Peter Carey Carey, Peter (Vol. 96) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Peter Carey 1943–

Australian novelist and short story writer.

The following entry presents an overview of Carey's career through 1995. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 40 and 55.

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 nationhood and history as he satirizes contemporary social values, explores the illusory nature of reality, and self-consciously examines the art of fiction. Robert Towers has stated that "Carey's prose can hold the ugly, the frightening, and the beautiful in uncanny suspension. It is this gift, among others, that makes him such a strong and remarkable writer."

Biographical Information

Carey was born in Bacchus Marsh, Victoria, Australia, on May 7, 1943. After attending Monash University, he worked in advertising from 1962 to 1988. Carey's first major publication, the short-story collection The Fat Man in History, appeared in 1974; he published Bliss, his first novel, in 1981. Carey's works have received numerous awards in both Australia and England. Illywhacker (1985) for instance, was nominated for the Booker Prize in 1985; Oscar and Lucinda (1987) was awarded the Booker Prize in 1988. Carey has also taught writing at New York University and Princeton University.

Major Works

Most of the stories in The Fat Man in History depict individuals who experience sudden anxieties when they encounter surreal events in commonplace situations. In others, Carey satirizes the effects of technology and foreign influences on Australian culture and society. In Bliss, Carey centers on Harry Joy, a man who dies for nine minutes and has an out-of-body experience through which he observes family members and friends involved in unseemly activities. Carey uses black humor and satire to examine hypocrisy, identity, and moral poverty in contemporary society. He also analyzes the function of stories and story-tellers in a community, as the novel embeds a number of stories within the larger structure of the novel. While much of the novel is related in straightforward, realistic detail, the allegorical plot transports Carey's protagonist from the "hell" of suburban life to a mental hospital and ultimately to a blissful life in a rain forest. Illywhacker is an expansive comic novel that relates the adventures of Herbert Badgery, a man who claims to be 139 years old. The novel's title is an Australian slang expression variously defined as "taleteller," trickster," "con man," and "liar," all of which describe Badgery's main talents. The central focus of Illywhacker is the art of lying; Badgery lies constantly in order to survive and improve his life, and Carey employs lying as a metaphor for writing fiction. The picaresque adventures of Badgery are related to Australian historical themes: Badgery was born near the time of Australia's independence from Great Britain, and the book's epigraph is a quote by Mark Twain: "Australian history does not read like history, but like the most beautiful lies…." While introducing many characters and events and developing an intricate series of symbolic references involving animals, Carey explores such themes as colonization, technology, and human relationships. Oscar and Lucinda delineates the odd romance between Carey's eccentric title characters who are drawn together by their passion for gambling. The novel begins with Oscar's childhood in rural nineteenth-century Devon, England, where he lives with his father, a renowned naturalist and a preacher in the fundamentalist Plymouth Brethren sect. Gambling on what he believes is a sign from God, the adolescent Oscar reluctantly rebels against the teachings of his father and joins the Anglican Church. Later, at Oxford University Oscar relies on earnings from wagering on horse races to pay for his living expenses and tuition. The narrative also relates events in Lucinda's sheltered childhood in rural Australia, which ends at age eighteen with her mother's death. She uses her inheritance to purchase a glass factory and relocate to Sydney. Lucinda's brusque country manners and active management of her factory make her an outcast in Sydney, and gambling provides her only social outlet. After failing to engage in a more active social life during a stay in England, Lucinda meets Oscar on her return by boat to Australia, where he plans to begin a ministry. Oscar and Lucinda become involved in a strange, tragicomic love affair beset by frequent farcical misunderstandings, culminating with Oscar undertaking a horrific river journey through the Australian outback with materials for building an elaborate glass church. Oscar and Lucinda's expansive narrative is composed of more than one-hundred short chapters, gradually unfolding plot details, odd bits of information, direct addresses to the reader, and frequent use of glass and water imagery. The narrative also features a plethora of well-developed minor characters and authentic descriptions of nineteenth-century London, Sydney, Oxford, and rural New South Wales. As in Illywhacker, Carey endeavors in Oscar and Lucinda to reimagine Australian history. Set in Sydney, Australia, The Tax Inspector (1991) centers on the Catchprice family and Maria Takis, an investigator from the Australian Taxation Office, who has been sent to review the records of the Catchprice's auto dealership. The Catchprice family includes a bizarre group of characters: Granny Frieda Catchprice, who reported her children to the tax authorities because she feared she was going to be sent to a nursing home, is half-senile and carries explosives in her pocketbook; Frieda's middle-aged daughter Cathy dreams of becoming a country-western singer; and Frieda's 16-year-old grandson Benny believes he is an angel. The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith (1995) concerns themes of national and cultural identity. The novel's protagonist is a citizen of Efica, an imaginary island nation that loosely resembles Australia. Efica has been colonized and exploited by Voorstand, a colossal world power which resembles the United States. Like those of Carey's previous works, the plot for The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith is highly convoluted; Carey also provides an extensive historical background for Efica as well as a glossary of Efican dialect. At the center of the story is the Eficans' struggle to retain their cultural identity, which the Voorstanders attack through a high-tech, semi-religious entertainment spectacle known as the Sirkus. The principle characters in the Sirkus—Broder Mouse, Oncle Duck, and Hairy Man—bear close resemblance to the Walt Disney icons Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and Goofy. Horribly deformed at birth, the novel's narrator and title character searches for love and acceptance, which he finds after disguising himself in a Broder Mouse costume.

