My Life as a Fake
by Peter Carey
A review by C. P. Farley
For Peter Carey's last novel, he brought his exceptional literary gifts to bear on a celebrated story from Australian history. So successful was that endeavor — rhapsodic reviews, a second Booker prize — he set out to repeat the formula. True History of the Kelly Gang was narrated by Ned Kelly (Australia's answer to Jessie James). For this new novel, he decided to channel controversial Australian poet Ern Malley.
It didn't work. For starters, Ern Malley never existed. True, that shouldn't be a problem for someone who makes people up for a living. But Carey found it wasn't that simple to reconstruct the inner life of an imaginary character while at the same time keeping his story true to historical events. Confused? Let me explain.
By 1940 literature had decayed into pretentious nonsense — at least that's what conservative poets Harold Stewart and James McAuley believed, and they set out to prove their point with an elaborate ruse. The pair wrote a collection of parody poems full of gibberish and phony literary references, attributed them to the late (and fictitious) poet Ern Malley, and sent them to Australia's premiere literary magazine, Angry Penguins. To lend their deception verisimilitude, they included a letter from the now-dead poet's sister and a few well-chosen details about the poet's life and character. The magazine's editor, Max Harris, took the bait and published the lot to great fanfare. Ironically, the poems were deemed obscene, and Harris had to defend himself in a court of law.
What stuck with Carey about this famous incident from Australia's literary history was, first of all, how mean-spirited the act was — "I really, really disliked what they'd done — the malice with which they'd done it" — but also how completely Harris had bought into the deception. Even after the hoax had been admitted, he couldn't quite let go: "I still believe in Ern Malley…One had felt that somewhere in the streets of every city was an Ern Malley…a living person, alone, outside literary cliques, outside print, dying, outside humanity but of it…."
A character that never existed, who is in fact based on a lie, but who has nevertheless, despite the evidence, and despite his creators' intentions, achieved a measure of reality — what novelist could resist? Certainly not one with Carey's fertile imagination.
Carey began a novel telling this whole story, but from the point of view of Ern Malley, the fake poet. Alas, this very clever idea turned out to be too clever, and after some months hacking away at the story, Carey gave up and admitted defeat.
This failed effort might have become a mere footnote in a great writer's biography if he hadn't noticed, while imagining Malley's story, certain similarities in plot and theme with the story his imagination wanted to produce and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Her misguided scientist stuck his fingers where he ought not and created a powerful monster beyond his control. Well, what about those jerks who created Ern Malley? They had fabricated a personality, a history, a sister, and a credible body of work. And, just like Dr. Frankenstein, their creation had taken on a life of its own wreaked a little havoc in the village.
Instead of junking the project, Carey simply changed directions. He borrowed details from the historical Ern Malley affair but changed many of the details and gave his imagination free rein to invent the rest. But most importantly, he chose to tell the story from a different point of view.
The narrator of My Life as a Fake is Sarah Wode-Douglas, the dedicated, if dowdy, editor of an esteemed London poetry magazine. The Modern Review is one of those journals with a surplus of prestige and a dearth of readers that is kept afloat by a few eager investors hoping to one day play a small part in discovering the next T. S. Eliot. Fat chance. But when Sarah is lured to Malaysia by poet, poseur, and old family friend John Slater, she stumbles across a decrepit Australian bicycle repairman named Chubb who shows her a snippet of poetry that sets her heart to thumping. Perhaps she is destined to discover literary greatness after all. Before Chubb will turn over the poetry, though, she must hear his story. Quel drag.
Only to get her hands on more of that sublime poetry, greedy Sarah endures Chubb's wild tale, in which he attempts to puncture the pretensions of a particular literary editor by sending him some phony poetry but ends up creating a monster (sound familiar?). Carey's readers will need no such enticement. This is one of Carey's most entertaining books to date.
In an obvious nod to Frankenstein, Carey wastes no time sending his plot right over the top. Bob McCorkle, Chubb's made-up poet, assumes the form of a shaggy insufferable Irish bard-giant and starts right in making trouble, eventually kidnapping Chubb's infant daughter and making off with her to the wilds of Indonesia. A desperate Chubb takes off in pursuit, but he's no match for his creature and endures a torturous string of setbacks and disasters. What fun.
But the real pleasures of this novel have less to do with Carey's playful excesses of plot than they do with the impish intelligence that shines forth from his language. To be sure, My Life as a Fake explores serious issues: the strange relationship between creator and creation, the thin line between love and hate, the corrosive effects of greed, etc. But what will remain in the memories of readers of My Life as a Fake is the simple pleasure of Carey's wonderful sentences. Here's one taken — I swear — at random.
Apart from the awful gold and tartan decor of the Merlin, my only impressions of this foreign capital were heat and smells, sewage, floral scents, rotting fruit, and a general mustiness which seeped into my skin and permeated my large plain room where someone had written 'Fuck Little Duck' in grey pencil beside the toilet bowl.
What makes reading this novel so much fun — what makes reading any Peter Carey novel so much fun — is the sense that the author himself was having a great time, giggling away at his keyboard as he let yet another of his creations get the better of him.