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.)