Critical Reception

Commentators have often described Carey's works as metafictional; two of his novels, Bliss and Illywhacker, for instance, deal explicitly with telling stories and the relationship between truth and fiction. The use of fiction—lies, as Carey calls them—to support and justify social existence is an important theme in many of Carey's works. Scholars have noted that Carey typically attacks the reader's sense of narrative coherence, order, time, and sequence by providing conflicting versions of his narratives. Arguing that Carey views history as an act of selection, Graeme Turner has stated that Carey's "fantastic, alternative worlds … can always be seen as alternative perspectives on an historical world, questioning it and exposing its constructed, arbitrary nature." This line of thought also influences the direction Carey takes in his exploration of individual characters. Turner has suggested that Carey's novels and stories "do not examine what lives mean as much as they examine how lives are constructed in order to produce their meanings." Carey's talents for placing extraordinary events in mundane contexts and for exposing the absurd and corrupt aspects of everyday life have drawn extensive praise from critics and comparison to such writers as Franz Kafka, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Samuel Beckett, and Jorge Luis Borges. Critics have noted Carey's interest in themes of nationhood, cultural identity, entrapment, and colonialism as well. Summarizing Carey's writing, A. J. Hassall has stated: "Like Beckett and Kafka,… and also like Swift, Carey defamiliarizes the stories from which 'reality' is constructed, exposing absurdities and corruptions so familiar that they customarily pass unnoticed and unchallenged."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Fat Man in History (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
Illywhacker (novel) 1985
Bliss: The Screenplay [adaptor, with Ray Lawrence; from Carey's novel] (screenplay) 1986; also published as Bliss, the Film, 1986
Oscar and Lucinda (novel) 1987
The Tax Inspector (novel) 1991
Collected Stories (short stories) 1994
A Letter to Our Son (nonfiction) 1994
The Big Bazoohley (juvenilia) 1995
The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith (novel) 1995

Teresa Dovey (essay date October 1983)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "An Infinite Onion: Narrative Structure in Peter Carey's Fiction," in Australian Literary Studies, Vol. 11, No. 2, October, 1983, pp. 195-204.

[In the following essay, Dovey remarks on the mythic qualities of Carey's fiction, focusing her analysis on Bliss.]

It is a common practice of current literary critics to reveal how the subject matter of various literary works is in fact narrative itself, and from the structuralist perspective the process of creating the narrative is the only subject matter there can be. The increasing self-reflexiveness of post-modernist novels deals with the nature of narrative in a largely explicit manner, but Todorov claims [in...

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Graeme Turner (essay date October 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "American Dreaming: The Fictions of Peter Carey," in Australian Literary Studies, Vol. 12, No. 4, October, 1986, pp. 431-41.

[In the following essay, an earlier draft of which was presented at the conference of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature in July 1986, Turner outlines the major characteristics of Carey's fiction and discusses Carey's use of "American" formal devices to create literature with Australian themes.]

