narrative through a detached third-person voice, reminiscent even in its language to a nineteenth-century novel. Maggs, on the other hand, reveals his past through long letters to Phipps. In them he recounts how he grew up in poverty and learned to steal, skillfully relieving London's best houses of their silver with the assistance of the one bright light in an otherwise bleak life, Sophina. He goes on to tell how the lovers were eventually caught: Sophina was hanged, and he was sent to Australia “for the term of his natural life,” thus permanently separated from both his beloved and country.

Because Carey handles the form of the nineteenth-century novel with consummate skill, pays such close attention to period details, and writes mannered prose that fits the era, one wonders if he were born in the wrong century. His work might well have competed with those of Dickens, Trollope, and Thackeray. This is the case not only with the new book but also with an earlier novel, the Booker Prize-winning Oscar and Lucinda (1988), another tale from the last century that weaves together the English and Australian experience. Both of these period novels stand on their own merits as entertaining and fulfilling stories of people caught up in a web of human frailty and can be read and enjoyed as such. Still, there emerges a modern sensibility that is hard to ignore, for Carey, an Australian living in New York, appears engrossed in the way a onetime colony in the twentieth century relates first to its former ruler, then to the larger world.


Literary critics, historians, and political scientists have written volumes on the aftermath of empire building, now fashionably called “postcolonialism.” The system that allowed European nations to govern and exploit less-enlightened lands took its last gasps after World War II and has been blamed for any number of international catastrophes and ills over the past fifty years. Creative writers from the countries once under foreign rule have had their say as well, often in clearer tones than those of the scholars. Recently, though, many of these writers have moved away from postcolonial themes in favor of more universal subjects. But Carey appears not yet to have settled this dilemma. In an interview he was asked if he might someday write “a solely American novel,” now that he has lived in New York several years. He replied that he did have an idea but added that “it can't be solely an American novel because I'm an Australian writer and that's the soil I come from and that's what my preoccupation is all about.”

Australia remains under the rule of the British monarchy, at least in formalistic terms. According to the 1901 Australian constitution, adopted at the time of federation when the scattered territories on the vast continent united, a governor-general appointed by the ruling monarch had the final say in the nation's affairs. The prime minister and Parliament answered to this office, which until midcentury was filled by an Englishman who came out to oversee the colonials. Although the governor-general still holds his office, he has been relegated since World War II mainly to ceremonial duties; Parliament selects a candidate, now an Australian citizen, and the queen automatically approves. Even this symbolic attachment to what once was called the “mother country” galls most Australians today, and a strong movement to form a republic has been successful. Recent surveys show that over 70 percent of Australians want to break all ties with the monarchy, and most observers predict that this will come about in 2001, the centennial anniversary of federation.

All of this may not seem very important to international readers, but an event in 1975 remains fresh in many Australians' memories. The governor-general did exercise his power and dismissed the liberal Whitlam government, which had wide support in the country. Carey calls this upheaval “a trauma, either acknowledged or denied in our national life,” and admits that this unwarranted dismissal of “our elected government” served as “the emotional engine” of his previous book, The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith (1994). Here he constructs a small country called Efica that carries on its affairs in the shadow of a powerful nation called Voorstand, on which it is dependent. The Efican hero, Tristan Smith, emerges as a deformed, “cracked and mended pot” of flesh that covers a “normal” person. Tristan's fantastic yet meaningful adventures in both the dependent and powerful countries ironically do not point to England but to the United States. While the book's sustaining metaphor is popular culture, the political elements seep through, even though Carey insisted in an interview that the novel should not be read as a veiled account of the 1975 national “trauma.”

Carey first drew attention when he published two collections of short stories, The Fat Man in History (1974) and War Crimes (1979). One of the finest stories from those books is “American Dreams,” which takes up another concern of Australians as they search for a national identity after two hundred or so years of European settlement: that is, American influence. Following World War II, British influence began to wane, and the United States took its place as the outside power, although no constitutional ties such as the governor-general's office exist between the two nations. In the small Australian town where “American Dreams” unfolds, the citizens “have nothing but contempt” for their town and the countryside. Instead they “all have dreams of the big city, of wealth, of modern houses, of big motor cars: American dreams, my father has called them.” Through a series of surreal events, the settlement, which “we have treated badly, like a whore,” evolves into a tourist attraction. Now, “the Americans arrive every day” and “pay one dollar for the right to take our photographs.”

Observers from afar do not always understand the Australian fear of outside influence, whether British or American. Nor do they appreciate the Australians' earnest search for national identity. These preoccupations have fueled some excellent writing in recent times, and Peter Carey has turned the obsessions into some of the most original fiction in contemporary Australian literature. Although Carey no longer lives in Australia, his work continues to be popular and highly regarded there. As he said, “I am an Australian writer,” and he has remained true to that title throughout his career.

In his first major novel, Illywhacker (1985), he rewrites Australian history through the eyes of an “Illywhacker,” Australian slang for a professional trickster or spieler at a country fair. At the outset, Carey quotes Mark Twain's comment in More Tramps Abroad (1897), written after his visit to Australia:

Australian history is almost always picturesque; indeed, it is so curious and strange, that it is itself the chiefest novelty the country has to offer and so it pushes the other novelties into second and third place. It does not read like history, but like the most beautiful lies; and all of a flesh new sort, no mouldy old stale ones. It is full of surprises and adventures, the incongruities, and contradictions, and incredibilities; but they are all true, they all happened.

The central character of Illywhacker, Herbert Badgery, who claims that he is 139 years old, recounts his own version of events, creates myths, and plunges into fantasy as he embellishes what Mark Twain called “the most beautiful lies.”

Carey's next novel Oscar and Lucinda, looks again at Australian history through its chronicle of an unfulfilled romance between a British Church of England priest and an Australian businesswoman, who meet on a ship bound for Sydney. As their relationship takes some bizarre turns, they decide to build a glass church, which evolves into the book's central symbol. Once the holy masterpiece is completed, a crew attempts to move it into the Outback, where it eventually shatters and sinks into a river. The fragility, it has been suggested, of an alien civilization, which the church represents, cannot endure on the Australian continent.

The Tax Inspector (1991) examines modern-day Sydney as it relates a harrowing story of violence, dishonesty, exploitation, child molestation, disillusionment, and any number of other undesirable behaviors. Carey has defended this novel, which was not universally welcomed in Australia, by returning once more to Australian history, this time to its past as a penal colony:

I was in Sydney in the late '80s after the Bicentennial and was particularly interested in our denial of convictism. We say we don't deny it, that we're proud of our convict ancestors but at the same time we've had a very particular and interesting history that has had all sorts of effects on our society, good ones and bad ones. It was amazing at that time to still find it unpopular to talk about the suggestion that we were corrupt in a particular way because of our convict beginnings. It was very upsetting to people.

Yet The Tax Inspector concludes on a hopeful note, as though the past that brought about the cruelest form of colonialism, exile and imprisonment, might be expiated once admitted and accepted.


Jack Maggs may well be the final piece in the mosaic of a defunct empire and the trials of a postcolonial nation that Carey has constructed in his novels. Maggs, brimming with hope, returns home to his beloved London and announces “I am not of the race of Australians.” He still believes in the class structure, is obsessed with Phipps' status as a gentleman, and hopes to become part of that imagined life. Even when being flogged by fellow Englishmen in the New South Wales prison yard, he dreamed of the England—“the emerald isle”—to which he would one day return:

There was a most particular smell hanging like bad meat around that cursed place, and small iridescent blue flies which crawled upon his face and nose. As the flies began to tease his skin, the wretched man would begin to build London in his mind. He would build it brick by brick as the horrid double-cat smote the air, eddying forth like a storm from Hell itself. Underneath the scalding sun, which burned his flesh as soon as it was mangled, Jack Maggs would imagine the long mellow light of English summer.

Then his expectations, once his dream has become reality, are dashed one by one, and he faces disappointment after disappointment. Although Maggs is depicted as a violent, crude sort in his relations with those he encounters, he turns out to be the most decent character in the book. The English, the people whom he admired and considered his own, all emerge finally as selfish, grasping, inhumane, corrupt. Even the mother figure, who might stand in as Mother England, is an abortionist. As the novel ends, Maggs at last discovers what home means and fulfills his rightful expectations. He has finally severed all ties with the mythical England he had built in his mind and set aside his misplaced loyalty to a fantasy. In short, he declares his own personal “republic.”

Having said all of this, it seems unfair to view Peter Carey's latest novel, along with the original works that precede it, merely as a kind of extended treatise on colonialism and its aftermath. Carey noted that a political crisis served as “the emotional engine” for one of his books, then added it would be a mistake to read it on that level. Still, the preoccupation with Australia's place in the world, past and present, dominates Carey's fiction; it has been the “engine” behind the work. And there is nothing wrong with that, especially considering how inventively and diversely he has enlarged this recurrent theme.

Now that Maggs has found the way home and affirmed its reality, Carey may in the future employ his considerable talents in yet untried ways.

Christer Larsson (essay date October 1999)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5325

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 significant aspects of Carey's texts. In this article, I will attempt to balance the account of Carey's novels, challenging the idea of the texts as open-ended by reading them as essentially closed. The focus will be on Carey's use of prolepses. His employment of prolepses demands comment, not only since it is so frequent and skilful, but also because investigating the consequences of his use of this device is informative when we look at the way time operates in his novels. A prolepsis is defined by Genette as ‘any narrative manoeuvre that consists of narrating or evoking in advance an event that will take place later’ (Genette 40). In other words, it is a representation of a future event as if it has already taken place. A prolepsis effects a link between two points in a text with the purpose of manipulating the reader's understanding of the narrative. Although many critics have noted Carey's ‘unabashed use of prolepses’ (Dovey 200), there has been very little discussion about its effects.1 I will argue that the many prolepses indicate a perception of time as closed and an awareness of the revelatory potential of narrative: the capacity of the end to rewrite what has led up to it.

Although the concept of closure is not widely approved of in contemporary criticism, it is worth taking seriously. Some form of closure seems to be necessary for our understanding of a narrative. Frank Kermode argues in The Sense of an Ending that we need narratives with closure to help us make sense of our lives and that ‘the End is immanent,’ or an ordering principle (Kermode 25). In a narrative, according to Kermode, ‘the End changes all,’ and rewrites any text to contain points of crisis, or ‘moments of significance which harmonise origin and end’ (Kermode 47-48).2 Jonathan Culler makes a similar statement, that themes in a text are intelligible due to ‘the ways we succeed in making various codes come together and cohere’ and that ‘plot is but the temporal projection of thematic structures’ (Culler 224). To Culler, some form of closure is necessary to identify critical moments in a text. Paul Ricoeur agrees with Kermode about the necessity of closure: ‘Open-ended or even nonending stories are only interesting because of the deviations and violations they impose on the rule of closure’ (Ricoeur 167n.). Ricoeur is of the opinion that ‘“anticlosure” reaches a threshold beyond which’ we must ‘exclude the work from the domain of art’ (Ricoeur 22). Ricoeur's view of closure as essential to a work of art is often resisted in contemporary criticism.3 In the discussion about postmodern temporality, two views of time are identified: one in which time is essentially closed and one in which time is open. Closed time is generally represented as a journey, described with the aid of spatial metaphors. In this view of time, events strive forward to a determined result, and a condition can be said to exist in some way before it is actually realised. Kermode, Culler and Ricoeur would in this discussion be seen as belonging to the proponents of closed time, due to their insistence on the revelatory qualities of narrative. Conversely, proponents of open time reject all spatial metaphors, since time has no physical extension. Moreover, to call time ‘open’ implies the idea that there are no determined endings and, consequently, that no event can be said to exist in any way before it is realised.

In Carey criticism, the idea that Carey's novels are open-ended and that time in the texts is essentially open has been embraced by a number of critics. They either have a concern with form and structure or attempt to demonstrate how the novels challenge received historiography.4 At this point, to move on to my own argument, we can note that Carey's ‘unfashionable concern with morality’ indicates that some form of closure is necessary. Moral statements depend on their own finite interpretability: a statement is defined as moral by its tendency to favour one interpretation over another. Carey is clearly aware of this, and this awareness lends depth and beauty to his fiction. Arguably, much of the trouble Harry Joy finds himself in is due to his inability to limit the interpretability of his stories. The story of the Beggar-King, for instance, becomes ‘in Harry's hands a poor directionless thing, left to bump around by itself and mean what you wanted it to’ (Bliss 32). Carey's texts, as opposed to Harry's wonderfully depicted ineptitude, do offer a degree of certainty, and the prolepsis is one of the tools Carey uses to accomplish this. The prolepses in all Carey's novels promise closure, the joining of beginning with end, as Kermode would have it. Whether they indicate a happy ending, as in Bliss, or a dreadful one, as in Oscar and Lucinda, they ensure that the reader is never allowed to doubt that the story is already finished, and yet they promise crises and revelations. They imply a closed temporality, which the narrator can allow the reader to view from a privileged perspective, where events and conditions which have not yet occurred nevertheless exist tangibly enough to be narrated.

In Carey's book for children, The Big Bazoohley, the painting Toronto in a Matchbox is described in a prolepsis. The traditional, if somewhat chatty, omniscient narrator gives us a mass of information about the picture, painted after the story in the novel has ended, depicting the scene of the novel's small-scale catharsis in minute detail, and adds to the description what does not show in the picture. The fact that the narrator can position himself so as to see and explain anything and everything in the narrative implies that the narrative is not infinite. Furthermore, his ability to look into the future beyond the novel indicates that time in narrative, even when it stretches beyond the end of its story, is constructed in such a way that it is possible to imagine a vantage point from the outside of it:

Years later, when the adventure was all over, Vanessa Kellow painted Toronto in a Matchbox, the masterpiece that made her famous. …

It showed the entire city covered with six feet of deep dry-powder snow. It was snow so deep that even the skyscrapers had soft white hats; snow so deep that the Gardiner Expressway closed down, and men and women travelled in from the airport on cross-country skis.

If you look for the corner of Yonge and King Streets in the painting, you will find the beautiful new King Redward Hotel, and if you take a powerful magnifying glass and peer into that line of lighted yellow windows on the second floor, you will find yourself, miraculously, looking at another, even smaller, painting of the great ballroom.

In this delicate perfect world, you will see the Perfecto Kiddo banners … You will see an upper gallery in which people have crowded to look down at the spectacle below. In this gallery you might recognise Muriel and George, and in the ballroom below you should be able to find the small figure of Sam Kellow walking to take his place at the beginning of the Perfecto Kiddo Competition.


This passage comes at the beginning of chapter thirteen. Interrupting the story, it allows us to see the entire city of Toronto, not as it looks when the events depicted are taking place, but as the city will look later, depicted in a very small painting by Sam's mother. Seemingly opening the text, it actually closes it by revealing the narrative as a structure with a temporality outside which the narrator can place himself. A. J. Hassall, constantly aware of the morality involved in storytelling, calls this passage a ‘reassurance’ that the narrative is under control and will not run amok for the young reader but come to a happy resolution (Hassall 193).

Carey's fiction for adults also abounds with prolepses, which, unlike the one quoted above, rarely have any reassuring purpose. Instead, they are often of the apocalyptic variety. It has been suggested that the prolepsis that tells us that Maria Takis's relationship with Jack Catchprice in The Tax Inspector will continue after the end of the novel is an attempt to reassure the reader (Craig 155). What holds true when dealing with a book for children, however, is not at all obvious in a book as relentlessly brutal as The Tax Inspector: ‘It was not the last time Maria would judge herself to be too tense, too critical with Jack Catchprice, to feel herself too full of prejudices and preconceptions that would not let her accept what was pleasant and generous in his character’ (The Tax Inspector 194). First, we can easily note that this sentence describes negative feelings, things which Maria considers problematic. Rather than telling us about happiness, or something else that can be less ambiguously interpreted as reassuring, the omniscient narrator gives us information about something which Maria is not going to be pleased with. Furthermore, this prolepsis lets us know that Maria's victory over Benny at the end of the novel is only a temporary victory. Benny may be out of the way, but she and her baby will still be trapped in the Catchprice chain of abuse. It has been hinted that Jack's motives for wanting the baby are similar to Benny's. Reassuring or not, however, the prolepsis reminds us of the immanence of the end, in Kermode's terms. We see that here, as in The Big Bazoohley, events have come to their conclusion at the time when the narration takes place. The prolepses provide the reader with small anticipatory crises, changing the significance of a passage, not by revealing how events will be brought to a conclusion, but by the reminder that the end already exists, that it is already real enough to be narrated.

