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."
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.
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.
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."