Carey, Peter Entries



Boy, it's been kind of gloomy around Evening All Afternoon recently, hasn't it? What with unanticipated abridgments, disorganized Englishmen, and lukewarm responses to historical fiction, things have looked rosier. But here, my friends, is the antidote: Peter Carey's rollicking Australian epic Illywhacker is robust and uproarious - a chewy, stew-like story you can really sink your teeth into, and which also offers a thought-provoking meditation on the nature of lying and the truth.

I've written before about how I would cheerfully devour a phone book if Peter Carey took it into his head to write one, and Illywhacker is no exception - although it is different than the other Carey novels I've read. It doesn't have quite the focused incandescence of Oscar and Lucinda and True History of the Kelly Gang, or the obsessive surreality of My Life as a Fake. Instead, it follows a John Irving-like model of sprawling, character-driven, oddball family saga: a portrait of three generations in the quick-tempered and bandy-legged Badgery clan. Narrating the tales of his progeny and their hangers-on is the 139-year old patriarch Herbert Badgery, an exuberant liar who has yarned, belched, strutted and cajoled his way through the Australian countryside over more than a century. Badgery is the archetype of the charismatic con-man, and Carey depicts him masterfully: we observe, at once, his flatulence and grime, and also his grand dreams of love and aviation, of starting an Australian airplane factory, of building a rambling mansion for the woman he loves. He's simultaneously crass, cynical, and grandly ambitious, and, somewhat predictably, gets his heart broken at least as often often as he breaks the hearts of others. Possibly most important, he's a freewheeling unreliable narrator, telling the reader on the first page, "[M]y advice is to not waste your time with your red pen, to try to pull apart the strands of lies and truth, but to relax and enjoy the show."

Apart from his masterful control of sentences and paragraphs, one of the most interesting things about Peter Carey is the complex morality in his novels; all of the four that I've read so far have interrogated the relationship between lying, storytelling, and the truth, and come to complicated conclusions that can't readily be summarized. Mid-way through Illywhacker, Badgery (sort of) wins and then (kind of) loses a puritanically honest woman named Leah Goldstein, of whom he eventually and unexpectedly makes a lying addict. After they are separated, she spends years upon years faithfully writing to him, creating letters which are almost complete balderdash:

Later she would think of these months, when she helped her friend die, as one of the most important times in her life.

But she wrote not a word about it to me. Instead she described long walks with Rosa along the clifftops to Tamarama. She did not date these walks, but the impression given was that they had happened an hour or a minute before, that Rosa sat across from her at the kitchen table, drinking fragrant tea. They were beautiful letters, bulging with powerful skies and rimmed with intense yellow light. Every blade of grass seemed sharply painted, every word of conversation exact and true. Perhaps these things had once taken place. Perhaps she invented them. In any case they gave me that electric, unnatural mixture of emotions that every prisoner knows, where even the best things in the world outside become slashed with our own bitterness or jealousy. This confusion of love and hurt is very powerful. I came to crave it even while I dreaded it. It is a more potent drug than simple happiness.


There was a time, when I finally learned the truth, that I could have killed her for her deception, to have made me feel so much about what revealed itself as nothing. I will tell you, later, how I got on the train with my bottle and my blade. But when I think about her now I cannot even imagine my own anger.

Another word for "lying addict"? "Accomplished fiction writer." When he learns that the lovely world Leah created for him is a lie, Badgery is faced, on a more dramatic scale, with the feelings we all have upon finishing a fantastic book: loss and grief for a world he believed in. Leah has written herself through a gauntlet of lies and somehow become a novelist - and also, argues Badgery, a fully fledged Australian citizen. For, as Carey has his famous fictional historian MV Anderson relate,

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 is their 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.