It is in the nature of a prolepsis to promise or foresee a closure or some form of crisis. One such example is found in Oscar and Lucinda, which has relatively few prolepses compared to the other novels. When Lucinda is still a child and her mother is very angry with her for ruining an expensive doll, the narrator tells us that ‘the air was filled with a violence whose roots she would only glimpse years later when she lost her fortune to my great-grandmother and was made poor overnight. Then she wondered how much the doll had cost’ (Oscar and Lucinda 81). This prolepsis takes us beyond the end of the novel, forcing us to realise that the events in this story have a fixed conclusion and that there is nothing open-ended about it. We will know, when Lucinda and Oscar make their bet, that she will lose, and not in the way she has intended. A brief look at the narrator will help to demonstrate the limits of the narrative. Hassall writes about the painting in The Big Bazoohley that it ‘frames the narrative … reminding readers … that all will eventually be well,’ at the same time as it is itself a part of the story (Hassall 192). The narrator in Oscar and Lucida and other narrators in Carey's novels have a similar function. Even if they might not want to assure us of a happy resolution, they do remind us that the end is an integral part of their activity, even ‘end’ in the teleological sense that postmodernists want to deny. Not only does the narrator in Oscar and Lucinda play a crucial part as a limiting, or framing, device. He is also allowed to offer contesting versions of history, questioning accepted historiography. However, the narrative's obvious subjectivity, its status as an ‘ideological construct,’ to use Petersen's words, which sets it apart from more accepted versions of history which assume an air of false objectivity, does not make the narrative any less closed. Obvious subjectivity, to as high a degree as the false objectivity of traditional historiography attacked by postmodernists and postcolonialists, may be courting revelation and closure. The use of prolepsis in Oscar and Lucinda highlights this by allowing the narrator to present the story as complete already before the narration is finished.

From early on in the narrative, we know that Lucinda will not be the great-grandmother of the narrator, even though Oscar will be his great-grandfather. Similarly, Jack Maggs has a significant, if not as ominous, prolepsis, from which we learn that the protagonist will not win his battle against the novelist Tobias Oates:

At the crossroads at Wallingford he [Oates] wrote the famous line with which, thirty years later, The Death of Maggs would finally begin: As certain birds do declare themselves unto their intended, so the murderer returned to court his beloved England, bold as a cock robin in his bright red waistcoat.

(Jack Maggs 231)

Maggs feels that Oates steals his life from him by turning him into a character in his novel, and tries to prevent him. In this prolepsis we see how Maggs will fail and how Oates will ‘finally’ be able to publish his novel. And indeed, Jack Maggs ends with the publication of Oates's novel in various editions. Of course, Maggs is already locked inside a narrative, and very early in the novel we get the feeling of the kind of determinism that Woodcock mentions: ‘There is no doubt that Jack Maggs planned to keep his promise, but the morrow held events he could not foresee’ (Jack Maggs 5). The events are there, ‘held’ waiting for him, he just does not know about them, and the narrative, of course, is already complete even if we have not yet read many pages. Hassall writes that the ‘final pages of the book … resonate back through the narrative, decisively altering it,’ thereby reminding us of the end as an ordering principle (Hassall 204).

That a prolepsis shows knowledge about the outcome of events holds true for Illywhacker and The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith as well. Indeed, these two novels demonstrate the relationship between a narrative and the story it tells in a rather striking way. As Richard Todd writes about Illywhacker, the ‘entire … novel is, to be sure, one enormous flashback’ (Todd 311). In other words, the main body of the novel is what Genette would call an analepsis, or an ‘evocation after the fact of an event that took place earlier than the point in the story where we are at any given moment’ (Genette 40). The narrative in Tristan Smith is structured in much the same way. At the time when Herbert Badgery, the narrator in Illywhacker, tells us the history of his family, he is kept in a cage by his grandson. The novel, like a bizarre family saga, presents us with the fortunes and misfortunes of the Badgerys as they make their way through the twentieth century. However, as Todd also observes, the narrative is not entirely chronological even within this extensive analepsis. Badgery narrates his story with the aid of both further analepses and prolepses. In Tristan Smith, when Tristan tells us his story, the events described have come to their conclusion roughly thirty years earlier. A prolepsis situated early in the narrative clearly demonstrates this: ‘The birth was fast and easy. The life was to be another matter’ (Tristan Smith 11). Controlled by the narrator, the prolepsis becomes a tool for showing where the story is heading and that the results of the events in the story are already clear. Badgery accomplishes more than simply demonstrating his knowledge about the direction of his narrative: he also manages to demonstrate how the reader is trapped in the flow of the text, steadily leading to an already determined outcome. In a prolepsis which directly addresses the reader, he shows how the reader, the narrator, and the narrative are all powerless against the rule of closure: ‘Soon,’ he says, ‘you will find yourselves with chooks all around you,’ displaying a knowledge about, not only where the narrative is heading and about what he will narrate, but also about where the reader will be.5 It does not matter if Badgery postpones ‘that unsanitary situation’ a little: the story will move on, relentlessly, regardless of how he allows the narrative to twist and turn. The reader is here made into as much of a construct as the narrator frequently reveals himself to be. This ‘fictification’ of the reader is obvious in Tristan Smith, where the readers addressed are the population of a fictional country (Tristan Smith 5). The readers presumed by the narrators here are given very little opportunity to argue with the narrative: both Badgery and Tristan give themselves the last say. Badgery's breaking up the chronology of his narrative further demonstrates his unique perspective on the text. Rather than ‘sabotag[ing] our sense of order and sequence’ or ‘dislocating our sense of time and continuities,’ as Daniel reads it, this reshuffling of narrative material clearly indicates the artificial structure of the novel: each event is deliberately placed where it will carry the greatest explanatory power. Badgery arranges his narrative so that each revelatory point helps the understanding of his version of the events.

Badgery's awareness of what lies ahead of him in his narration is clear also in another comment he makes to the reader: ‘So there is no use … at all in you skipping pages, racing ahead, hoping for a bit of hanky-panky’ (Illywacker 227). This, he acknowledges later, is a lie (303). Badgery knows, when he makes his initial claim, that it is not true, and he does it with the purpose to mislead his reader. He knows that what he explicitly says will not occur is in fact already there in the story, waiting for the narrative to catch up with it. Any prolepsis serves as a reminder of the fact that what is being narrated is already finished, and Badgery's perspective of his family saga makes this even clearer. When Badgery narrates his story, the events he tells us about have already come to a conclusion, and the completion of the situation he is in at the time of narrating the story is waiting in the wings, signalled by his promise of ‘interesting times ahead’ (600).

At the end of Tristan Smith we learn that Tristan's ‘unusual life was really just beginning’ (414) which might seem to invite the idea that Tristan Smith is in some way an open-ended narrative, a narrative where more is left untold than what is revealed. Nevertheless, revelation is crucial to a work like Tristan Smith. Carolyn Bliss investigates how Carey works with different ‘modes of narrative temporality’, using Elizabeth Ermarth's terms postmodern (open) and historical (closed) time and adding allegorical time, to show how these three modes interact in his novels. Using The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith, where she reads the relationship between the two fictitious countries Efica and Voorstand as allegorical of American influence on Australia, she aims to demonstrate how ‘allegory kicks itself free of historical constraints’. This freedom, she suggests, produces a sense of timelessness, since questions like ‘At what historical moment does Milton's Satan conceive Death with his daughter Sin … ?’ are ‘unaskable’ (Bliss, ‘Time and Timelessness’ 98). Her idea is not entirely unproblematic. As she herself admits, allegory, by making a point about a specific historical situation, is intrinsically timebound. Graham Huggan, to whom Bliss refers, has also raised this objection to the timelessness of allegory, stating that at the same time as being ‘the site for an apparent dislocation from history, [allegory] also provides the reader with a means of relocating the text in history’.6 However, a more serious objection to the timelessness of allegory, and applicable to Tristan Smith, may be that by removing itself one step further than a realistic narrative from the real world, the allegory makes its own status as a construct, a work of art, more obvious. Tristan, Efica and Voorstand are implicitly presented as veiled representations that are intended to be unveiled. The fictional structure of an allegory must be visible. An allegory which nobody can decode cannot be imagined: it would not be an allegory. Thus, allegory is not only bound to a specific historic situation, it also carries with it a promise of revelation, end and closure.

Tristan's ability to evaluate his life as unusual, and to see what we have been told as a beginning, also indicates that we are dealing with a closed structure. Any beginning, any point of entry, marks a border, and any border denies infinity. Tristan has mainly chosen to relate to us some of the facts that have brought him to the situation he is in when he tells us his story. That this situation is not defined more closely makes no difference. Indeed, all the first person narrators in Carey's novels have this perspective: the identification of a narrator as more or less a character in the story makes the narrative into one big analepsis. The narrators in Oscar and Lucinda and Bliss also tell the story about the events that lead up to the situation they are in at the time of the narration, and this situation is the framework for the narrative. In Oscar and Lucinda, this is clear from the beginning. In Bliss, it is revealed at the end of the novel.

Bliss is the novel which gives the best idea of how prolepses anticipate closure. Among the numerous prolepses in this story, at least four are connected with death. Two of them deal with Harry Joy's death and one of them with his son David's death, and I will concentrate on these three examples. The first prolepsis occurs already in the first sentence of the novel which begins: ‘Harry Joy was to die three times’ (Bliss 11). This sentence is paradoxical: it is and is not true. As such, it should not be able to tell us anything meaningful about Harry Joy. The number of deaths is not informative. The tense, however is. We know that Harry will not die more than three times and can consequently assume that his final death has taken place at the time of the narration. Thus, the first thing we are aware of about the novel's main character is that he is going to die. This is a striking introduction of a character in a novel, and it is worth comparing with the sentence that introduces David: ‘When he was about to die in a foreign country, years later, Harry's son would tell his captors that he had been born in an electrical storm’ (29). It is a remarkable sentence in that it gives us David's death and birth in one breath and presents his life in its finite entirety. By presenting Harry's and David's death at the same time as the characters are introduced, the prolepses draw attention to the necessity of closure, the necessity of joining beginning and end. The last prolepsis in Bliss also serves to illustrate this, but in a slightly different way:

Nothing will happen in this story, nothing but a death. It is as inconsequential as anything Vance told. Soon the branch of a tree will fall on him. A branch of a tree he has planted himself, one of his precious yellow boxes, a variety prized by bee-keepers but known to forest workers as widow-makers (widder-makers) because of their habit, on quiet, windless days like this one, of dropping heavy limbs.

Any moment this thirty-year-old tree is going to perform the treacherous act of falling on to the man who planted it, while bees continue to gather their honey uninterrupted on the outer branches.

There—it is done.

(Bliss 295)

It is interesting how this passage drifts from the future tense of the prolepsis into the present tense, demonstrating how the story catches up with the narrator's prophecy. A feeling of inevitability is built up as we watch Harry walk under the ‘treacherous’ tree. It is as if time itself leads to this moment. Obviously, this little story about Harry's death is not at all inconsequential, neither illogical or irrelevant. On the contrary, it is necessary, and it was promised from the beginning. Hassall is obviously aware of this closed structure, when he states that the end of Bliss ‘is where we began’ (Hassall 68). It is the closure of Harry's life and it paves the way for the closure of the bigger story in Bliss, the passing on of stories. ‘[T]he last story’ is the story about his children, who are finally revealed as the narrators of his story (Bliss 295-96), which is now theirs. The fact that there can be a last story makes it clear that we are dealing with a complete narrative, one that cannot be further expanded. In the narrative that is Bliss, this is the end of time and all has been brought to light.

A prolepsis links a result with a preceding point of crisis. It may not tell us exactly how the end will be brought about, but it reminds us that it is there, waiting for us to catch up with it. In a sense, a prolepsis is a promise of illumination. It is a narrative device that aims at helping readers to place their understanding of an event in a context. Any event must be understood as a part of a greater text, the complete narrative. From the first impression of a Carey novel as a sprawling, chaotic thing, springs the revelation of a carefully crafted network, where characters and events are presented with clarity and precision. The remarkable richness of Carey's fiction is a result not only of innovation but also of an acute awareness of tradition and the ethics of storytelling. The fact that closure is a crucial aspect of Carey's novels should not be overlooked. In the rush to examine and explore radical innovation, we risk losing track of what lends depth and complexity to it: the contrast in which it stands to tradition.


  1. Bruce Woodcock suggests that the effect of the prolepses in Bliss is ‘to give a fatalistic sense of the destiny of the characters as almost predetermined in an existing script’ (41). Still, he claims that Carey's fiction ‘disrupt[s] any supposed norms of fictional practice’ (9), including, one must presume, the rule of closure.

  2. Kermode spells the End with a capital E to allude to the Apocalypse, the Book of Revelation, the closure of the Bible which joins end and beginning. He writes that ‘although for us the End has perhaps lost its naïve imminence, its shadow still lies on the crises of our fictions; we may speak of it as immanent’ (6).

  3. The idea that a narrative can be complete, rather than open-ended and potentially infinite, is a notion that is generally offensive to postmodern critics. Linda Hutcheon writes in The Politics of Postmodernism that the concept of a narrative's ‘“end” suggests both teleology and closure’ and that postmodernists consider this view ‘a mode of “totalising” representation’ (62). To a degree, this is adding a moral dimension to the discussion. Gary Saul Morson does so explicitly in Narrative and Freedom, where he designs an argument which aims to resist the construction of utopias. Morson and Hutcheon both suggest that a narrative which claims to be potentially complete is oppressive. In her book Sequel to History: Postmodernism and the Crisis of Representational Time, Elizabeth Ermarth, a proponent of open time, explores postmodern temporality, especially in relation to narrative. She comments on the fact that language, functioning in linear time, resists the formulation of a theory of postmodern temporality (14). A problem with her discussion is that she seemingly cannot avoid seeing herself as standing at the end of an era, something which is suggested by her recurrent imagery of crises.

  4. For example, Daniel, ‘“The Liar's Lump”’ 167, Ross 55, Dovey 199, Petersen 108. See also Bliss, ‘The Revisionary Lover’; Helen Daniel, Liars and Brown.

  5. Illywhacker 265. The chooks mentioned are the annoying property of a man that Leah's friends the Kaletskys rent a portion of their house to.

  6. Huggan, ‘Is the (Günther) Grass Greener on the Other Side?’. It may be noted that Huggan has warned against ‘such easy readings’ of Tristan Smith ‘as another of Carey's satirical national allegories’ (Peter Carey 75).

Works Cited

Bliss, Carolyn. ‘The Revisionary Lover: Misprision of the Past in Peter Carey.’ Australian and New Zealand Studies in Canada 6 (1991): 45-54.

———. ‘Time and Timelessness in Peter Carey's Fiction—The Best of Both Worlds.’ Antipodes 9.2 (1995): 97-105.

Brown, Ruth. ‘English Heritage and Australian Culture: The Church and Literature of England in Oscar and Lucinda.Australian Literary Studies 17.2 (1995): 135-40.

Carey, Peter. Bliss. London: Faber & Faber, 1981.

———. Illywhacker. London: Faber & Faber, 1985.

———. Oscar and Lucinda. London: Faber & Faber, 1988.

———. The Tax Inspector. London: Faber & Faber, 1991.

———. The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith. London: Faber & Faber, 1994.

———. The Big Bazoohley. London: Faber & Faber, 1995.

———. Jack Maggs. London: Faber & Faber, 1997.

Craig, Jen. ‘The Real Thing.’ Southerly 52.1 (1992): 152-56.

Culler, Jonathan. Structuralist Poetics: Structuralism, Linguistics and the Study of Literature. London: Routledge, 1975.