Arguments around the concepts of nationalism and internationalism are familiar presences in discussions of Australian literature and other areas of cultural production, such as Australian film. Within such discussions, the...

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Tony Thwaites (essay date September 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "More Tramps at Home: Seeing Australia First," in Meanjin, Vol. 46, No. 3, September, 1987, pp. 400-09.

[In the following excerpt, Thwaites argues that Illywhacker is a self-referential text in the tradition of Samuel Beckett's novels.]

Many reviewers (here, and in England and the United States) have treated Illywhacker relatively unproblematically as either a realist text or a contemporary version of older genres, such as the tall tale. It obviously has much in common with various pre-modernist types of narrative: for a start, it is dominated by a first-person narrative from a narrator who seems to tell the story from a position of relative...

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Helen Daniel (essay date 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Lies for Sale: Peter Carey," in Liars: Australian New Novelists, Penguin Books, 1988, pp. 148-84.

[Daniel is an Australian critic. In the following excerpt, she provides an overview of Carey's works through Oscar and Lucinda.]

Illywhacker opens with the Liar's paradox: 'I am a terrible liar and I have always been a liar.' Herbert announces this early 'to set things straight'. He urges us not to waste time trying to 'pull apart the strands of lies and truth, but to relax and enjoy the show'. He is a liar and a showman, and he is also a salesman. He gives fair warning to the buyer, but he is a good salesman, his goods are glossy, and the caveat...

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A. J. Hassall (essay date Winter 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Telling Lies and Stories: Peter Carey's Bliss," in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 35, No. 4, Winter, 1989, pp. 637-53.

[Hassall is an Australian educator and critic. In the following essay, he provides a thematic analysis of Bliss.]

There are many stories in Peter Carey's Bliss and not a few lies, but there is one story that enjoys a special, privileged status. This is the story of Little Titch that Harry Joy invents under duress and tells to Constable Box and Sergeant Hastings, "the only original story he would ever tell." I want to examine the story of Little Titch, and the sequence of other stories in which it is embedded, as a point of entry...

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Graham Huggan (essay date Spring 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Is the (Günter) Grass Greener on the Other Side? Oskar and Lucinde in the New World," in World Literature Written in English, Vol. 30, No. 1, Spring, 1990, pp. 1-10.

[In the following essay, Huggan compares Carey's Oscar and Lucinda to Günter Grass's The Tin Drum, arguing that Carey's novel is an allegorical critique of colonialism.]

By the final stages of Günter Grass's notorious novel The Tin Drum, first published in 1959, the rebellious dwarf Oskar and his counter-rhythmical drum have achieved cult status. "What we cured best of all," gloats Oskar, "was loss of memory. The word 'Oskarism' made its first appearance, but not, I am...

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Robert Ross (essay date 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "'It Cannot Not Be There': Borges and Australia's Peter Carey," in Borges and His Successors: The Borgesian Impact on Literature and the Arts, edited by Edna Aizenberg, University of Missouri Press, 1990, pp. 44-58.

[In the following essay, Ross focuses on Carey's short stories as he speculates on the influence of Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges's works on Carey's artistic development.]

You're quite right when you suggest that it might be difficult to say exactly how Borges may have influenced me, also right to suggest that the influence is/was there…. It is there, it cannot not be there.


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Edmund White (review date 30 August 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Recognizing Jack," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4613, August 30, 1991, p. 21.

[White is an American novelist, short story writer, and critic. Below, he favorably reviews The Tax Inspector.]

Peter Carey has an approach to the novel destined to make him one of the most widely read and admired writers working in English. His characters are well motivated but not all shade and nuance. Instead, they are drawn with a firm bounding line and they quickly leave an indelible mark on the memory. His language is straightforward but supple enough, semantically and syntactically, to be fully expressive. His plots unfold chronologically. There are no tedious...

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Richard Eder (review date 29 December 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Titans of the Junkyard," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, December 29, 1991, pp. 3, 8.

[An American critic and journalist, Eder received the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1987. In the review below, he remarks on the characters in The Tax Inspector.]

Three generations of Catchprices run a failing General Motors dealership in the slummy outskirts of Sydney, Australia. Frieda, the octogenarian matriarch, interferes, sulks and carries gelignite in her pockets as another woman might carry Mace. Cathy, her husky daughter, runs the business end but belts out country-and-Western ballads, and yearns for stardom. Her brother, Mort, a mild, hairy man, runs the shop...