Together, these two passages paint an impressively complex view of lying and storytelling. On the one hand, Badgery spends the entire novel fighting for Australian pride - for Australians to invest, for example, in Australian-made cars and airplanes, rather than importing British and American models thought to be self-evidently better than anything "we" could make. He rails against the colonial inferiority complex that motivates many Australians of his day to truckle to the British crown. And so, recognizing that lying and tall-tale-telling are an integral part of his Australian heritage, he embraces them with unmitigated exuberance. I couldn't help loving him for it; the charisma of his voice is intoxicating. On the other hand, though, a big reason that lying has become a national pastime for Australians (and, I might add, Americans) is both shameful and essentially BRITISH: the foundation stone of British colonization in both places was a huge, convenient deception about whether the land they took was already being used. So Badgery's mode of protest against the British turns out to originate with them, and his recommendation to his readers not to look too closely at the truthfulness of his own stories mirrors the cavalier disregard with which they invaded continents and invented the convenient fiction that they had "discovered" them.

But while the lies of Badgery and the British colonizers are largely selfish and convenient, however attractive they may seem, Leah's fictions are a more complicated matter. It doesn't directly benefit her to provide Badgery with false images of a beautiful life which she is not really living. It provides a bit of escapism for her, crafting these letters in which everything she wishes is made true, but it also accentuates the gulf between what she wants and what she has. Whatever results her actions have (and there are both positive and negative repurcussions), her primary motivation, arguably, is kindness. It's painful to Badgery to learn that (almost) everything he believed about Leah's life is a lie, but he's such an inveterate liar himself that it's hard to pity him too much. And if we condemn Leah, what to make of our own decision to pick up Peter Carey's Illywhacker? Of all people, isn't Herbert Badgery, con-man extraordinaire, ASKING to be conned himself, just as we readers of fiction are when we crack open his book? After all, it was Badgery who taught Leah to lie in the first place. Not to mention that through her lies, she manages to demonstrate truths: the truth that she loves Badgery, and that she wishes things were different.

Without giving too much away, I'll just say that toward the end of Illywhacker all these intersecting threads of lies and counter-lies, of the personal versus the national, take a disorienting and eerie turn. I don't pretend to have tracked them all; as Badgery says in the novel's opening, there comes a point when it's best to just sit back and enjoy the ride. And enjoy it I did, thoroughly and completely. Carey has yet to disappoint.

(Illywhacker was my seventh book for the Decades '09 Challenge, representing the 1980s.)

True bone blood and beauty born


Ever since my high school boyfriend outed me to my youthful music idol as a slavering fangirl, I resolved to be moderate in my attitudes towards artists whose work I admire. Not that I want to downplay my enjoyment of their art, or affect a "too cool for enthusiasm" attitude. But I realized that day at the indie-rock festival how wrong it was that I was uncomfortable speaking face-to-face with this personable, modest woman, all because I had elevated her onto an unreasonable pedestal. I was unable to relate to her as a person, because my veneration of her got in the way, and I was unable to take myself seriously as a fellow musician, because of my veneration for her art. And that, it seemed to me, was a situation worth avoiding in the future.

All of which is to say: my long-time resolution is being put to a severe test by the novels of Peter Carey.

On the plane back from New Hampshire in October, I was practically hyperventilating over the final pages of Carey's Oscar and Lucinda, having to stop after every chapter and decompress for ten minutes before moving on. On the way back from (appropriately enough) Australia, I devoured the entirety of his My Life as a Fake. And now, having just burned through True History of the Kelly Gang, I have to admit to a certain amount of giddy adulation. Carey's consistent ability to create a strong, vital narrative voice; the sheer creative exuberance of his language; the crippling pathos of his storylines and the way his characters grip your heart and won't let go: reading his work is artistically, mentally and emotionally an utter joy.

