Australia is a vast country, with a relatively short written history, and Peter Carey, as its most successful novelist has chronicled considerable parts of it. It's perhaps not surprising that he'd come along eventually to the Ern Malley incident. A country with a certain cultural cringe, because of its colonial roots, its geographical location and the down-to-earth nature of its population, it was ripe for the hoax perpetuated in 1944, whereby a "fake" poet Ern Malley was created, and his work sent to the Modernist journal "Angry Penguins", which, having thought it had found a hitherto unknown modernist genius, published them - only for the subterfuge to be revealed shortly afterwards. In the conservative Australia of the forties, these poems were then prosecuted for obscenity.
Carey uses the bare bones of this story - the fake poet, the publication and exposé, and the obscenity prosecution - to craft a shaggy dog story whereby his version of Malley, Bob McCorkle, appears at the trial of the editor, David Weiss, as if magicked from thin air. Yet, such impossibilities aren't handed to us straight but through a series of filters. A young lesbian editor goes to Kuala Lumpur on a whim, accompanying the famous, but mediocre poet John Slater. Sarah Wode-Douglass is our narrator, and she is looking back on this impulsive visit that changed her life. From a high caste British literary family, she is resentful of Slater as being the man she holds responsible for her mother's suicide, one of many misunderstandings throughout this baroquely layered novel. Arriving in Malaysia, she finds herself intrigued on encountering an ill-dressed white man, Christopher Chubb, in a bicicle shop. In many ways, the novel is primarily Chubb's story, for he was the one who conjured McCorkle into existence and wrote the initial poems.
It was odd starting reading this after Ian McEwan's "Sweet Tooth" a couple of weeks ago, as certain echoes of that book's literary milieu were to be found early in the novel. Yet despite the hoax having taken place thirty years prior to the action (the telling of it is two decades further on), it is not Australia where the majority of the story is set but Malaysia. A diligent editor, Sarah, is shown a slither of writing by Chubb, that she immediately recognises as the masterpiece that editors are endlessly searching for. Though he makes too little of it, Carey is very good on identifying that desire of editors to somehow discover a genius from the wrong side of the tracks, outside of literary scenes and fashion - the one great poem that makes the years of publishing average, competent work all worth while.
Yet we take an age to get to Chubb's story - for Chubb's story it is. He holds back from Sarah, and Slater keeps telling her to have nothing to do with him. (The truth is, if the slippery Slater had been communicative with his travelling partner from the start, there wouldn't be much novel left.) So the story is one of those where an unreliable narrator (Chubb) weaves a story that could be truth, could be lies, but does so in such a convoluted way that the reader, rather than be charmed by his circumlocutions gets frustrated. There's always been more 18th century than modernism in Carey's work, and this has something of the Tristram Shandy about it. Yet it seems somewhat pointless, for whereas Sterne was taking pleasure in the withholding - avoiding telling the story - Carey, through Chubb, is determined to get the story out, albeit at length, and somewhat tediously. At some point in the novel, the reader realises we are stuck with Chubb's unreliable retellings - rather than the story itself - and it becomes quite a chore to read.
Carey has always been a great one for grotesques (the Dickensian side of his work, evidenced particularly in "Jack Maggs"), but we have Chubb and McCorkle to deal with here. They are, we are partly to believe, the same person - after all Chubb wrote McCorkle into existence, but as if bored by this possiblity, McCorkle gets to take on more and more a life of his own - and in Chubb's telling, takes over his life, including stealing his daughter, whose presence in Kuala Lumpur explains his still being there. This magic realism probably requires the more mystical eastern setting, but in some ways the two elements of the book - that very Australian story of Ern Malley on the one hand, and the mysterious Malaysian story on the other - gel very badly. It feels like a mis-selling of the book, for though he uses the Ern Malley affair in detail (including the Malley poems and associated real life examples), that seems just a hook on which to write a story of eastern intrigue. Even if we accept that Chubb and McCorkle are probably different - the latter a phantasm created out of thin air - the story he tells, a certain picaresque "down and out in Kuala Lumpur" feels rich in colour but poor in substance. Even as Chubb regales his story, he includes other people's stories, little anecdotes about Malaysia's chequered history; mostly gristly in nature. The conceit joining the Malley story with the Malay one being that there is a book of poetry that McCorkle wrote here which is a masterpiece, and encompasses the whole history and geography of the country. What editor can resist? Of course, Sarah gets pulled along; but this reader at least had long ago lost patience.
Part of the novel's problem is this layering of stories - long, and long winded, they don't have the necessary energy and brio, let alone necessary veracity, to pull the reader along; moreover this foregrounding of a retold past doesn't work well as each time we are brought back to the present - like realising in "Wuthering Heights" that we are actually back in the parlour listening to Nelly Dean - it feels livelier than the story being told. Carey doesn't help us out much either - no speech marks or other delineating punctuation to remind you which "I" is speaking, and yet its all a bit with one breathless voice. The women in the novel are, without exception, treated awfully - from poor Sarah strung along by Slater's indifference, to the women keeping alive McCorkle's legacy without knowing exactly what it is. The story, it seems, is about these dreadfully self important poets and their egos and insecurities and unwillingness to let go.
You're never exactly bored reading Carey, of course, there's a breathlessness to his prose, and like that other writer who set books in Malaysia, Anthony Burgess he revels, a little too much I think, in exotic places and the language to describe it. But if its not exactly boring, it is frequently dull, a worse crime perhaps - and the reader is sometimes no different than poor Sarah sat in the over-hot hotel desperately hoping these old men will get to the point and tell her what she needs to know.
It's a minor work, perhaps, from a major writer, who I've frequently enjoyed, but not one of his best, by a long way.
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