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Robert Towers (review date 25 June 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "House of Cards," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. 39, No. 12, June 25, 1992, pp. 35-6.

[Towers was an American educator, novelist, and critic. In the following review, he surveys Carey's previous novels and remarks favorably on The Tax Inspector, praising the novel's arresting prose and elaborate yet coherent structure.]

The Australian writer Peter Carey is little known in the US, although for the last few years he has been living in New York and teaching at New York University. His lack of following is as mystifying as it is regrettable, since his novels contain scenes so powerfully visualized and characters so various in their eccentricity,...

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Jonathan Coe (review date 22 September 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Principia Efica," in London Review of Books, Vol. 16, No. 18, September 22, 1994, p. 5.

[Coe is an English journalist, novelist, nonfiction writer, and critic. In the following review, he discusses The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith, praising the novel as a successful investigation of cultural imperialism and national character.]

Like his near-namesake, Tristram Shandy, the unlikely hero of Peter Carey's new novel [The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith] begins the story of his life at the very beginning. While he doesn't go into quite as much detail about the moment of his conception, he appears to have a very clear memory of the minutes leading up to...

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Richard Eder (review date 5 February 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "An E-Ticket Ride," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, February 5, 1995, pp. 3, 8.

[In the review below, Eder comments favorably on The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith, but finds the second half of the novel less compelling than the first.]

If the 17th-Century Dutch hero, Admiral Tromp, had used a bigger broom—he attached it to his mast to signal that he was about to sweep the English from the seas—perhaps our world would have resembled the one set out in Peter Carey's prickly futurist fantasy. In The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith, the era's dominant military, economic and cultural empire resembles the United States in a number of ways, except...

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Carol Shields (review date 12 February 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Voorstand, Go Home!," in The New York Times Book Review, February 12, 1995, p. 7.

[An American-born Canadian novelist, poet, playwright, and critic, Shields won a Pulitzer Prize and a Governor General's Award for her novel The Stone Diaries (1993). In the review below, she remarks favorably on The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith.]

Peter Carey has always been a novelist of size. Previous novels like The Tax Inspector and Oscar and Lucinda were big books constructed around large ideas. Now, with The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith, he gives his readers a new big novel, his most ambitious to date. The word "unusual" in the title is a...

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Richard B. Woodward (review date 28 February 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Out of Efica," in The Village Voice, Vol. XL, No. 9, February 28, 1995, p. 59.

[In the following review, which also includes comments from an interview with Carey, Woodward discusses themes in and the inspiration for The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith.]

Like many strangers in this strange land, Peter Carey found himself beguiled against his will on his first visit to that cradle of American postmodernism, Disneyworld. For the Australian novelist, the sight of Mickey and Minnie greeting well-wishers along the vacuumed streets of their Potemkin village was like walking into Baudrillard's wet dream.

"They were like royalty, like Ron and Nancy,"...

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Michael Heyward (review date 10 April 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Parallel Universes," in The New Republic, Vol. 212, No. 15, April 10, 1995, pp. 38-41.

[In the review below, Heyward examines themes of cultural and national identity in The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith.]

Peter Carey knows that the novelist's greatest freedom is the freedom to invent. He is an artificer, a fabulist whose work, with its gestures toward fantasy and science fiction, has always had the spectacular credibility and the irrevocable logic of dreams. When his short stories, with their hapless characters trapped in eerie, claustrophobic landscapes, began to appear in Australia in the 1970s, one thing was obvious: anything could happen in them. A man...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Adam, Ian. "Breaking the Chain: Anti-Saussurean Resistance in Birney, Carey and C. S. Peirce." In Past the Last Post: Theorizing Post-Colonialism and Post-Modernism, edited by Ian Adam and Helen Tiffin, pp. 79-93. University of Calgary Press, 1990.

Compares Earle Birney's narrative poem "David" and Carey's story "Do You Love Me?," focusing on the father-figures in the stories and their Oedipal relations.

Daniel, Helen. "'The Liar's Lump' or 'A Salesman's Sense of History': Peter Carey's Illywhacker." Southerly, No. 2 (June 1986): 157-67.


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