One of my favorite qualities in a novel is a narrative voice so distinctive that I carry it around with me in my head while going about my business, and Ned Kelly's is a beautiful example. The language and character development here are intimately linked, in a way much more sophisticated than the over-used equation of "writing in dialect" with "uneducated" and/or "stupid." Kelly's unorthodox grammar and punctuation do point, of course, to his lack of formal education, but his style as a whole does so much more, immersing the reader in a wild, hybrid, semi-Biblical landscape that flexes and reels through the narrative, at times becoming so taut that it approaches poetry, yet never seeming unnatural. From his first sentence, Carey had me:

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.

Even in these scant lines, so much of Kelly is present: his anger and his tenderness, his self-justification and his inescapable ties to past and family. And, of course, his religion, for being poor Irish Catholic "currency" (the nominally free offspring of convicts forcibly settled on Australian soil) is at the heart of Kelly's identity and his actions.

One of the many things I love about Carey's novels is how thought-provoking and ambiguous their morality tends to be. From a self-sacrificing love expressed by a gambling addict as a suicidal bet, to a mysterious manuscript whose ownership is so murky that an obsessed collector is left wandering in a morass of half-truth, his characters operate within moral frameworks that are engaged with tradition, yet strikingly unique. Kelly Gang is somewhat less unexpected in its morality than either Oscar & Lucinda or My Life as a Fake - after all, the rise and inevitable fall of the folk-hero outlaw has a well-established canon behind it, from Robin Hood to Jesse James to Don Vito Corleone - but Carey creates a typically nuanced version of the stock character. Rather than taking to crime to alleviate the suffering of the peasantry, or out of dreams of glory, Kelly is born, like all currency, on the edge of the law, and slides gradually over the line under the pressure of poverty, police harassment and family loyalty. At the same time, he is far from a helpless victim of circumstance. Kelly is passionately engaged with his world and his system of honor; the tragedy lies in the radical difference between his understanding of what is honorable, and the definition held by the colonizing English police.

As an interesting take on the outlaw archetype, I particularly liked the scene in which Kelly resolves to start robbing banks. Railroaded into hiding after a police-killing that was two-thirds self-defence and one-third accident, Kelly comes to the realization that the only thing capable of protecting him and his brother from the police are the poor inhabitants of the bush, and resolves to win their sympathies by stealing from the relatively rich and giving to the dirt poor. This is a much more practical, yet still sympathetic, picture of the thought process leading to the Robin Hood mode of operation, than the standard assumption of selfless outrage on behalf of the peasantry. I liked it, and I liked Kelly. I also liked the way in which Kelly's genuine affection for, and identification with, the poor folks he wins over with his bank proceeds grows over time, until we get a passage like this one, a last celebratory hurrah on the evening he learns he is a father:

These was your own people girl I mean the good people of Greta & Moyhu & Euroa & Benalla who come drifting down the track all through the morn & afternoon & night. How was they told of your birth did the bush telegraph alert them I do not know only that they come the men the women with babies at their breast shivering kiddies with cotton coats their eyes slitted against the wind. They arrived in broken cart & drays they was of that type THE BENALLA ENSIGN named the most frightful class of people they couldnt afford to leave their cows & pigs but they done so because we was them and they was us and we had showed the world what convict blood could do. We proved there were no taint we was of true bone blood and beauty born.

Through the dusk & icy starbright night them visitors continued to rise from the earth like winter oats their cold faces was soon pressed through doorway and window and even when the grog wore out they wd. not leave they come to touch my sleeve or clap my back they hitched great logs to their horses' tails to drag them out beside the track. 6 fires these was your birthday candles shining in 200 eyes.

The real star of the show here is Kelly's language, and I admired the way Carey escalates the final tragedy by yanking the narrative out of his anti-hero's hands, to be finished by an antagonist - although, in typical Carey fashion, even that antagonism is tinged with ambiguity.

From first to last, a truly excellent novel, exhilarating and lovely. If we ever go together to meet Peter Carey, you can tell him I said so...just please don't tell him I have Ned Kelly posters all over my walls.

June 2012

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link to Wolves 2011 reading list
link to more disgust bibliography