Daniel, Helen. ‘“The Liar's Lump” or “A Salesman's View of History”: Peter Carey's Illywhacker.Southerly 46.2 (1986): 156-67.

———. Liars: Australian New Novelists. Ringwood, Vic.: Penguin, 1988.

Dovey, Teresa. ‘An Infinite Onion: Narrative Structure in Peter Carey's Fiction.’ Australian Literary Studies 11.2 (1983): 195-204.

Ermarth, Elizabeth. Sequel to History: Postmodernism and the Crisis of Representational Time. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1992.

Genette, Gerard. Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1980.

Hassall, A. J. Dancing on Hot Macadam: Peter Carey's Fiction. 3rd ed. St Lucia, Qld.: U of Queensland P, 1998.

Huggan, Graham. ‘Is the (Günther) Grass Greener on the Other Side? Oskar and Lucinde in the New World.’ World Literature Written in English 30.1 (1990): 1-10.

———. Peter Carey. Melbourne: Oxford UP, 1996.

Hutcheon, Linda. The Politics of the Postmodern. London: Routledge, 1989.

Kane, Paul. ‘Postcolonial/Postmodern: Australian Literature and Peter Carey.’ World Literature Today 67.3 (1993): 519-22.

Kermode, Frank. The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction. 1967. London: Oxford UP, 1970.

Morson, Gary Saul. Narrative and Freedom: The Shadows of Time. New Haven, Conn.: Yale UP, 1994.

Petersen, Kirsten Holst. ‘Gambling on Reality: A Reading of Peter Carey's Oscar and Lucinda.European Perspectives: Contemporary Essays on Australian Literature. Ed. Bruce Clunies Ross and Werner Senn. St Lucia, Qld.: U of Queensland P, 1991. 107-16.

Ricoeur, Paul. Time and Narrative. Vol. 2. Tr. Kathleen McLaughlin and David Pellauer. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1985.

Ross, Robert. ‘“It Cannot Not Be There:” Borges and Australia's Peter Carey.’ Borges and His Successors: The Borgesian Impact on Literature and the Arts. Ed. Edna Aizenberg, Columbia, Miss.: U of Missouri P, 1990. 44-58.

Todd, Richard. ‘Narrative Trickery and Performative Historiography: Fictional Representation of National Identity in Graham Swift, Peter Carey, and Mordecai Richler.’ Magical Realism: Theory, History, Community. Ed. Lois Parkinson Zamora and Wendy B. Faris. Durham: Duke UP, 1995. 305-28

Woodcock, Bruce. Peter Carey. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1996.

D. J. Taylor (review date 8 January 2001)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 645

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 lives, thoughts and articulations—the same questions of national identity seem to push their way to the surface. Just as Badgery's career as a “rifferty man” (ie, a confidence trickster) supplied a metaphor for the whole early Antipodean experience, so Ned Kelly—an Irishman stuck at the very bottom of the 19th-century colonial antheap—is capable of providing his own sharply figurative gloss.

True History of the Kelly Gang (the absence of the definite article is a nice authenticating touch) is the usual exercise in self-conscious fakery, a series of “parcels” in various stages of preservation (“Brown wrapping paper cut to 40 rough pages 4″ × 8″ approximate, then crudely bound with twine. Title page has a large hole along the gutter not affecting any text”) containing Ned's first-hand account of his short life, supposedly written for his daughter. As pieces of writing, these have an immediate power. There is an elemental savagery, which is also a kind of ingenuousness, about Ned's description of his mother giving birth in the rundown farming shack without medical help, his slaughter of a neighbour's heifer (for which his father goes to jail) and his “apprenticeship” to the celebrated bushranger Harry Power. As ever in Carey's writing, the comedy runs sinuously beneath the surface: the account of Power holding up coaches whose hard-up passengers reproach him on the grounds of his supposed Robin Hood status treads a fine but successful line between menace and humour.

Continuities with Carey's earlier work abound: for example, the tall stories that are a part of Ned's Irish heritage, and even the Oscar and Lucinda-style marbles carried by the Chinese traveller whom Power and his teenage sidekick attempt to rob. What remains, following the final penetration of Ned's ingeniously wrought suit of armour, is a ventriloquial tour de force. And yet, as so often in these ventures in historical fakery, leaving aside the metaphorical add-ons, there is only the “voice”. According to the dust jacket, this is an instrument “so wild, passionate and original that it is impossible not to believe that the famous bushranger himself is speaking from beyond the grave”.

No disrespect to whichever Faber and Faber employee wrote these words, but I didn't believe for a moment that Ned Kelly was speaking from beyond the grave and, while appreciating the many flashes of boot-level poetry, I could never get beyond the idea of the authorial performance. True History is mesmerising stuff, but there is a way in which the real people tend to disappear into the background, while all that is left on stage is the spectacle of an imaginative author playing all the parts himself.

Ron Charles (review date 18 January 2001)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 884

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.

With this remarkable novel, Carey has raised a national legend to the level of an international myth. If the world thinks of America through the voice of Huck Finn, from now on they'll think of Australia through the testimony of Ned Kelly.

Born into a large family of Irish immigrants, Ned should have lived a life of quiet contentment. “I once imagined there were never a better place on earth than where I lived at Pleurisy Plains,” he writes. “I could not conceive a better soil or prettier view or trees that did not grow crooked in the winds.”

But Ned's good nature isn't enough to spare him from the assaults of English injustice. At school, he endures a barrage of dispiriting prejudice. The police harass his family relentlessly. “All my life all I wanted were a home,” he sighs, but the authorities are determined to catch his relations stealing or lying or fighting or drinking—anything to put one of them away in the “gaol” and encourage the remaining clan to move out.

Ned struggles to be good, but his mother, a woman of monumental selfishness, apprentices him to a stagecoach thief. With Harry Power, he learns the finer points of robbing, intimidating, and hiding in the outback. “He were a dirty liar,” Ned notes with his signature style. “It were his great hobby and profession he done it continuously like another man might pick his nose or carve faces on a bit of mallee root just to pass the time.”

Despite his mother's treachery, Ned remains unfailingly committed to her with a kind of devotion even his friends in this pre-Freudian age think is peculiar. He works for her, brings lovers back to her, builds a new house for her, and defends her against a government determined to take her farm and split up her family.

After three years in jail, Ned emerges aflame with Irish pride. “I were already travelling full tilt towards the man I would become. … Injustice put me in a rage nothing would ease it but danger I now craved it like another man might lust for the raw burn of poteen.” For 20 months, Ned and a small band of devoted friends manage to rob banks, elude the law, and help the poor à la Robin Hood. It's a series of crises told in a voice so full of passion and anger and innocence that it moves even beyond the boundaries of grammar.

His friends and young wife plead with him to flee to America, but he won't leave his mother in jail. And unlike Huck Finn, poor Ned Kelly can't light out for the territory. He's already there.

Beneath Ned's rousing proclamations of imminent victory, tragedy rises toward a crescendo of blood. Intoxicated by his own invulnerability, he gradually twists into the kind of dictator he once railed against. “I were the terror of the government being brung to life in the cauldron of the night,” he writes. “I wished only to be a citizen I had tried to speak but the mongrels stole my tongue when I asked for justice they give me none.”

In this bracing narrative, Carey has given Kelly back his tongue with a style that rips like a falling tree. The Australia-born author is something of a genius in these acts of literary ventriloquism. His last novel, Jack Maggs, raced through the spectacular tale of Pip's benefactor, a minor character from Charles Dickens's Great Expectations.

There can be no doubt this is the true history of Ned Kelly, but it's more complex than Ned realizes. In one of many moments of painful disillusionment, he writes, “Thus did the truth appear but in a lightning flash like a fish jumping at the evening rise and by the time I saw it there were nothing left but ripples.” Carey is a man who isn't afraid to stand in water during lightning and tell us what it's like.

Thomas Jones (review date 8 February 2001)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3068

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 way.

Carey set himself against Dickens more explicitly nine years later, in Jack Maggs (1997), an imaginative reworking of Great Expectations. Maggs, a thief transported to Australia, has since made a fortune, a substantial part of which he has been paying to a young man in England, called Phipps, whom he encountered briefly as a child (sound familiar yet?). The novel opens as Maggs returns to England in spring 1837 to seek Phipps out. Among the characters he meets is a certain Tobias Oates, the author of a hugely successful comic novel and a sketch writer for the Morning Chronicle (he must occasionally bump into Dickens in the paper's offices) whose new project is a study of the criminal mind—Dickens, meanwhile, would have been writing Oliver Twist. While Oates has a very nasty time, largely self-inflicted, Maggs is rescued by a serving girl who brings him to his senses: Maggs should give up on the worthless Phipps and go straight back to his real children in Australia; and he does, taking her with him—not for him Magwitch's ignominious death in an English prison cell. Anxiety of influence is taken to a national level: Carey deliberately misreads Dickens, unshouldering the colonial burden, to create a contemporary, independent Australian novel. True History of the Kelly Gang investigates the paradox of independence that depends on opposition to an established power.

Ned Kelly was executed in Melbourne jail on 11 November 1880. His last words are supposed to have been ‘Ah well, I suppose it has come to this,’ though he may have said, as he does, ‘in a low tone’, on the last page of Carey's novel: ‘Such is life.’ To his supporters, either would have been evidence of the sang-froid of a martyr; to the judge who sentenced him, proof of the cold blood of an unrepentant killer. As is so often the case, he was simultaneously neither of these things and both of them—human, in other words—and Carey's novel reclaims Kelly from myth to reconstruct him as a man by telling the story of his brief life in the outlaw's own voice. And to read the story is to see why he isn't surprised that it should end in hanging: ‘I were but 14 1/2 yr. old … but … I were already travelling full tilt towards the man I would become.’

Kelly was born c.1855, the oldest son of Irish Catholics, his mother a migrant, his father an ex-convict, two of the many ‘ripped from Ireland like teeth from the mouth of their own history’. The parabola that leads to his execution begins before he is even born: he says that his mother, Ellen Quinn, ‘was like a snare laid out by God’ for his father—‘she were a Quinn and the police would never leave the Quinns alone.’ Ned's earliest memory is of his mother ‘breaking eggs into a bowl and crying’, as she makes a cake for her 15-year-old brother, who has been imprisoned for ‘duffing a bullock with cancer’. The ‘trap’—policeman—at the prison insists on searching the cake first, breaking it up so she is left with nothing but crumbs to push under the door of the cell. Ned's father doesn't manage to stay out of jail either, and he dies when his son is 12. The boy now has to leave school, and work on his mother's small plot of land. He's in and out of prison for the rest of his life. At the age of 15 his mother sells him to Harry Power, a bushranger, and one of her many lovers—as she gets older, so they get younger, and Ned hates each new one more than the last—to be his apprentice. From Power he receives his first pair of boots and an education in surviving in the bush on the run from the law. Until 1878, and the events that lead to the coalescence of the so-called Kelly Gang, the stories Kelly tells are hard to unpick from each other in a coherent order: a turbulent, angry tangle of fights and hard work and theft, struggles against poverty and the hostile forces that go by the name of justice.

Isolated incidents stand out: a heroic 11-year-old Ned rescues a smaller boy (wealthy, Protestant) from drowning—‘never one to wait I were swimming in the flooded creek before I knew it the water so fast and cold it would take your breath like a pooka steals your very soul’—and is rewarded by the child's parents with a ′7 ft. sash … peacock green embroidered with gold’. He assists at the birth of one of his sisters: ‘she were a little foal a calf her eyes were wide her newborn skin glistening white and bloody nothing bad had ever touched her.’ This has the unfortunate consequence that ‘every child at Avenel School’ gets ‘the false idea I seen my mother's naked bottom’—Carey distils the child's feelings precisely, from his wonder at the baby to his uncertain relationship with his mother to his concern about his playground reputation. He fights and beats a number of older, bigger men: Wild Wright, the Protestant champion, in the rain and mud behind a hotel for the benefit of a wealthy audience; a constable in the Police Commissioner's billiard room as senior officers look on. Horses are stolen, friendships made and broken, sisters get married, children die (and, in one confusing instance, appear to return from the grave).

The first two-thirds of the novel is driven not by the shape of the narrative—it is too fragmented and disconnected for that—but by the blood pressure of the prose. The language is rich but never cloying; the unpunctuated syntax virtuoso:

The Banshee made no answer my mother had been told from her youngest years that you must not interfere with the Death Messenger and she knew of the man whose hand were burnt and the one held against the wall of his cottage all night long and she knew an hour's luck never shone on anyone who molested a Banshee but she were in another country far from where the Banshee should have been so when she held up her lantern then the Banshee turned away and give a kind of shiver as you see in them with bad tempered natures.

Carey's source for Kelly's energetic voice is the Jerilderie Letter, an eight-thousand-word document that Kelly dictated to Joe Byrne, one of his associates, before the gang raided the town of Jerilderie in 1879. Kelly intended to have the letter printed by the editor of the local paper. The editor had fled, however, and instead a bank clerk took it, promising to get it published. He never did—though the text is now available on the State Library of Victoria's website. The letter seethes with indignation at the treatment Kelly and his family have endured at the hands of a justice system founded on the proposition that crime is something the poor inflict on the rich.

Next day Williamson and my mother was arrested and Skillion the day after who was not there at all at the time of the row which can be proved by 8 or 9 witnesses And the Police got great credit and praise in the papers for arresting the mother of 12 children one an infant on her breast and those two quiet hard working innocent men who would not know the difference [between] a revolver and a saucepan handle and kept them six months awaiting trial and then convicted them on the evidence of the meanest article that ever the sun shone on it seems that the jury was well chosen by the Police as there was a discharged Sergeant amongst them which is contrary to law they thought it impossible for a Policeman to swear a lie but I can assure them it is by that means and hiring cads they get promoted I have heard from a trooper that he never knew Fitzpatrick to be one night sober and that he sold his sister to a chinaman but he looks a young strapping rather genteel more fit to be a starcher to a laundress than a Policeman.

True History of the Kelly Gang is as much the story of this voice as it is an account of Kelly's life. The fierceness of Kelly's desire that his voice be heard is what comes across with most certainty from the Jerilderie Letter; the novel's claim to be ‘true’ is rooted in its keeping faith with that desire. ‘I lost my own father at 12 yr. of age and know what it is to be raised on lies and silences my dear daughter 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.’ The fact that, historically, Kelly neither had a daughter—the girl's mother, Mary Hearn, is Carey's invention, too—nor wrote this book is beside the point.

Kelly's account is divided into 13 separate ‘parcels’, and it is in Parcel Nine, entitled ‘The Murders at Stringybark Creek’, that a strong narrative line emerges from this (nonetheless compulsive) whirligig. (Carey's own growth as a novelist, incidentally, shows a similar pattern. His earlier stuff, up to and including Oscar and Lucinda, 1988, makes use of the style he honed in his short stories of the 1970s, and no doubt in his work in advertising as well, to impressive cumulative effect, constructing a novel from a series of vividly realised sketches. The Tax Inspector and Jack Maggs, however, both written in the 1990s, have an internal coherence that was previously lacking in Carey's novels, though present in his stories. True History of the Kelly Gang makes the most of both techniques.) At the end of Parcel Eight (‘24 Years’) Constable Fitzpatrick, formerly Kelly's friend, tricks him into persuading his 16-year-old brother Dan to turn himself in—he's wanted on a false charge of ‘Breaking & Entering & Stealing plus Intent to Rape’—with the promise that he'll be found not guilty. He is in fact given three months ‘for Damaging Property’.

When the sentence were pronounced my brother's eyes sought mine he were but 16 yr. old a grubby boy with dirty fingernails his black hair plastered flat upon his head. Dear God he winked at me it broke my heart to see him taken down. That were the end of my friendship with Constable Alexander Fitzpatrick.

This took place in 1877 the government were in crisis there was no funds for gaols or judges' pay so when Dan got out of prison in February he were suffering badly his clothes hung off him his eyes was dull his skin had scabby sores from hunger.

