My Life As A Fake
by Peter Carey
Published by Faber & Faber
266 pages, 2003
The Shadowland Between Truth and Fiction
Reviewed by John Keenan
In his eighth novel, Peter Carey explores the sinister shadowland between truth and fiction. The plot is based on a celebrated literary prank, perpetrated in the author's native Australia in the 1940s. Harold Stewart and James McAuley, who were hostile to the forces of modernism, invented an experimental poet called Ern Malley, whose poetry they submitted to a literary review called Angry Penguins. The magazine's editor, Max Harris, fell for it hook, line and sinker, publishing the poems to widespread acclaim. When the fraud was revealed and Harris was subsequently prosecuted over the supposed indecency of the poems, it seemed that provincial, conservative Australia had dealt a fatal blow to the pretensions of the metropolitan trendsetters.
Carey takes this obscure story and gives it a characteristic twist; what if Malley had indeed existed? Or what if some deluded creature convinced himself that the phony poems were his own creations and was inspired to write authentic poetry in the same manner?
The narrator, a fastidious Englishwoman called Sarah Wode-Douglass, is the editor of a small-circulation poetry magazine. During an ill-conceived visit to Kuala Lumpur in the 1970s, she encounters an eccentric old man clutching a sheaf of poems in a crepuscular corner of a bicycle shop. This antipodean ancient mariner, she learns, is Christopher Chubb, the architect of a notorious hoax in Melbourne 30 years earlier. Chubb had sought to expose the posturing of the literary avant-garde through the invention of Bob McCorkle, the untutored voice of a working class poet who is hailed as a genius by Personnae, the house-magazine of bien-pensant literate Australians.
At first it seems that Chubb's plan has succeeded brilliantly, but when McCorkle, an enraged seven-foot monster dressed from head to toe in black, springs vividly to life and vows to revenge on his creator, a sequence of horrific catastrophe is unleashed.
McCorkle, the "damaged beast of the Antipodes" tracks his creator across Australia. McCorkle reasons, in his mad way, that since Chubb gave his creature no childhood, he therefore deserves no children, the monster kidnaps Chubb's daughter and flees to Malaysia. Chubb follows in frantic pursuit, pitching up in Kuala Lumpur, where, years later, Wode-Douglass discovers the "ragged creature, hammering metal" in the KL bike shop.
Every character in this story has a bogus aspect: they are untrue to themselves, deceptive in commerce and in love and, in the end, the exhausted reader, dragged on an increasingly hysterical chase through the Malayan jungle, comes to the conclusion that this bunch of posers and psychopaths deserve each other.
The impact of the story is muffled through a convoluted plot that has the narrator recalling events she was told of in 1972 that supposedly occurred in the 1940s -- nothing seems immediate and firsthand. More dilution occurs when Wode-Douglass digresses to give us the tragic history of her own family, which has little relevance to the gothic revenge drama that the author seemingly set out to write.
Carey is one of the finest writers in the world, but this novel, although studded with memorable incident and splendid writing, is not one of his finer achievements. | November 2003
John Keenan is a journalist, living in Brighton, England. He is editor of the business travel magazine Meetings and Incentive Travel. His work has been published in The Guardian, New Statesman, Times Literary Supplement and Literary Review, and other publications.