My Life as a Fake, by Peter Carey

This 2003 work begins as a fascinating tale, and then becomes a confusing one. Because it has narrators within narrators, and then stories within stories within stories—and compounds this by skipping about among different time frames, from World War II on. It begins as a tale in modern times narrated by a poetry magazine editor named Sarah. She is lured to Malaysia by a family friend, John Slater, whom she despises because of his pretense as a poet and because she thinks he was involved in the death of her mother. So one expects the novel to be driven by that relationship.

But this is Peter Carey, who loves devious plotting. In Malaysia, Sarah encounters Christopher Chubb, an Australian poet who in the past has fabricated a hoax by creating an elaborate, pretentious poem by a man named McCorkle. This poem is published in an Australian poetry magazine, but when the hoax is revealed, Weiss, the magazine editor, is tried for obscenity and later mysteriously dies.

This is the set-up, and we later learn that the plot is based on a real episode in Australian literary history. And it is here, one-third into the novel, that the complications begin. Chubb shows Sarah a page from a new work of poetry by McCorkle, and she is intent on getting the full manuscript for her magazine, not initially sure if it has been written by Chubb or by McCorkle. Ah, the complexity that Carey loves. For McCorkle turns out to be real, a huge person, and he has meanwhile kidnapped Chubb’s daughter, apparently in revenge for the hoax, and taken her off into the jungle. This is the daughter of an ambitious beautiful woman, Nousette, an artist and photographer who befriends both Chubb and Slater, and fathers a daughter by one of them, a daughter she gives up to Chubb and so he assumes is his.

Whereupon Chubb pursues McCorkle to repossess his daughter, but on finding them his daughter initially rejects him. In the jungle, however, this McCorkle has produced a marvelous journal of poetry that impresses Chubb, and when he returns he teasingly offers it to Sarah. Thus the confusing time frames, and this is when my real confusion began.

Is the McCorkle who first shows up at the Weiss trial this real person in the jungle? How did he become a writer? Is this a bit of magic realism? Or is he not real, still the figment of Chubb’s imagination? For example, when McCorkle steals the baby daughter, he says that Chubb never gave him a childhood, and that there are consequences to creating him, McCorkle. Which development is reflected in the Mary Shelley Frankenstein quotation at the start of the novel: “the miserable monster whom I had created.”

In any event, Chubb pursues them into the jungle to recover his daughter. Of course, we know this pursuit only through Chubb’s narration to Sarah, and these events are scattered through the novel. In any event, we ask ourselves, how much is really true? And then, when Chubb discovers this unknown marvelous work in the jungle, we wonder if McCorkle is really the writer. The McCorkle created by Chubb. And, finally, there are the two women Chubb is living with in the more recent world, one a scarred Chinese woman, while the other turns out to be the beautiful grown-up daughter, Tina—both of whom will be present at the violent end.

Indeed, I had to skim this novel again to understand the ending, to realize the love of these two women for McCorkle rather than Chubb, and their identification with the volume of poetry that McCorkle has produced in the jungle and they have brought back to the capital. It is actually a simple tale, but it has been made quite complex by the telling. Which many an author uses to create interest and suspense in a simple tale. Except, here, it has been too complex an approach for me, and the tale a too simple one of literary deceit.

That is, this is another tale that explores what is real and what is not real. Except, it is the not real, the poetry, the literary work, that is being explored for its reality. It also explores truth and lies, not just the hoax, but the plot as well. And it explores justice, as well, in the fate of Chubb, McCorkle, and the Australian poetry editor Weiss.

Plus, many of the characters are just pretending as they deal with each other. Slater is pretending to Sarah to get her to Malaysia. We later learn that Sarah’s father pretended to Sara about the death of her mother. (And that her father pretended not to be a homosexual, as Sarah has done as well.) And now in Malaysia, Sarah is pretending to Chubb in order to get the hidden manuscript, while Chubb is initially pretending to Sarah that he has access to it. McCorkle is pretending also, for he calls his hidden work My Life as a Fake. Even author Carey is pretending that he is writing a thriller when he is really writing about hoaxes and the prevalence of pretending in the literary world.

This has not been a satisfying novel, but its provocative situation has prompted me to read it to find out what is going on. And the pace is certainly there, and the revelations, to draw the reader on. Further Carey is not a must, but a provocative situation like this could well draw me into future work, as they have done in the past, such as with Oscar and Maggs. (March, 2016)

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