On Easter Sunday, Fitzpatrick turns up at the Kellys' house. ‘I seen Fitzpatrick pull my sister roughly onto his knee that were the last adjectival straw.’ Kate, aged 14, says to the policeman: ‘my brother will be nicer when he hears we're to be married.’ Kelly tells her they can't marry: ‘He's engaged to one tart he's got another pregnant in Frankston.’ On hearing this, Mrs Kelly ‘clouted Fitzpatrick across the head’ with the bread shovel, and Ned shoots him in the wrist as he's reaching for his gun. Warrants are drawn up against Ned and Dan for attempted murder, and, in Parcel Nine, they head off into the bush with Ned's friend Joe Byrne, an opium addict, and Dan's friend Steve Hart, a transvestite. These four would become the Kelly Gang.

Ellen Kelly is arrested and given a three-year sentence as an accomplice to attempted murder. Meanwhile, Wild Wright comes to inform the Gang, who are making use of Harry Power's old haunts, that the police are intending to hunt them down and kill them. In a pre-emptive strike, they ambush the patrol at Stringybark Creek, Kelly's Rubicon, killing all but one of the officers before returning to their hideout with the police guns and horses.

On this day of horror when the shadows of the wattle was gluey with men's blood I could not imagine what wonder might still lie before me. We lads come down across German's Creek into Bullock Creek driving the police horses before us we now had 4 rifles & 4 Webleys and Joe rode with the Spencer slung across his back. As for me my skin were sour with death.

A few days later, Dan and Ned pay a midnight visit to their sister Maggie. They pass their mother's abandoned hut, in which Ned sees ‘a female figure walking back and forth a saucepan in her hand’. He thinks it is his mother, out of jail; it is in fact Mary Hearn, who is pregnant with his child. She asks him to write his own version of events to put right the lies in the newspapers. He imagines she intends it for Donald Cameron, a politician who appears to be, if not sympathetic to the Kellys, at least critical of the police. But:

she took my scabbed hard hand placing it ever so gently on her belly.

And I knew before she said the words I knew that it were you in there I were very pleased I kissed her on the neck and on the mouth I smelled her fine dark hair and kissed her bright black eyes.

And then, just when Kelly has fully mastered the art of storytelling, welding his flashing prose onto a sturdy narrative armature, and now that we know the genesis of what we are reading, his voice begins to disintegrate. The accounts of the Gang's two bank robberies, in Euroa and Jerilderie, are described not in Kelly's words but in newspaper cuttings annotated by Mary. Kelly describes the inspiration (ironclad ships in the US Civil War) and manufacture (from ploughshares) of the famous armour that the gang wore in their defeat at the siege at Glenrowan, but for obvious reasons cannot describe the siege itself. Everything has been prepared perfectly: the telegraph wires have been cut; the railway line on which a trainload of policemen is due to arrive has been sabotaged; the gang are holed up in the hotel with the townspeople. Kelly's downfall is his manuscript. The local school-teacher, Thomas Curnow, offers to edit it for him, adding that he would need to take it home to do so. Kelly lets him go, and the last words of his account are ‘He waits. No time’—this is one of at least four ways in which Curnow robs Kelly of his voice. He also alerts the police to the sabotaged railway line. Third, he declaims Henry V's St Crispin's Day speech to the assembled company in the hotel before tearing the pages out of his Shakespeare and giving them to Kelly, who inserts them into his own narrative, eclipsing it. Fourth, Kelly's 13 parcels are framed, front and back, by Curnow's account of the siege at Glenrowan (the final description of Kelly's execution is anonymous).

By the end, Kelly has become, if not corrupted, then at least, like Prince Hal, compromised by his new-found power. (There is a wealth of irony in a fictional representation of Ned Kelly, outlaw and Australia's unofficial national hero, admiring a fictional representation of Henry V, an establishment hero of the imperial power he resists.) As Kelly strides out of the hotel, guns blazing, convinced, in his armour, of his immortality, he shouts: ‘You shoot children, you f——-g dogs. You can't shoot me.’ But he must bear some responsibility for the fate of the people in the hotel; Joe Byrne says to him: ‘We've done these poor b——rs an awful harm.’ Kelly would find it hard to disagree. ‘If you will lead men,’ he says after Stringybark Creek, ‘you cannot be away from them no more than from a dairy herd’—ten pages earlier, he has described how flood waters ‘had risen higher than before marooning unmilked cows on islands their udders swollen their painful bellows echoing across the dull insistent waters’. Joe, Dan and Steve are all three killed at Glenrowan.

Before Glenrowan, Kelly composes a ‘coffin letter’, copies of which (made by hand) are sent to ‘farmers and others’ in North Eastern Victoria. This is, in effect, a declaration of independence. It begins: ‘Any person residing in the above territory who aids or harbours or assists the police in any way whatever or employs any person whom they know to be a detective or cad also those who would be so depraved as to take blood money will be outlawed and declared unfit to be allowed human burial.’ Curnow, despairing at Kelly's growing reputation as a hero, asks: ‘Do we not have a Jefferson?’ But that Kelly lost where Jefferson won is perhaps the most important difference between them. Kelly's defeat is vital to the novel: his voice is forged in opposition, his heroism predicated on failure. Such, as Kelly might have said, is life—it certainly makes for good fiction.

Peter Carey and John Bemrose (interview date 26 March 2001)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1393

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, like a little billboard for itself, is a copy of True History of the Kelly Gang. Carey's seventh novel has quickly become one of the hits of the international publishing season, piling up admiring reviews and big sales across the English-speaking world. Literary success isn't new to Carey: he took Britain's esteemed Booker Prize for his 1988 novel Oscar and Lucinda, and has since won wide acclaim for sagas including The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith (1994) and Jack Maggs (1998). But he seems particularly proud of True History, which, in celebrating one of Australia's greatest folk heroes, goes to the root of Carey's own feelings about his country.

It might seem odd to Canadians—who, after all, have made a national icon of the red-coated Mountie—that Carey insists on putting the outlaw Kelly on a higher pedestal than even Australia's celebrated statesmen and police officers. He goes so far as to maintain that Ned Kelly's short, violent career 120 years ago in the hills northwest of Melbourne is critical to the self-image of Australians, many of whom can trace their ancestry to convict ships and like to identify with their more colourful desperadoes. “Kelly's far more to us than a Jesse James,” Carey argues. “He's more like our Thomas Jefferson.”

The comparison might seem far-fetched, but it becomes comprehensible upon reading the novel. Carey has shaped a Ned Kelly whose outlaw vengefulness is ennobled by his sense of the historical injustices that poor Australians (especially those of Irish background, like himself) have suffered at the hands of the rich. The author is sensitive to any suggestion he has prettified Kelly (who did, after all, kill three policemen). Carey takes great pains to point out that there is good historical evidence to back his vision of a courteous Robin Hood-like figure who generally left the impecunious and innocent alone while proving a thorn in the side of the police and ruling class. To this day, Carey claims, Australians' attitudes to Kelly split along class lines. “I would think that the people who call him simply a horse thief and a murderer are in an absolute minority,” he says. “By and large, they're the genteel types who care what the British think about them—the same people who won't have Waltzing Matilda as their national song.”

Carey can get very passionate about Waltzing Matilda, the haunting ballad about the sheep thief—the “swag man”—who commits suicide rather than go to jail. “This song is who we are,” Carey maintains. “In a funny way, it's our Statue of Liberty. When we sing it, we imaginatively inhabit the position of the swag man. We are the poor and dispossessed.”

Like Kelly, Carey is himself of Irish background, though by the time he was growing up in the small town of Bacchus Marsh outside of Melbourne, the Irishness of his family had been diluted to the occasional singing of sentimental ballads such as Two Shillelagh O'Sullivan. And though the legend of Ned Kelly was in the air, Carey played cowboys and Indians, just like kids in the spell of Hollywood movies everywhere. But the son of a car dealer was already soaking up the influences that would one day flower in True History. One was the peculiar twist rural Australians used to give to the English language. “I come into the room, and there he were,” Carey says, tossing out the sort of sentence he heard from some of his playmates.

Later, as a neophyte writer in his late teens, Carey ran into the same colourful style of speech in a famous missive written by Ned Kelly. Known as the Jerilderie Letter, after the remote town where Kelly composed it a year before his hanging in 1880, it is an eloquent attempt by the outlaw to justify his career. “I found this amazing, breathless, Irish language,” Carey recalls, “and I was so excited by it I typed out all 8,000 words and carried it around with me for years.” Most astoundingly for Carey, the language of the Jerilderie Letter seemed akin to some of the experiments with colloquial speech conducted by the novelists he was then reading, including Joyce, Beckett and Faulkner.

But it would be another several decades before these various influences would fuse in True History's compellingly original poetry with its lilting, run-together sentences. Carey had other books to write while supporting himself by a career in advertising (he would eventually become a partner in his own firm). Eleven years ago, he moved to New York with his wife, theatre director Alison Summers, to take up a job teaching literature at New York University. The couple settled in Greenwich Village, where they live with their two sons, Sam, 14, and Charlie, 10. And it was in New York, in the late-1990s, that Carey first thought of writing a novel about Ned Kelly.

The catalyst was a Metropolitan Museum exhibit of paintings by the noted Australian artist Sidney Nolan. Carey had been much taken by these evocations of the Kelly legend when he'd seen them back in Australia. About to view them again in New York, he wondered nervously if they'd stand up in their new cultural context. But the paintings didn't disappoint. “They looked fantastic,” he recalls. “In a city where the art world is so full of theory and bullshit and status, these paintings looked like things that just had to be made.” Carey began proudly introducing his downtown friends to the Met show, and while he was explaining the story of Ned Kelly to them, he realized he had stumbled on the subject of his next book.

True History of the Kelly Gang is the story of a young man who is drawn ever deeper into a life of violence, often against his own will. Carey has done a marvelous job of showing how Kelly's inherent decency and breathtaking courage are not enough to protect him from his tragic fate—which closes around him when he and his gang are captured by a large government force. The novel also memorably evokes the Australian landscape, with its strange flora and fauna. At least once in the course of writing True History, Carey returned to the hill country north of Melbourne to make sure he had it right. On his last trip, he even lugged around an oversized copy of his typescript with lots of white space, so he could make corrections about such critical matters as horses and trees.

Carey relishes his journeys home, and feels he will never be able to write with deep conviction about any place but Australia: “As one of my students says, ‘When you change countries you lose your peripheral vision.’” And while he loves New York, there may be something about the American obsession with winning and winners that does not quite appeal to the swag-man-sympathizing side of him. “We like the defeats,” Carey says of his fellow Australians, and he is not being critical. “We like the follies, the failures, the losses. These are the things that tell us who we really are.”

Robert Ross (review date June 2001)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2122

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 Unusual Life of Tristan Smith (1994), imagines a futuristic colony, apparently Australia, dominated by a mythical, powerful nation, which resembles the United States. Jack Maggs (1997) fills out the story of the convict Magwitch, who was transported to Australia in Charles Dickens' Great Expectations. Here Carey comes closer to reconciling his ambivalent feelings toward his native country, whose values he has been exploring from his home in New York City for most of his career.

Whatever form Carey's preoccupation with Australia takes, it always serves up a fictional feast. And that is surely true of his latest work of fiction—or perhaps more accurately a work that pretends to be fiction.


Australians who read Carey's True History of the Kelly Gang will find it a familiar story told in a fresh way. For them, the real Ned Kelly is a national hero. Born in 1855, Kelly was the eldest son of an Irishman who had been sent to Australia as a convict in 1842 to serve out his sentence. After the elder Kelly's death in 1866, his widow and their children took up a “selection” (or homestead, as it would be known in America). There they struggled to survive. Being Irish and bearing the taint of convictism, the Kelly family, like many others with similar backgrounds, lived on the fringe of a society whose economy and legal system were controlled by the British.

In the early nineteenth century a number of gangs known as “bushrangers,” many of them Irish and ex-convicts, roamed the countryside, stealing horses and cattle, robbing banks, and generally terrorizing the settlers. One of the last gangs to be apprehended, Ned Kelly and his companions drew widespread attention and generated endless fear among the British settlers. On the other hand, the Irish settlers admired their daring exploits and protected them from the authorities. Once the gang had killed three policemen, its members were chased with a vengeance. Yet it took nearly two years to hunt them down. In that final encounter, Kelly's companions died but he survived, clad in homemade armor. Captured, tried, and convicted for his multiple crimes, he was hanged in 1880 at age twenty-six. According to tradition, his final words were “Such is life,” which in 1903 became the title of a classic novel by Joseph Furphy.

Kelly's brief life earned him a place in Australia's mythology as a heroic underdog who dared to defy authority. Australian intellectuals have long debated how a man who murdered and robbed could gain the stature of national hero. To some degree he is seen as an early rebel against British imperialism and social injustice. As well, he embodied the cherished Australian concept of a “fair go” for each individual.

Whatever the case, Kelly is firmly entrenched in the national psyche. To be called “as game as Ned Kelly” is a compliment. His life and death have been celebrated on the stage and in films, novels, ballads, and historical accounts. The noted Australian painter Sidney Nolan produced a series of paintings recording events in Kelly's life. Several depict his last stand, wearing his rudimentary bulletproof suit and looking like a folk knight. During the opening ceremonies of the 2000 Olympics in Sydney one number was a strange spectacle indeed and probably a mystery to those unfamiliar with the Ned Kelly story: a dance troupe wearing costumes inspired by his armor and waving sparklers to represent gunfire. Even today the area in the state of Victoria where the gang reigned is known as “Kelly country.” So Australians must not be tired of the story, considering that Carey's new version remains at the top of the country's best-seller list.

International readers will certainly approach the novel far differently. Lacking familiarity with the true story and unaware of its national resonance, they will probably see it as an absorbing adventure tale—which it proves to be. Like the Australians, though, they may well take Kelly's side, admiring his bravado and defiance of authority. Some overseas reviewers have placed the novel in the tradition of American westerns, but that may not be altogether accurate. The western novel focuses on the struggle between good and evil, with good triumphant in the end. As Nolan said of his artistic rendering of the Kelly tale: “Whether or not the painting of such a story demands any comment on good and evil I do not know. There are doubtless as many good policemen as there are good bushrangers.” Such is the incongruity—and the appeal—of Kelly's life.


During the gang's raid on a country town called Jerilderie, Kelly actually wrote a letter justifying his actions and attempted to get it published in the local newspaper. The account never appeared because the printer fled in fear when Kelly approached him, but what is known today as the “Jerilderie Letter” was preserved. Carey expands on the famous letter and tells the story in Kelly's own voice. Exercising his artistic license, Carey gives Kelly a lady friend named Mary. Though they meet in a house of prostitution, Mary possesses the classic heart of gold and remains faithful to her outlaw lover. With funds from one of the robberies, she escapes to San Francisco, where she bears their daughter.

Learning of the child's birth and knowing that he will never see her, Kelly takes time out from robbing banks and tormenting the settlers to write an account of his life. He addresses it to his daughter so she might better understand her father. Except for the prologue and the last two chapters, which recount Kelly's capture and hanging, the book is in his words. His first-person accounts cover thirteen “Parcels,” each with the kind of formal subhead that an archival librarian would attach to valuable documents. According to the headnote for Parcel 13, it appears to have been written in “some urgency”; then “on page 7 the manuscript is abruptly terminated,” apparently when Kelly was captured.

A highly original way of presenting this sad history, the form makes extraordinary demands on the novelist. Carrying out this archival charade means that the story must be told in Kelly's own words. Coming from poor Irish descent and starting his bushranging career at age fourteen, Kelly had little formal schooling. Yet Carey, whose earlier novels display a mastery of prose style, assumes his hero's unlettered voice and rarely falters. Here is an example:

Kelly you are adjectival mad he cried slamming his fist onto the splintered table I will not effing do it I'm damned if I will I've gone too deep already.

In the silence that followed Mary quietly lit the lamp and once the yellow light washed up the cobwebbed walls it shone into Joe's beard and I seen that flaw to his looks that harelip hidden deep in the shelter of his fair moustace. I will not rob a bank he said.

What are you frightened of asked Dan they are going to hang us anyway.

He were a brave little b——r but I got his pimply beak and twisted him off his chair and down onto his bony knees I promise you I cried I promise all of youse that you will not be hanged.

