Tuesday, February 24, 2004

A Living, Breathing Hoax: An Interview with Peter Carey

"A Living, Breathing Hoax: An Interview with Peter Carey" by Jessica Murphy
Published by The Atlantic

Peter Carey has likened his new novel, My Life as a Fake, to "a jazz improvisation that starts with a known melody and fucks with it." The known melody is Australia's infamous Ern Malley literary hoax. In 1944, two anti-modernist poets duped the editor of Angry Penguins, an avant-garde literary magazine, into publishing the work of a poet who did not exist. They named this poet Ern Malley, riddled his poetry with lines stolen from Shakespeare, from a dictionary of quotations, and from a report on mosquitos, among other sources, killed him off with Grave's disease, and had his "sister" discover and submit his work posthumously. The editor fell for it. He published the poems and lauded Malley's genius.

As if the scandal did not bring enough ridicule to the editor, he was also later charged and brought to trial for publishing lines "suggestive of indecency." The prosecutor's farcical and much-misguided interrogation regarding the line "part of me remains, wench, Boult-upright" is one of the only pieces of the true story that remains in My Life as a Fake.

This is where Peter Carey's improvisation begins, as he draws us into the wild, fantastical tale of an Ern Malley—here named Bob McCorkle—who may actually have come to life. An impossible scenario, yet one that Carey's story calls on the reader to consider.

The date is 1972. The setting, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Sarah Wode-Douglass, the editor of a British literary magazine and a reluctant tourist, notices an old man with ulcers on his legs, reading Rilke in a bike shop. Intrigued, she gives him a copy of her magazine, which opens the door for him to come to her day after day in his tattered suit, to tell her his story.

His name is Christopher Chubb. He is an Australian poet, yet the only memorable poetry he wrote was as his creation Bob McCorkle. Like Dr. Frankenstein, Chubb has become wildly, obsessively controlled and haunted by what he has made—the monster even kidnaps his child—and Chubb is constantly coming up against "the blasphemous possibility that he had, with his own pen, created blood and bone and a beating heart." Like Sarah, the reader must continually decide who and what to believe.

As My Life as a Fake attests, Peter Carey is an author who is not afraid to take risks in his storytelling, nor does he shy away from some of the disturbing aspects of Australia's colonial past. Most recently, in his Booker prize-winning True History of the Kelly Gang—a book that some critics have compared to an American Western—Carey chronicled the life and adventures of Ned Kelly, Australia's Robin Hood, in his ultimately doomed crusade against unscrupulous colonial authorities and landowners. In Jack Maggs, we follow the protagonist home to England after years of banishment as a convict in Australia. And in The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith, Carey sets the story in an imaginary colony dominated by an overbearing world power. If his recent fiction is any indication of what's to come, one can't help but imagine Carey heading back to the library—back to the Australian history books—in order that he might continue to discover stories and then delve into their "unwritten dark."

Peter Carey is the author of seven previous novels and a collection of short stories. He won the Booker Prize for Oscar and Lucinda and True History of the Kelly Gang. His other honors include the Commonwealth Prize and the Miles Franklin Award. He was born in Australia and now lives in New York City.

Peter Carey Interview

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