In the tradition of the nineteenth century, the swearwords are disguised. “Adjectival,” which is used throughout, serves as a euphemism for “bloody,” an expression still heard in Australia. Though the run-together sentences, vernacular expressions, grammatical errors, lack of punctuation, abbreviations, misspellings, and other such oddities distract at first, before long the story takes over and its style grows familiar, in fact becomes altogether appropriate. Further, Carey captures the Australian landscape, for Kelly's persona has a keen eye and a sensitivity to the world about him.

All the major events in his life receive full attention. While the exact details remain unclear, one episode played a pivotal role in the young man's rebellion. A much-hated policeman, supposedly with his eye on one of the Kelly sisters, came calling at the household and in the ensuing confusion was wounded. He claimed, probably untruthfully, that Ned had fired the shot. Later Ned's mother, Ellen, was sentenced to prison for her role in the attack. The injustice done by the police, especially the jailing of his mother, apparently drove Kelly over the brink and served as the motivating factor for his subsequent actions.

Ellen emerges as one of the most intriguing characters in this personal history, considering that Carey has burdened the hardy bushranger with an Oedipus complex. Hardly an admirable or ideal mother, Ellen has a weakness for the wrong kind of men, and her son appears jealous of her various attachments. She even initiated his criminal career by apprenticing him to one of her male friends, a noted bushranger. Yet, despite his mother's weaknesses, Kelly remains determined to free her from prison. His account stresses that he wants nothing more than a home, preferably with his mother. There he hopes to farm and raise stock and develop the land, unhampered by the police. As well, he wants to be free from the enemy of the Irish poor: the squatocrats—that is, the wealthy British settlers who dominated the countryside.

Kelly's self-portrait serves to explain and justify actions that are neither explicable nor justifiable. Yet somehow they become so, and sympathy lies with Ned Kelly. The villain tells his unsavory story and in the process manages to transform himself into a hero. A century after his capture and execution, a movement surfaced in Australia to grant him a retrospective pardon.


In an interview with the New York Times, Carey said that Ned Kelly resonates through Australian history and into the present. He called Kelly's life “the ultimate Australian story,” evoking the country's origin as a penal colony and settlement for renegades. Australians should be able to identify with Kelly, Carey said, seeing this dubious hero as the representative figure of an underdog culture and adding: “He is the convict stain.” Although Carey is too subtle a writer to weave such propositions into the fabric of the novel, the way he tells the story through Kelly's voice makes the author's position clear.

Of course, there are Australians who disagree with Carey and probably wish that Kelly would disappear from the national horizon. This opposing view surfaces in the novel's final chapter, “The Siege at Glenrowan.” Here Carey introduces Thomas Curnow, the historical personage who tipped off the police, an act that led to the downfall of the gang during its occupation of a country town. According to this portrayal of Curnow, he regrets that he is not hailed as a hero and finds disturbing the “ever-growing adoration of the Kelly gang.” Curnow asks: “What is it about we Australians, eh? … What is wrong with us? Do we not have a Jefferson? A Disraeli? Might not we find someone better to admire than a horse-thief and a murderer? Must we always make such an embarrassing spectacle of ourselves?”

Brashly titled True History of the Kelly Gang, Carey's novel not only reviews the “adoration of the Kelly gang” a hundred or so years later but also indirectly comments on Australian national identity. In this “true history,” Ned Kelly bears the “convict stain” and is a horse-thief and a murderer. Yet he recognizes his flaws, rises above his origins, and in a metaphorical twist evolves into a fearless, wild colonial boy who mocks and challenges the very imperial order that produced him.

Peter Porter (review date 25 August 2001)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 880

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 of compensation for coming himself from respectable Bacchus Marsh.

If you leave the Aboriginals out of the equation, you can explain Sydney's central importance by emphasising that few nations can point to one place and one time as the beginning of their existence, as Australia can. The United States straggled into existence: Australia started on 26 January, 1788 at Botany Bay, shifting soon afterwards to Sydney Cove, modern Circular Quay. The myths began to spring up immediately. Three pieces of special pleading nourish Carey's narrative of a 30 days' drop-in from New York. First, life has always been hard at Port Jackson, something to do with sandstone and poor soil. Happy corollary of this struggle for existence is the contrast it offers to today's hedonism and prosperity. Secondly, convict transportation guaranteed that Australians remained rebels who valued individualism over status and conformity. This has a less happy consequence (though not, I think, in Carey's mind), namely Sydney's admiration for cheats and thieves, and a tendency for politicians and law-enforcers to be openly corrupt. Carey tells a cautionary tale of a respectable family running a criminal business stealing motorbikes and even a blue-stone wall to customers' order, quite unimpeded by the police. Thirdly, people in Sydney are all remarkably able and brave, as well as possessed of gifts of understanding and technical skills worthy of Renaissance all-rounders.

On such notional foundations Carey relates a number of witty and circumstantial happenings to fill out his 30 days. He builds up a template of Sydney by asking leading characters questions about their city under the rubrics of Earth, Air, Fire and Water. His interlocutors are friends he had known during a period in the Seventies when he lived in the harbourside suburb of Balmain. He endows them with invented names, making up a dramatics personae of professional explainers. Carey's Sydney consists of places both well-heeled and fashionable: Pittwater and Church Point, Snail's Bay, Vaucluse, Darling Harbour and pleasant rural retreats in the Blue Mountains. All are given mythopoeic force. Though I lived in Snail's Bay at the same time as Carey (1975), I would rather anatomise Sydney in its quieter and more ordinary parts: Glebe, Lane Cove, Mossman, Leichardt and Collaroy. To be fair, Carey has portrayed Sydney's unloved western suburbs in his excellent novel, The Tax Inspector; I, on the other hand, have never seen these places.

The heightened realism of The Tax Inspector is missing from 30 Days in Sydney. Some of its personalities reminded me of that old-time Reader's Digest feature, ‘My Most Unforgettable Character’. Nobody lives in a straightforward house. One squats, together with an errant chicken, in an abandoned warehouse above booming Darling Harbour beside the notorious Monorail; another survives a wild trip down the Hawkesbury River, and yet another the apocalyptic bushfires of the Blue Mountains. A breakdown truck-driver (female) turns out to be part Aboriginal and focuses the book on the views of contemporary Australians about the standing of the native people. Nomenclature is revealing of changing attitudes: today Aborigines are ‘indigenous people’, as if all of us raised in the country aren't indigenous. There is much about ‘firestick farming’ and other mysteries. The Aboriginal cause is unanswerable, but this doesn't prevent the attitudes of its white Australian supporters from being patronising. I doubt that British readers will object to any of the things which upset me in Carey's account of Sydney. He does, after all, convey great enthusiasm for a fascinating city, and perhaps one day people may be allowed to be unhappy there, thus paying tribute to its dreadful origins. His account of the disaster which overwhelmed many in the Sydney-to-Hobart yacht race certainly cheered me up. If you've ever walked round the Ruschcutters' Bay marina of the Sydney Ocean Cruising Yacht Club and been horrified by several trillion dollars' worth of floating real estate, you will enjoy hearing how hazardous it is to take such status symbols to sea.

Andreas Gaile (review date September 2001)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1921

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.

In True History of the Kelly Gang, Carey reinvents the life of the man who can always provoke a passionate public debate, even in the third millennium. Scorned by some as a horse-thief and murderer, and admired by others as an icon of Australianness, Kelly is one of Australia's most controversial historical figures. The public reveres him for embodying a number of Australian virtues: he was loyal to his mates, displayed a healthy disrespect for the establishment, and was forever rising from the fight against the authorities, in the fashion of a true Aussie battler. He has certainly found great sympathy with his latest fictional re-creator, Peter Carey.

Carey's True History comes in the form of an autobiography, narrated by Kelly. It is addressed to his yet unborn daughter:

I lost my father at 12 yr. of age and know what it is to be raised on lies and silences my dear daughter … this history is for you and contain no single lie may I burn in Hell if I speak false.


Ned's autobiography is his rehabilitation before posterity. He is well aware of the powerful ‘forces brung against [him]’ (325) and knows that the ‘true’ story of his life will very likely be distorted by those who control the means of communication. Carey, therefore, gives Ned a forum to speak for himself, to tell his highly subjective narrative—no more or less true than official versions of his life. With all its make-believe authenticity, Carey's ‘true history’ reminds the reader of Defoe's solemn protestations that Robinson Crusoe is ‘a just history of fact’ with no ‘appearance of fiction in it’.

Ned's life-story is contained in ‘thirteen parcels of stained and dog-eared papers, every one of them in Ned Kelly's distinctive hand’ (4). Reminiscent of Swift in Gulliver's Travels, Carey provides authenticating information on the textual status of the manuscript. Parcel 4, for example, contains the following papers:

National Bank letterhead as in Parcel 1,44 pages of medium stock (8″ × 10″ approx.). A few finger smudges or stains in text but otherwise very neat, as if produced in domestic circumstances.

Reader, beware! We are in the hands of a professional storyteller, well equipped with all kinds of literary trompe l'oeils and well trained in towering feats of narrative trickery. In his previous novels, Carey has already tested the boundaries between fact and fiction. In Illywhacker, his notoriously unreliable, 139-year-old narrator Herbert Badgery dismantles official (‘factual’) Australian history as nothing but fictions, or even lies. True History of the Kelly Gang has the same kind of postmodern playfulness: real life merges with the fictional reality of the novel. Carey creates a near-perfect illusion of reality, and almost manages to dupe the reader. ‘The undated, unsigned, handwritten account’ opening the novel, he wants us to believe, is collected in ‘Melbourne Public Library’; Carey even gives the accession number ‘V.L. 10453’ (4). What may be obvious to the Australian reader causes the non-Australian reader to pause and at least think twice here: there is, of course, no such document in ‘Melbourne Public Library’. There is not even a library of that name in Melbourne—Carey has been spinning a yarn once again.

Despite all its flurry about fiction and historical facts, Carey's novel is, generally, true to life: Ned Kelly's 350-page soliloquy is historically accurate—where it suits the author's purposes. Carey retells the history of the Kelly outbreak, mostly as we find it in the history books. But he adds something that academic studies of Ned Kelly lack: the human perspective. Carey recasts this key episode of Australian history by re-creating a real man in a fictional reality. In an act of extended ventriloquism, Carey lends his Australian Robin Hood the vernacular actually used in Kelly's famous Jerilderie letter. The outlaw's flawed grammar, his imperfect punctuation and his rambling style may, at first, seem unappealing. Yet Ned's unaffected language creates a natural immediacy between reader and fictional character, and often reveals an unexpected imagistic beauty: ‘In a settler's hut the smallest flutter of a mother's eyelids are like a thin sheet rattling in the wind’ (54). To polite society, Ned's language is an affront. In the eyes of the school-teacher Curnow, who later purloins Kelly's manuscripts, they ‘were disgusting … and his very skin shrank from their conceit and ignorance’ (343).

Carey paints a rather disillusioning picture of Kelly country in the latter half of the nineteenth century. His fictional re-creation is totally devoid of the historical glory of ‘Australia Felix’ or the ‘workingman's paradise’ that the overly optimistic nationalists made us believe in. His vision of Australia is that of a deeply divided society with a rigid caste system—exemplified by Curnow's snobbish arrogance.

Carey's Australia has not overcome the social injustices of the ‘system’ yet. After the end of convictism and transportation, the colony of Victoria, in Ned's words, is still ‘ruled like Beechworth Gaol’ (306). The oppositions between convict and jailer have only been replaced by new—and no less harsh—ones. In True History of the Kelly Gang, colonial small-town life lacks any air of romanticism. It is marked by the constant struggle between the haves and the have-nots, between poor selectors and insatiable squatters. We encounter Ned's family engaged in a struggle for survival, fighting against an unrelenting nature as much as against the authorities.

True History of the Kelly Gang amounts to a severe indictment of British colonial administration and its legal and judicial practices. We are witnesses to acts of outrageous despotism and state-induced perjury, and the Victorian police force is nothing but corrupt. Constable Fitzpatrick may serve as an example here. His perversions of justice range from drunkenness while on duty to false statements and polygamy in conjunction with marriage fraud. Kelly's rebellion becomes all too understandable. He launches severe broadsides against the system devised by the British and maintained by their cronies. ‘The British Empire’, the outlaw claims:

had supplied me with no shortage of candidates … men who had had their leases denied for no other crime than being our friends … men mangled upon the triangle of Van Diemen's Land men with sons in gaol …


It is the ‘historic moment of UNFAIRNESS’ (299), in Kelly's words, that unites all Australians and gives True History of the Kelly Gang a larger, political dimension. Carey's protagonists are ‘burnt and hardened by the fates’ (326). There is a sad inevitability in Ned's fall, earning him a good deal of sympathy with the reader, and yet Ned Kelly, in fiction and reality, was undoubtedly responsible for the death of three troopers.

What makes Kelly so controversial even today is his social-revolutionary appeal. As the British historian Eric J. Hobsbawm tells us in his 1969 classic Bandits,1 Kelly classifies as a social bandit, an avenger of the lowest and poorest, and can be compared to such fabled outlaws as the American Jesse James, the Mexican bandit-revolutionary Pancho Villa, the Indian ‘Bandit Queen’ Phoolan Devi, the above-mentioned Robin Hood, as well as the German Schinderhannes. In the hands of Carey, the Kelly Gang—‘[t]hem boys was noble of true Australian coin’ (340)—has clearly discernible political ambitions. Aaron Sherritt, later killed by the gang for being a police informer, wants Kelly to be ‘ruler of the colony’ (324). Kelly himself takes first steps towards a revolutionary redistribution of wealth when he issues an order giving:

fair warning to all those who has reason to fear me to sell out and give £10 out of every £100 towards the widow and orphan fund and do not attempt to reside in Victoria but as short a time as possible after reading this notice depart forever.


Endowed with the charisma of a leader, Kelly is sure ‘not [to] repeat the tragedies of Vinegar Hill or the Eureka Stockade’ (328). By mentioning these two key episodes in Australian history, Carey endows Ned Kelly with the significance of a national hero.

Although purporting to be solely a ‘true history’, Carey's re-enactment of the Kelly outbreak is also a huge imaginative accomplishment. Carey has reinvented parts of his nation's history before, dismantling historical myths and lies in Illywhacker and Oscar and Lucinda. Never before, however, has Carey engaged so closely with real historical figures. As he depicts the historical reality of life in colonial Victoria, Carey inscribes into his nation's history what the patchwork of Australia's transported cultures has always seemed to lack: a mythology. Carey's novel is, in particular, a recognition of the Irish element in Australian society. ‘When our brave parents was ripped from Ireland like teeth from the mouth of their own history,’ Kelly laments, ‘every dear familiar thing had been abandoned on the docks of Cork or Galway or Dublin’ (87). There was one thing, however, that they managed to smuggle inside the prison ships bound for the Antipodes: their legends. The banshee's bloodcurdling shriek reverberates throughout the novel, linking it with the magic realism of Illywhacker. The man ‘with a knack for yarns’2 interweaves unforgettable stories into Ned's fictional autobiography, and there are more on the edge of the narrative waiting to be told. We hear Harry Power's story of a Tipperary man who sells his soul to the devil but eventually outwits him by demanding to make ‘honest men of lawyers’ (78)—yet another broadside against institutionalised justice. Furthermore, we see ex-convicts and members of the Kelly Gang riding across the paddocks of Victoria dressed in women's clothes. Picture this.

Carey has said in a recent interview that True History of the Kelly Gang is ‘the book I've waited my whole life to write’. The multi-award-winning author has been intrigued by Kelly ever since he first saw Nolan's paintings at a Melbourne show in 1962. More than thirty years later, Carey stages the life of Ned Kelly, has him make his own history. To Ned, it seems, the police are nothing but ‘actors in a drama writ by me’ (303). With all its veracity, we must remind ourselves that Carey presents to us a postmodern innuendo: after all, the stage manager is Peter Carey, and Ned is nothing but an actor in a drama writ by the real-life author.


  1. Eric J. Hobsbawm, Bandits (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 1969).

  2. Susana Onega, ‘“A Knack for Yarns”: The Narrativization of History and the End of History’, in Susana Onega (ed.), Telling Histories: Narrativizing History, Historicizing Literature (Rodopi, Amsterdam, 1995), pp. 7-18.

Paul Maliszewski (review date summer 2002)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 344

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 value of his mission and the trustworthiness of his memory. But whatever Carey trades in objectivity and selflessness, qualities which are, anyway, probably vastly overrated when it comes to travel writing, he more than makes up for with detail and insight. Readers are thus treated to stories about the improbability of Sydney (Captain Cook recommended settling five miles to the south, at Botany Bay), how architecture adapted to the environment, the importance of sandstone, the baroque development of the city's central business district, and the lingering effects of having a master-class and a servant-class coexist in close quarters. Carey's book is, finally, a collection of just the sort of stories one always wishes to hear from travelers.

Cliff Lobe (essay date December 2002)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7789

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 to dredge it up. The classical art is systematizing that process” (Yates 29); the second, at the centre of my argument here, concerns locations where built spaces themselves become sites of commemoration and mnemonic signification: individual and cultural prostheses where the past is said to be inscribed in the present.

How does the past accumulate in built space? In what ways do buildings shape thinking and mediate memory? One way to begin thinking through these questions is to consider how architecture provides a sense of permanence and presence, of order and stability (foundation/structure/façade) for homo mnemonicus. This is the case when dematerialized built spaces are used as heuristics to aid learning, memory storage, and retrieval, as in the legend of the Greek poet Simonides Melicus of Ceos, which stages what Francis Yates calls the “art of memory” and Mary Carruthers names the “architectural mnemonic.” It is also the case when built spaces themselves become locations where the past is housed, where memories accumulate in the hermeneutic processes of representing and interpreting the past (Carruthers, Book 17-20). Particularly in the last two decades, as Andreas Huyssen writes, “architecture has become ever more interested in site-memory and in inscribing temporal dimension in spatial structures,” in grounding the ways that “we live structures of temporality in our culture” (Twilight 3-4). Indeed, the recent “memory boom” expresses the West's “need for temporal anchoring when in the wake of the information revolution, the relationship between past, present, and future is being transformed,” when “the territorial and spatial coordinates of our late-twentieth-century lives are blurred or even dissolved by increased mobility around the globe” (7). Buildings, in this view, are places where the past is maintained, where temporality is marked or anchored.

It is this last mode of memory—the ways memory materializes in architecture—that I want to consider in the context of Australian cultural mnemonics. To this end, I read the penal-colonial past of Australia and its persistence into the so-called post-colonial present in the carceral architecture of Peter Carey's 1985 novel Illywhacker. This deceptive temporality is encoded in the built spaces of Carey's novel, most obviously (and to anticipate my conclusion) in the bricks of the family-owned Pet Shop, bricks that are exposed during a renovation and in which the thumbprints of convicts are literally impressed (see Plate 16, colour section). These memory traces, these unsettling records of Australia's penal-colonial past, I suggest, are built into the architecture of Illywhacker as much as they are impressed, Carey implies, in the cultural memory of the imagined community of Australia. It is these records that Carey insists must be reread in the present as haunting inscriptions, as indelible texts from a remembered world.

My argument, then, is that a sense of how the past is translated into architecture in the settler-invader society of Australia helps us to read that nation's (dis)continuous temporalities, as John Frow names the slippage between historical events and how they are “generationally” remembered (“Penal” 1.1). Frow builds his argument about the paradoxical (hypomnesic and hypermnesic) mnemonic economy of Australia around a place that is central to both Australian history and “heritage tourism” (4.4): the infamous Port Arthur Penitentiary in Tasmania. Carey's fictional buildings, too, work as sites of memory: imagined places where the past architecturally persists into the present as disturbing memories in a novel that was published amid preparation for the commemoration of Australia's Bicentenary in 1988. That “larger social moment,” as Graeme Turner put it in 1994, remains as “a set of sites and processes” in which Australian nationalism reached its limits, in which many Australians recognized the need for more critical, and plural, “Australian identities” (Making 72). Echoing Ernest Renan's claim that “forgetting is a crucial factor in the creation of a nation” (11), Carey's novel foregrounds the need to reread Australia's amnesic national past, to remember unsettled questions about cultural identity, questions about what Carey, in an interview with David Sexton, has termed “the meaning of Australia and […] being an Australian” (Fletcher 12).

The imbrication of architecture and memory in Carey's novel is of a piece with a larger and more complex linkage between thinking and building in the West that exceeds the scope of this paper. In diverse ways, this discourse leads us to the question of how the past is housed in built spaces in the present: to the complex nexus of architectural forms, in-the-world buildings, and institutional locations that mediate memory, that “ground” or “place” the past in relation to more ephemeral human subjects. Architecture, the “last fortress of metaphysics” (Derrida 328), seems permanent, possessed of a temporality (origin/presence/telos), stability (ground/foundation/structure), and spacing (inside/outside) that recently invented “man” envies.

To think of built spaces housing the past—as sites where the force-of-memory is domesticated—is to acknowledge the cultural locations of memory, including the uses of architecture to conceal/reveal the past and to order/inhabit the present: the sacred purposes of “housing the dead and honouring them in memory” and the more secular tasks of “housing the living and sitting them down to dinner” (Brodsky 111). Memory, in other words, is especially at home in architecture because architecture places the cultural force to remember; it domesticates the past by creating spaces where memory can be gathered, to misuse Heidegger's evocative phrase, not as proof of presence or recovered essence but as material traces, as representations of events or thoughts. As Renate Lachmann suggests, “the primal scene of memory consists of bearing witness to anatrope, the plunge from life to death. It consists of the indexical act of pointing to the dead (the ancestors) and the iconographic act of transforming the dead into a concept of what they were as living people” (7). Memory, in this view, is a translation of “what was” into text: a “recollection of order” that “mobilizes a work of construction against destruction, even as this destruction marks the beginning of re-membering. What is past lies in ruins; the sole survivor and eyewitness restores the fragmented events of the past” (7). This rebuilding is the key to the formation of culture as commemoration, to a view of culture as the semiological work of mourning that “leads a culture, in the course of an enormous process of recasting, constantly to transform the knowledge it has about itself into representational signs that are deposited in a particular place and in a particular order” (21). Such signs, as Lachmann explains, must be read as texts: whether one figures memory as a “belated construction of that which has already slipped away” or believes that the past can be recovered, the “central concern is to reconstruct a world that was once living (but is now defunct) as a remembered world” (21, emph. mine).

By housing what is deemed to be worth remembering, buildings ground thinking and order thought. Buildings, we might say, help to locate the “extraordinarily complex discursive web” of “beliefs and values, rituals and institutions” through which we think the past (Huyssen, Twilight 249-50). Such a view links memory to the “cryptic” space of the tomb, as Mark Wigley's reading of Derrida's “taste” for architecture has shown (“Postmortem” 171). But it also connects memory to those no-less overdetermined built spaces occupied by the living, where we imagine, as Huyssen suggests, “memory become stone in architecture” (“Monumental” 191). Of course, as Carruthers notes, “memory does not inhere directly in objects” like buildings (Craft 40); rather, like the classical wax tablet or Freud's Mystic Writing Pad, memory operates according to a textual logic: “Like a well-censored dream, and subject perhaps to similar mechanisms, memory has the orderliness and the teleological drive of narrative. Its relation to the past is not that of truth but of desire” (Frow, Time 229).

It is this textual logic, Frow suggests, that best explains the force-of-memory in contrast to those “untenable” nostalgic modes of memory that operate, for example, in Pierre Nora's lieux de mémoire—“sites of memory” such as museums, archives, cemeteries, monuments, sanctuaries, and so forth, which seem immediate and organic, which promise an “auratic” presence and authenticity that Frow claims is immaterial—severed from the social processes that mediate all memory (Time 219-23). In such a paradigm, memory seems to stand in direct relation to objects or events as original and immediate (truthful) reproductions of the past, not signs or representations. But, as Frow points out, this is a troubling, if tempting, way to frame any memories of the past, particularly traumatic ones, whether personal/private or public/historical, for we compose the past in the present as much as we compose ourselves: “Recovered memories are recalled as much from the culture as from the archives of individual memory” (238).

Frow corrects this sacral tendency by insisting that we rethink memory not according to a (continuous) rhetoric of presence but rather as (discontinuous) social processes, ones written on and in all sorts of textual surfaces, including books, bodies, and, as I am suggesting, buildings: one must “speak of memory as tekhnè,” Frow insists, and “deny that it has an unmediated relation to experience” (Time 230), deny those paradigms of recall in which memory is “thought of as partaking of a spirituality independent of the materiality of the sign” or being “unstructured by social technologies of learning or recall.” Indeed, a secular (semiological) model of memory refuses to invoke a “continuity of passage between the living and the dead” (223) and instead provides ways to identify the deferred “social organization” and “‘technological’ underpinnings” of memory, to read the discontinuous “materiality of signs” and the contextual “representational forms by which memory is structured” (223-24). This model, Frow concludes, demonstrates how “the logic of textuality by which memory is structured has technological and institutional conditions of existence” (230) and forecloses upon a “premodern realm of spontaneous and natural memory” (“Penal” 4.1), opening the question of memory to technological practices of recall, including architectural modes of memory—to “housed” traces of the past that do not indicate presence/permanence but rather the opposite: the (hermeneutic) processes of inscription and interpretation, of arrangement and selection, of condensation and displacement. Buildings, in this view, are “machines” (Carruthers, Craft 22) that help us to remember, structures that “place what we think” (37).

How then, do buildings record desire? How does architecture place thinking? We can approach these questions in the fictional world of Illywhacker by noting that the novel's architecture is authoritative and amnesiac, that it becomes increasingly carceral as the narrative progresses. This is evinced as the picaresque narrator and protagonist, Herbert Badgery, builds homes for himself and his family, structures that culminate, near the end of the novel, in the towering “Best Pet Shop in the World” on Pitt Street in Sydney, an elaborate “human zoo” (Hassall 88), in which assorted types of Australians are willfully caged. This carceral architecture contradicts (functions as a counter-memory to) Badgery's textual self-invention, to his transcendent rhetoric, which becomes increasingly extravagant and disembodied as the novel unfolds, so much so that, at the end of this confessional narrative (which is its beginning, its “narrative now”). Badgery, who has been a salesman of one sort or another all his life, claims to be 139 years old, to be a self-taught author and architect, to be an hermaphrodite, and to be unable to die.

Perhaps Badgery's most challenging claim, however, is that he is a liar. He declares early in Illywhacker, “I am a terrible liar and I have always been a liar, I say that early on to set things straight. Caveat emptor. […] Lying is my main subject, my specialty, my skill” (11). Having unburdened himself thus, Badgery tells us that as an author/autobiographer he has finally found a new and acceptable use for his lying, one that cuts him loose from his past: writing. But Badgery's claims deserve careful scrutiny, not least because the term illywhacker is a colloquialism for con man and because Badgery himself has been ruthless, even violent, in his self-promotion, in his attempts to convince others of his “schemes” (547). This contradicts his declared intention for writing: his textual “scheme,” in which he attempts to represent (to rewrite) himself as a “kind man” (600). My claim is that the novel's built spaces—what Badgery calls his “usual type of structure” (158)—contradict this seemingly benign textual transformation, for these structures, I suggest, are carceral, linked in the novel to the memory problems of Australia's penal and colonial pasts and registered in other “deceptive” Australian buildings, whether they be bungalows or foreign-owned banks. In a conversation with his grandfather, Herbert Badgery, Hissao argues that “there was not yet an Australian architecture, only a colonial one with verandas tacked on” (586). Leah Goldstein, one of Badgery's lovers, makes a similar claim about Australian identity. She is, she says, “sick to death of trying to decide what it [means] to be Australian,” and argues with Hissao that “there never could be an Australian architecture […] because there was no such thing as Australia or if there was it was like an improperly fixed photograph that was already fading” (586).

Building against this insubstantial national imaginary, the patriot Badgery is convinced that his (acquisitive) vision of his country is superior and substantial. To this end, he asserts that “an architect,” like any good Australian salesman, “must have the ability to convince people that his schemes are worth it.” But the problem is that the European “architects” who built Australia failed; Australia, according to Badgery, is an unconvincing invention, a pale copy in which no one can believe. He cites Sydney as an example of a colonial city that is “full of trickery and deception. If you push against it too hard you will find yourself leaning against empty air. It is never, for all its brick and concrete, quite substantial.” Sydney's buildings, that is, are covered by veneers and facades behind which are “plain brick building[s]” that “lied about their height, their age, and most particularly their location. There was not one that did not pretend itself huddled in some European capital with weak sun in summer and ice in winter” (547).

Badgery's complaint conflates national identity with built space, staging the uneven relationship between metropolitan centre and colonial periphery as an example of how imperial values were encoded in colonial architecture, how, as Thomas R. Metcalf puts it, “political authority took shape in stone” (xi). This colonial order belies a cultural subordination that Badgery sees everywhere in his country, “created” as it has been in the image of Britain, as a shadowy copy of the “monumental structures” (2) upon which Western civilization is founded. For Badgery, this architectural mimicry is insubstantial, a screen for a penal-colonial inferiority, for an Australian dependence upon foreign capital or culture, whether British, American, or Japanese. Badgery believes he builds against this colonial dependency. Indeed, in the 139 or so years before he becomes an author, the propertyless Badgery confesses that he has been obsessed with making a place for himself in the world: “All I ever wanted,” he tells us, “was a fire and slippers” (538). “I did not doubt,” he professes, “that my passion for building was shared by everyone, that my ruling love was for human warmth, for people gathered in rooms, talking, laughing, sharing stews and puddings and talk” (198). Such a vision of domestic space, of community, sounds inviting, but caveat emptor: Badgery's oxymoronic “ruling love” covers over a lie that eats away at the archi/textual edifices he has constructed, a narrative of confinement and control that culminates in the dystopian Pet Shop (a space that at least a few Australians in the novel resent). What is especially ironic about Badgery's textual and architectural edifices, about his “deceptive constructions” (Edwards 39), is that his most substantial homes function as cages or prisons, as structures of confinement in which Badgery, his family, and eventually his countrymen and women are willingly confined.

Badgery's early homes are modest, makeshift, cage-like structures (usually mud and wire) where he tries to contain his wives and lovers: a “slab hut for the barmaid in Blackwood” (158) and then a squatter's shack built in 1919 near Baachus Marsh, “one of the nicest little houses I ever built” (24). Further, these homes tend to be built of stolen material (or material received on credit, credit that he never intends to honour) and on “stolen” land. This pattern is continued in 1923 at Maribyrnong River, near Melbourne, where Badgery appropriates a church hall from the Methodists and converts it into a house for his young wife, Phoebe. Badgery, we read, works on it “like a bower bird” (159), like a bricoleur, using whatever materials he finds at hand: the house “pushed out and grew—rows of cages [which] radiated like the spokes of a wheel” (201). Badgery appears to have enjoyed domesticating various “splendid guileless” (205) creatures there: his wife and children, rosellas and king parrots. Of course, Badgery the “warder” (205) has stolen this land, too, taken “possession of his necessary acre.” “I am proud to say,” he tells us, “I found my land, and took it, although its legal owners (the Church of England) were not aware of it at that time” (157). Carey's text thus articulates an (imperial) anxiety about “legal ownership” that undercuts Badgery's will to territorial possession, that remembers the (postcolonial) problem of indigenous land claims in settler-invader societies like Australia. Badgery, however, conveniently “forgets” that the “legal owners” of this piece of land have taken it from its previous inhabitants: Australian aboriginals. Badgery, instead, is preoccupied with his inability to contain Phoebe in his “poetic” home/cage. She writes herself out of his domestic fantasy and cannot understand how his vision of a home could be so restrictive: “I did not, even for a moment, guess that what he wanted was so ordinary: a fat wife with a dozen children and cabbage and stew every night” (190). Looking back, years later, the 139-year-old Badgery can only see himself “trapped in the heart of Phoebe's poem, teetering at the apex of [his] empire. […] [His] house was full. All rooms were occupied” (201).

The image evoked by Badgery's wire cages and radial cells is both imperial and disciplinary: a structure of control and confinement that recalls Lord Cromer's image of empire as a Eurocentric machine (Said 44) and, even more so, Michel Foucault's use of Bentham's Panopticon in his “prison book.” As a sinister emblem of modern discipline, the Panopticon needs no introduction; as Foucault claims in Discipline and Punish, it is a machine in which architecture itself is an instrument that works to reconstruct the incarcerated subject according to a secular and secular discipline that “proceeds from the distribution of individuals in space” (141). In the modern prison, which Foucault sees perfected in the radial architecture of Bentham's proposed Panopticon—“at the periphery, an annular building; at the center, a tower” (200)—architecture orients the body of the subject-criminal and makes him conscious of his visibility, of her position in built space, working primarily on the prisoner's mind or soul (disciplining his memory) by replacing physical torture with mental anguish, self-consciousness, and introspection. Such an analytic architecture, Frow suggests, “working passively and continuously to shape and control experience, invests power in places rather than people” (“Penal” 4.4).

Foucault notes that Bentham might have been at least partly inspired in his project by Le Vaux's menagerie at Versailles (203), and it would not be unfair to think of Badgery, at the end of the novel, as an omniscient author-narrator in his cell in the Pet Shop, as a “furtive” monarch surveying his own menagerie, a “cruel, ingenious cage” (205), as Foucault describes the Panopticon. Badgery has used such imperial and disciplinary language to describe himself, and his earliest houses read like crude blueprints for the panoptic Pet Shop: a “royal menagerie” where Badgery will eventually collect Australians for display. At Bendigo in 1931, for example, Badgery meets the woman who is to be his next lover, Leah Goldstein, and his thoughts turn once again to erecting edifices, to establishing empires. Waking up one morning, Badgery brags: “The urge to build was on me already and I looked at the world through imaginary windows and possible doorways” (304). But Leah, like Phoebe, his wife, does not share his passion for building; rather, she too exceeds Badgery's (carceral) structures, is another woman Badgery cannot “keep.” Nonetheless, the equivalence here between Leah's body and property—“the urge to build”—reveals Badgery's obsession with (confusion of) ownership, architecture, and sex, not to mention a rather paranoid need to order, to inhabit enclosed structures because of the perceived threat of unstructured colonial space. Leah recognizes this phallic claim immediately and states: “You sleep with me once and you think you own me.” Badgery replies: “No. […] Just making a place” (306). Leah's response is telling:

“This is not your place and can never be.”

“It's public land,” I said. “[…] I'm entitled to build a hut here […].”

“There you go, land-house, house-land, you can't help yourself, can you, Mr. Badgery? […] You think you can put up some shanty and that makes it your place, but you can't, and it never will be. […] The land is stolen. The whole country is stolen. The whole nation is based on a lie which is that it was not already occupied when the British came here. If it's anybody's place, it is the blacks'. Does it look like your place? Does it feel like your place? Can't you see, even the trees have nothing to do with you.”


This is one of the “cryptic” and deadly secrets that Badgery tries to build over/upon; this is the unstable foundation upon which the “edifice” of Australia has been erected. Perhaps, then, it is not surprising that the agoraphobic Badgery builds prison-like homes; Australians like him, Carey ironically suggests, unconsciously need to inhabit structures of confinement, or flee, in order to feel comfortable, in order to manage the threat of “stolen” colonial space in a landscape where transported British convicts were once forced to stay.

Hence, when his home at Bendigo falls apart, in 1937, Badgery resumes his architectural odyssey, travelling up to Grafton looking for work. In a brief dalliance at Nambucca, where he has met a widow, Shirl “The Girl for Fruit & Veg” (527), the fifty-one-year-old Badgery volunteers to renovate her milk bar, to “open that bloody coffin of a shop” (366). Badgery convinces the widow to put him up in exchange for his labour, in his mind establishing a place for himself sexually and architecturally. “By three o'clock” of the day he arrived, Badgery brags, “we'd made a mess of her clean sheets and I was lying on my back with her hair in my nose, thinking how much nicer the room would be if we could lift the roof like the latch on a ferret box” (530). Once again, Badgery conflates sex and property, thinks of cages as protective spaces in which human inhabitants become pets. This habit is especially obvious in Badgery's next “homes”: “Grafton Gaol” and “HM Prison, Rankin Downs” (375), where he spends a decade incarcerated for assaulting his foster father, Goon Tse Ying. In prison, Badgery re-invents himself as a literate “nice old man” (409) who uses “frailty and decency” (454) to get what he wants. Badgery, if we believe what he tells us, is particularly comfortable while incarcerated there, Indeed, Rankin Downs is a “place where there were no locks on the door and you could get an education” (410).

One way to think through the linkages between his “comfortable” incarceration, colonialism, and Australian identity is to follow Gillian Whitlock in “‘The Carceral Archipelago’: Marcus Clarke's His Natural Life and John Richardson's Wacousta.” Linking Frye's “garrison mentality” to Foucault's notion of modern discipline, Whitlock notes that the carceral is not uniquely Australian but a recognizable feature of other settler-invader societies. In fact, Whitlock observes that colonists in literature often counteract the threat of what is perceived to be unorganized, uncivilized space by building. Architecture, in other words, is activated as a trope of civilization, as a spacing that produces “stable” boundaries that manages alterity by ordering things in (colonial) taxonomies (house/land, inside/outside, us/them). This is especially the case, Whitlock writes, in settler-invader cultures where early architecture functioned as structures of defense: monuments not only to the ambitions and dreams of the settler-invaders but also (perhaps more so) to their anxieties and fears. Settler-invaders, Whitlock suggests, anxiously responded to the “formless” and “empty” spaces of the unsettled colony by importing from Europe a familiar (carceral) architecture that articulated a “tyrannical ideal of order and precision” (51), with its roots in capitalism, militarism, and industrialization.

In such colonial architecture—the penal colony in Australia, the garrison in Canada—an “idea of authoritarian control is worked out in buildings and in relationship to surrounding space” to such a degree that, as Whitlock continues, “the carceral cell has been perceived as a defining characteristic of the national literature” (51). This explains, in part, why Carey's contented “Australians” enthusiastically submit to their own confinement and exploitation, how they become subjects of a disciplinary logic that, in Illywhacker, is indistinguishable from its latest avatars: the museal and touristic gazes. This carceral mentality is so powerful, I suggest, that when Badgery is released from prison in 1949 he heads for Sydney to rejoin his family and take “a place […] inside that wonderful building of [his] son's” (516). But this is not a prodigal father's “celebration of freedom” (491). Leah Goldstein, for one, confronts him there: “‘You fool,’ she said. ‘You moron. You want to be a pet.’ […] ‘You are out of one prison, and making another one’” (537-38).

A towering edifice of galleries and cages, the Badgery family “Best Pet Shop in the World” is an architectural manifestation of the monumental lie: the lie-as-monument. Formerly “the old Stratford Arcade” (480), the Pet Shop evolves as a metaphor of Australia: first, under the ownership of Charles Badgery, Herbert's son, it contains Australian fauna such as cockatoos and goannas; then, directed by the American Nathan Schick, it becomes a “joint promotion” (505) that exports pets all over the world; finally, in the hands of Badgery's grandson, Hissao, the Pet Shop is sold to Mitsubishi of Japan for “one million dollars (US)” (596). Under Hissao's direction, it is transformed into a late-capitalist theme prison for international tourists to visit; collected and displayed in this Australian monument are not only the Badgerys but also other Australian types: an agoraphobic illegal Chinese immigrant who plays imaginary baseball, “shearers, […] lifesavers, inventors, manufacturers, bushmen, aboriginals,” even a “Melbourne Jew” (599). Badgery is attracted to this panoptic structure for many reasons. He sees it as a home, as a “scheme”: “Damn it, I had a weakness for grand buildings and I liked the sound of his shop. It was not merely a building with a tower. It was a tower” (489).

One might recall, at this point, how the figure of the convict and the space of the carceral in Australian literature has functioned as a “potent metaphor” (Hodge and Mishra 142) in the construction of national narrative. In Unnatural Lives: Studies in Australian Convict Fiction, for example, Laurie Hergenhan suggests that the “broad cultural patterns” of incarceration and discipline have created a powerful and “continuing preoccupation in literature and the popular arts with convictism as a time of great communal suffering which was somehow survived” (173). Similarly, Turner argues in National Fictions: Literature, Film, and the Construction of Australian Narrative that the figure of the convict, patterns and images of imprisonment, and carceral spaces in Australian narrative project images of a powerless and defeated national selfhood, one that marks an Australian habit of presumed inferiority that “negates the value of individual action and legitimates powerlessness and subjection” (9-10), a “politics of subordination” (143) that is at the core of a particularly “consoling cultural mythology” (74). Certainly the Pet Shop has become a space of “protected intimacy” (Bachelard 3) and mnemonic stability for this latest, late-capitalist generation of what David Ireland calls “comfortable prisoners” (62), those Australians who cannot “escape” or understand their “legacy from the bloody and accursed empire” (2). In Illywhacker (the working title of which was Pets), Badgery, too, has been unable to comprehend the persistent past “engraved” in his mind as architectural “functions of inhabiting” (Bachelard 14-15). Indeed, his rhetoric of liberation is contradicted by a “consoling” architectural narrative of confinement and subjection embodied in the buildings that punctuate his life story, buildings that, as Georges Bataille puts it in a different context, dramatize the symbolic power of architecture to cancel time, to empty the present of significance and in doing so to make individuals as much as societies forget their ignoble, their heterogeneous pasts.

The problem with architecture, according to Bataille, is that it embodies an ideal and transcendent harmony, one effect of which is to eliminate time and repress historical difference—to make the future conform to the present and the present conform to the past. As Bataille argues, architecture is essentially authoritarian: the external expression of an anthropomorphism that embodies repressive social taboos from the past and uncritically translates them into the future. Architecture, as Bataille puts it, expresses “only the ideal being of society, that which orders and prohibits with authority. […] Thus, the great monuments are raised up like dams, pitting the logic of majesty and authority against all the shady elements: it is in the form of cathedrals and palaces that Church and State speak and impose silence upon the multitudes. It is obvious, actually, that monuments inspire socially acceptable behaviour, often a very real fear” (21). To be sure, Carey's Australians uncritically believe in the carceral architecture they fearfully inhabit, in buildings that flatten historical difference and work to regulate the (convict/colonial) past by sanitizing it, by making it forgettable or safe to remember. Such an architectural disavowal, as Denis Hollier explains, “performs spacing: a space from before the subject, from before meaning” (xi). Hence, Bataille indicts the imposing logic of the modern architecture he despised: “The mathematical regulation set in stone is nothing other than the culmination of an evolution of earthly forms, whose direction is given, in the biological order, by the transition from simian to human form, with this last presenting all the components of architecture. Men seem to represent only an intermediary stage in the morphological process that goes from apes to great edifices. […] Moreover, the human order is bound up from the start with the architectural order, which is nothing but a development of the former” (21). In this inescapable circuit, Bataille warns, modern consciousness itself becomes an effect of architecture: humans rationally design buildings in their (ideal) image, and wistfully see their own (inferior, impermanent) image in the structure and design of their buildings; they are propped up by the architecture that they inhabit, that inhabits them.

Bataille's model articulates some of the allure of Badgery's buildings and the cultural amnesia, the cancelled time, that they embody: what Hodge and Mishra call the “dark secret of Australian consciousness” (xvi) and Frow names Australia's twinned “cults of disremembering” (a “deep-rooted reticence about the dispossession of the indigenous peoples and about the convict beginnings of European settlement” [“Penal” 4.2]). In Illywhacker, Carey architecturally traces this unstable and amnesiac habit to the convict “stain” or “stigma,” a pseudo-scientific moral blot, as Robert Hughes reminds us, that was soaked into Australia's social fabric, that dominated arguments about Australian selfhood by the 1840s (and for more than a century thereafter), and that produced a desire to forget about Australia's felon origins (xi). In a country that was settled, or invaded, as what Hughes calls a “jail of infinite space” (596), the convict past indeed shaped a national consciousness so thoroughly that “amnesia seemed to be a condition of patriotism” (xii).

Such an authoritarian and amnesiac aesthetic is certainly manifested in Badgery's patriotic buildings, in his textual and architectural inventions. Put another way, Badgery writes in the same way that he builds: to control and confine, to con and convince, his readers and tenants that finally he has become a “kind man” (600), a sanitized spectacle to be consumed by curious Australians and international tourists (not to mention readers). But such structures, such texts, are always ambivalent, fractured by their own instabilities and contradictions, by what has been written over or only partly erased. In the tangled history of colonial encounter in the antipodes, in how Australia has “taken place,” this includes the forced migration of British convicts and the dispossession and genocide of Australian aboriginals. Of course, Badgery, who has been monomaniacal in his attempts to make a “place in this rotten lonely world” (489), has blindly built on/over this national past, ignored it effects. Despite his textual will to confess, to come clean, the truth is that he is incapable of thinking about being Australian in any terms other than ownership and (dis)possession, colonial inferiority and incarceration. In contrast with his specious rhetoric of transcendence and liberation, then, Badgery's buildings prove that he is most comfortable when he is confined—and when he confines others—within elaborate and deceptive cages, whether in textual ones like his so-called autobiography or in architectural ones like the homes he builds for his families. “I always built a place of my own when I could,” Badgery confesses. “You could say I was obsessed with houses, but I was not abnormal. My only abnormality was that I did not have one. I had been forced to leave my houses behind me, evicted from them, disappointed in them, fleeing them because of various events. I had left them to rot and rust and be shat on by cattle on the land of the so-called legal owners who were called squatters because they'd done exactly what I'd done” (33). Badgery, the belated colonist, the perpetual trespasser, cannot grasp the “ancient and established meanings” (Ashcroft, Griffith, and Tiffin 27) of the landscape he wanders through for more than a century, nor can he find and define a home. His own defensive, and deceptive, buildings have failed him: they have not alleviated his feelings of displacement or impermanence or guilt. It is only when he cages himself in his son's emporium and becomes an author, when he translates himself into a “luminous” text, that he feels at home, grounded, self-possessed. As he imagines himself writing in one of the windows of the Pet Shop, in this neon-lit monument, he asks, “The question is: how would you take me, sitting there in my chair, […] surrounded by these swirling signs? Am I a prisoner in the midst of a sign or a spider at its centre?” (545).

We cannot meditate on this semiological dilemma for long, but it is clear that as Badgery's rhetoric becomes increasingly autonomous the home/text he fashions becomes increasingly carceral; eventually, he entraps not only his family in this prison house, but also a cross-section of Australians, for international tourists to visit. By excavating this architectural (dis)order, Carey fictionally interrogates the disturbing memories that Australia is built on/over, remembering the (mythic) figure of the convict and the history of settlement-invasion against a cultural tendency to forget crucial elements of Australia's “guilty past” (Hergenhan 1). A sense of this contradictory mnemonic economy is represented in Bud Dumas's First Impressions, a 1979 sculpture of a figure of the convict—an ambivalent figure at once hauntingly absent yet proudly, indelibly present—that stands as a mark of European origin in the fashionably reinvented tourist district of The Rocks at the foot of the Harbour Bridge in Sydney (see Plate 18, colour section). It strikes me that Badgery and his fellow Australians live out a similarly paradoxical temporality; determined by a once shameful and forgotten but now celebrated, if selectively remembered, convict past, they too embody a carceral unconscious that manifests itself as a willingness to be confined, as a desire to feel guiltless and comfortable when imprisoned, what Turner names the “colonised subconscious” (“American” 440) that produces the very enclosure and entrapment that forms the “most basic structural situation” of Carey's fiction (435).

Badgery, I think, embodies just this sort of systematic self-deception, although he would never admit it. His archi/textual constructions, I argue, are prison-like buildings and narrative traps that Carey uses to frame larger questions about the discontinuities of national identification. Architecture is thus a counter-memory in the novel, a record of difference, as Foucault would say, that is most obvious in the novel's penultimate scene: an act of national de(con)struction in which Badgery, who has begun to renovate the Pet Shop, exposes bricks manufactured by convicts at Brickfields in the nineteenth century (see Plate 17, colour section). In these bricks, records of the past literally persist into the present; inscribed in each brick is the thumbprint of the convict who made it. “‘You see this brick?’” Badgery asks his grandson. “‘You see the thumb print? You know how that got there? Some poor bugger […] a hundred-and-fifty years ago did that. He turned the brick out of the mould and, as he did it, he had to give the wet clay a little shove with his thumbs, see. This one, and this one. They've all got it. So there you are. All around you, in your walls, you've got the thumb prints of convicts. How do you reckon that affects you?’ […] We, both of us, looked around. It was a big building. It was a lot of thumb prints to consider” (542). In this ironic national reading (and writing) lesson, it is clear that the “shame” of the convict past and the “guilt” of colonial settlement-invasion are indelibly impressed in the material out of which Australia has been built. In this cryptic scene, Carey unearths questions about Australia's past, its colonial “ruins,” that Badgery cannot—or will not—answer. Badgery, at this point, is a prisoner himself, along with a gallery of Australian cultural emblems entrapped in comfortable cages. Badgery might claim that he can read the convict and colonial past, but he fails to see its legacy in the postcolonial present. Put another way, he refuses to acknowledge how the prisons of the convict system have been replaced by the perhaps no-less-limiting deceptive national narratives housed in the symbolic Pet Shop, what Carey, in an interview, has named “the lies we have been told in history about Australia, the lies we've told ourselves” (Tautsky 32).

Pontificating about the lies of Australian history, Badgery quotes from the famous work of “M. V. Anderson,” the historian in the novel:

Our forefathers were all great liars. They lied about the lands they selected and the cattle they owned. They lied about their backgrounds and the parentage of their wives. However it was the first lie that is the most impressive for being so monumental, i.e., that the continent, at the time of first settlement, was said to be occupied but not cultivated and by that simple device they were able to give the legal owners short shrift and, when they objected, to use the musket or poison flour, and to do so with a clear conscience. It is in the context of this great foundation stone that we must begin our study of Australian history.

(456, emph. mine)

Invoking a national “edifice complex” (Wigley, Architecture 6), Badgery seems to see through the amnesiac lies of Australian history; but he cannot recognize how the “lies” of the convict past have been impressed upon his own unconscious. For some of Carey's Australians, at least, these lies and the Australians who perpetuate—who perform—them in the Pet Shop are no longer appealing: something outside the “protective” architecture of the Pet Shop is going wrong. Or right. “There are all sorts of noises in the night,” Badgery says, “and I don't mean the keening of an aboriginal woman or the grumbling of a mason, but rather noises in the street outside where the enemies of the emporium have set up their camp. I have never seen them, but anyone can hear the sirens, the shouting, sometimes the drumming of police-horse hooves” (599-600). Thus, the Pet Shop might not be the “bleak” final or “dystopian” image that some critics suggest but a more positive (albeit disturbing and heterogeneous) mnemonic structure, an ironic Tower of Babel in which Carey stages a parodic and antipodean, a satirical and noisy, devolution as humans degenerate into pets, as Australians devolve into Bataille's thoughtless apes in an Australian edifice, in the edifice of Australia. Badgery, willfully blind to his own complicity in the construction of this offensive monument, says of the Pet Shop, “Its whole function was entrapment and its inhabitants could happily while away afternoons and years without any bigger scheme, listening to the races on the radio, reaching out for another oyster, worrying only that the beer glasses were free of detergent and kept, cold and frosted, in the fridge. They discussed the quality of harbour prawns, got drunk, and crunched the prawns' heads, imagining themselves free and happy while all the time they were servants of the building. It made them behave in disgusting ways” (581). This “disgusting” behaviour comes close to what I call the amnesiac cultural (colonial) logic of the Pet Shop, an international spectacle where tourists will pay to see Australians who “do not act like caged people. The very success of the exhibit is in their ability to move and talk naturally within the confines of space” (599).

We are left, finally, with the feeling that the doors are about to be pushed in on the Pet Shop, on this worn-out metaphor, with the hope that the spectres of penal colonialism, of settlement invasion, might be re-addressed, for there are a growing number of Australians, Carey insists, who will no longer build on nor cover over the lies of the past. There is a street-level protest that threatens to break into the Pet Shop at any time; enemies “shout […] in the street” (600). Even Badgery, at the end of his novel, sees that the Pet Shop functions by “sucking rage and hatred towards itself” (600). Badgery, of course, does not understand the implications of this resentment: he is not the “kind man” he claims to have become, nor is the Pet Shop the celebrated national space he imagines. Rather, as a despised cultural monument built over a haunting penal-colonial “crypt,” the Pet Shop is an Australian house of memories teetering on an unsettled foundation. Its pending collapse, its deconstruction, indicates the need for alternative national narratives that re-embody spectres from the past and refuse singular and continuous narratives of national origin, novels like Illywhacker that speak of, and to, the injustice and blindness, the willful forgettings and deceptive rememberings, of Australia's penal colonialization. Badgery's last words promise “interesting times ahead” (600), but a more architectural, a more spatial conclusion might be to insist that there will be interesting Australian texts ahead, including buildings that persist from a remembered world and that signal the need to keep looking into how, and of what material—what memories—postcolonial nations and the subjects who inhabit them are built.

Works Cited

Adorno, Theodor. “Functionalism Today.” Re-Thinking Architecture. Ed. Neil Leach. London: Routledge 1997. 6-19.

Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin. The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Postcolonial Literatures. New York: Routledge, 1989.

Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space, 1958. Trans. Maria Jolas. Boston: Beacon, 1969.

Bataille, George. “Architecture.” Re-Thinking Architecture. Ed. Neil Leach. London: Routledge, 1997. 21.

Brodsky, Claudia. “Architecture and Architectonics: The Art of Reason in Kant's Critique.” Princeton Journal 3 (1988): 103-17.

Carey, Peter. Illywhacker. London: Faber and Faber, 1985.

Carruthers, Mary. The Book of Memory: A Study in Medieval Culture, 1990. New York: Cambridge UP, 1992.

———. The Craft of Thought: Meditation, Rhetoric, and the Making of Images, 400-1200. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998.

Derrida, Jacques. “Point de Folie-Maintenant l'Architecture.” Re-Thinking Architecture. Ed. Neil Leach. London: Routledge, 1997. 324-36.

Edwards, Brian. “Deceptive Constructions: The Art of Building in Peter Carey's Illywhacker.Australian and New Zealand Studies in Canada 4 (1990): 39-56.

Fletcher, M. D. “Post-colonial Peter Carey.” Span 32 (1991): 12-23.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish. New York: Vintage Books, 1979.

Frow, John. “In the Penal Colony.” Australian Humanities Review (April 1999): Sec. 1-4. 7 June 1999.

———. Time and Commodity Culture. Oxford: Clarendon, 1997.

Hassall, Anthony. Dancing on Hot Macadam. St. Lucia: U of Queensland P, 1994.

Hergenhan, Laurie. Unnatural Lives: Studies in Australian Convict Fiction, 1983. St. Lucia: U of Queensland P, 1993.

Hodge, Bob, and Vijay Mishra. Dark Side of the Dream: Australian Literature and the Pastcolonial Mind. Australian Cultural Studies. Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1990.

Hollier, Denis. Against Architecture: The Writing of Georges Bataille. Trans. Betsy Wing. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1993.

Hughes, Robert. The Fatal Shore: The Epic of Australia's Founding. New York: Knopf, 1987.

Huyssen, Andreas. “Monumental Seduction.” Acts of Memory, Cultural Recall in the Present. Ed. Mieke Bal, Jonathan Crewe, and Leo Spitzer. Hanover: UP of New England, 1999. 191-207.

———. Twilight Memories: Marking Time in a Culture of Amnesia. New York: Routledge, 1995.

Ireland, David. The Unknown Industrial Prisoner, 1971. Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1979.

Lachmann, Renate. Memory and Literature: Intertextuality in Russian Modernism. Trans. Roy Sellars and Anthony Wall. Minneapolis; U of Minnesota P, 1997.

Metcalf, Thomas R. An Imperial Vision: Indian Architecture and Britain's Raj. Berkeley: U of California P. 1989.

Renan, Ernest. “What Is a Nation?” 1882. Trans. Martin Thom. Nation and Narration. Ed. Homi Bhabha. London: Routledge, 1990. 8-22.

Said, Edward. Orientalism. 1978. New York: Vintage, 1979.

Tautsky, Thomas, “‘Getting the Corner Right’: An Interview with Peter Carey.” Australian and New Zealand Studies in Canada 4 (1990): 27-38.

Turner, Graeme. “American Dreaming: The Fictions of Peter Carey,” Australian Literary Studies 12.4 (1986): 431-41.

———. Making It National: Nationalism and Australian Popular Culture. Australian Cultural Studies. Ed. John Tulloch, St. Leonards: Allen and Unwin, 1994.

———. National Fictions: Literature, Film, and the Construction of Australian Narrative. Australian Cultural Studies. Ed. John Tulloch, Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1986.

Whitlock, Gillian. “‘The Carceral Archipelago: Marcus Clarke's His Natural Life and John Richardson's Wacousta.Australian/Canadian Literatures in English. Ed. Russell McDougall and Gillian Whitlock, Melbourne: Methuen, 1987. 49-67.

Wigley, Mark. The Architecture of Deconstruction: Derrida's Haunt. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1995.

———. “Postmortem Architecture: The Taste of Derrida.” Perspecta 23 (1987): 156-72.

Yates, Frances A. The Art of Memory, 1966. London: Pimlico, 1992.

Kirkus Reviews (review date 1 September 2003)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 337

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 other lives. Chubb's and Slater's conflicting stories are juxtaposed with Sarah's editorial quandary (should she scoop the literary world by publishing faked “masterpieces”?) and increasingly dangerous investigations. Carey's corker of a plot (with echoes of Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Roman Polanski's film Chinatown, and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein) delivers surprise after surprise and peaks with a masterly extended set-piece that pits Chubb vs. “McCorkle” in the steaming hotbed of (then) Malaya under Japanese occupation. Issues of artistic inspiration, integrity, and authenticity are thus brilliantly allegorized in a wonderland of a yarn, of which (the not entirely veracious) Slater declares “He [i.e., Chubb] will drag you into his delusional world, have you believing the most preposterous things.”

So will Peter Carey, God bless him. A Nabokovian masterpiece.

Hugo Barnacle (review date 22 September 2003)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 788

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, who died tragically, and sent the editor a sheaf of dreadful, mock-modernist poems with a letter that was meant to have come from McCorkle's sister: “I am no judge of poetry myself, but a friend who I showed it to thinks it is very good … I enclose a 2 1/2d stamp for reply.”

The poems were cobbled together from snippets of Ezra Pound, old army manuals and anything else Chubb could think of, but the editor was taken in and plugged them as “work of the greatest importance”. We never learn how Chubb then showed his hand, but he evidently did, and to his surprise the tabloid papers treated the hoax as big news. They weren't interested in poetry; they just liked the idea of an avant-gardist being made to look foolish.

In an afterword, Peter Carey explains that all this is based on the real-life “Ern Malley” affair, Malley being the horny-handed bard created by a couple of “talented anti-modernists” to dupe the editor of a magazine called, oh dear, Angry Penguins. Australian readers, writes Carey, will spot the connection, as the case was very well known. The spoof poems quoted, and even the sister's letter, are borrowed from the archive.

I suppose the afterword ought to be a hoax, too; these days Carey moves in smart circles in New York, where William Boyd and David Bowie launched the biography of a non-existent artist, Nat Tate, in 1998. Perhaps Carey hopes that, just as eminent guests at the book launch claimed to be long-time admirers of the painter who never was, his US and British critics will boast their casual knowledge of a scandal that never happened.

Anyway, from there the story takes off into the picaresque realm that Carey often likes to explore. Chubb explains that the authorities decided the McCorkle poems were obscene. At the editor's trial, a madman “nearly seven feet in height”, with “wild dark eyes”, showed up, bearing an alarming resemblance to the montage photo of McCorkle that Chubb had faked to lend the hoax additional credence.

The reader now sees why the novel bears an epigraph from Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. This “creature”, convinced that he is McCorkle, stalks Chubb menacingly and kidnaps his adopted baby daughter. Chubb pursues the creature and the little girl to Malaya, following a trail of improbable clues for years. The poem Chubb shows Sarah is not by him but by the creature. It is a work of unmistakable genius.

Carey depicts a Malaysia full of bandits, superstitious yet sophisticated villagers and Cambridge-educated rajas. At one point, we get a story-within-a story-within-a-story, as an eccentric Tamil schoolmaster tells Chubb about his experiences during the Japanese occupation. Carey handles the different narrative voices confidently, though Sarah's tones, those of a quietly determined Kensington lesbian, are probably the most engaging. After she has to negotiate with Chubb's daughter for the poems, she says: “I tried to smile, but I am not very good at that sort of thing and doubtless I looked as grotesque as a de Kooning.”

But the novel, though stylish, vivid and distinctive, does not say as much about the strange roots of literary inspiration as it purports to, and in the end the storyline comes to a not very satisfactory crash-stop. Sarah's caveat about mysteries left unresolved proves a bit too well founded.

Peter Porter (review date 27 September 2003)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 770

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 bottom of the class, Tom Stoppard.

This is what gets the novel off on the wrong foot. Ern Malley was the poet-monster created by two Doctors Frankenstein, Harold Stewart and James Macauley. They concocted a set of verses entitled The Darkening Ecliptic, and fooled Max Harris, editor of Angry Penguins, that these were written by a working-class genius who died young. By now the legend has gone into reverse and it is the fakers who are held in derision: the Malley poems are judged better than their authors' serious works.

Carey has fashioned Stewart and Macauley into one bewildered fraudster, Christopher Chubb, who becomes a doomed wanderer overtaken by his fake's coming alive. Only those who never knew the acerbic Catholic convert Macauley could credit that Chubb has anything of Macauley in him, and the real-life Stewart shares merely a long residence in the Orient with Chubb. Thus the Ern Malley parallel is dropped after serving to get the story started. Carey's version of Malley is Bob McCorkle, a mysterious and violent giant of a man who claims he really exists though created irresponsibly by Chubb. Unfortunately, his life as roving monster comes to dominate the action, and waves a post-modern web much too exotic to act as sequel to the plain fakery it sets out as. There is a further problem in that McCorkle's poetic portfolio consists only of lines from the original Malley verses. When his last manuscript is fought over, hardly a line of it is revealed. This changes Carey's whole fictional shadowing of the original scandal. In his Acknowledgments, he thanks four Australian poets, ‘whose names are not unfamiliar’ for help with detail. What a pity he didn't get one of them to compose some new parody poems instead of relying on Ern's verse. Nothing upsets a fake as surely as the real thing.

But Carey is a master of storytelling and, even as you struggle to get a grip on the twists of his several skeins of plot, you relish the descriptions of local places and persons, and the ingenuity of the adventures he puts his characters through. As so often in Carey's fiction, there are plentiful frames to mount the action in. An Anglo-Australian lady editor of a poetry magazine and an ageing English litterateur, each aware of the McCorkle scandal and desirous of capturing its legacy, compete for the last manuscript. Chubb, by now washed-up in Kuala Lumpur in the seediest of circumstances, promises to obtain it. The price is his long Ancient Mariner narrative of his and McCorkle's rivalry. To follow this Ariadne's thread, however, will not get you anywhere: there are a dozen more misleading lines of enquiry and unexpected denouements to be experienced until everything is resolved by a sleight-of-hand which reminds you that it is literature which lives in literature—not life.

Carey undoubtedly gives ‘spin’ a new run for its money, but all spinning must end in Atropos's shears. And very bloody they make it, in this case. It worries me that Carey, like his fellow novelist David Malouf, is drawn increasingly to archetypal Australian legends. Malley, though, is fresher than Ned Kelly, and My Life as a Fake is an inventive resurrection of Australia's first and most haunting appearance of the New Prometheus.


Peter Carey World Literature Analysis


Carey, Peter (Vol. 96)