Peter Carey | Critical Essay by Graeme Turner

This literature criticism consists of approximately 17 pages of analysis & critique of Peter Carey.
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Critical Essay by Graeme Turner

SOURCE: "American Dreaming: The Fictions of Peter Carey," in Australian Literary Studies, Vol. 12, No. 4, October, 1986, pp. 431-41.

In the following essay, an earlier draft of which was presented at the conference of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature in July 1986, Turner outlines the major characteristics of Carey's fiction and discusses Carey's use of "American" formal devices to create literature with Australian themes.

Arguments around the concepts of nationalism and internationalism are familiar presences in discussions of Australian literature and other areas of cultural production, such as Australian film. Within such discussions, the internationalist position recommends itself as a kind of sophistication, a smoothing over of the rough edges of parochialism, and the embodiment of wider, even universal, standards of achievement. Peter Carey has been hailed as an international writer. The Sydney Morning Herald review of Bliss [October 10, 1981] is representative in its typing of Carey as a writer who 'finally brings Australia out of the last stubborn crannies of provincialism' and into a 'new universality and sophistication.' Reviewers may divide on such issues as the 'Australian-ness' of Illywhacker, but sophistication is a word which occurs regularly in accounts of Carey's fiction. Most often, this sophistication is seen to be primarily stylistic or formal—a product of Carey's use of the modes of black humour, metafiction, or fabulation, and his employment of popular sub-genres like science fiction. Although few go so far as to deny that there are important correspondences between the worlds depicted in Carey's fiction and Australian society, the fact that such correspondences are not usually literal—they reside at the level of interpretation—makes it possible to talk of his works as universal or, conversely, un-Australian. Such judgements may be partial, but they do highlight an important feature of the reception of Carey's fiction: that is, its distinctiveness is first apprehended as a distinction of form rather than of meaning or theme. Such a separation cannot, of course, be maintained, and in this discussion I wish to make some connections between Carey's use of international forms—specifically, American forms—and his generation of Australian meanings in order to outline what I see as important constituents of his fiction.

Although I wish to examine the relationship between Carey's fiction and American forms and meanings, it must be admitted that they are not the only international influences perceptible in his work. It is possible, for instance, to draw quite precise parallels between Carey and Marquez. As writers from post-colonial cultures they stand in similar political relations to the dominant literary forms and establishments, and have close stylistic and thematic affinities; the issue of colonialism, too, is prominent in both bodies of fiction. However, it is the Marquez who has been appropriated by American traditions who will make the occasional appearance in this discussion, as it is the American connections with which it is most concerned. The ways in which Carey and Marquez might form the basis for a discussion of post-colonial writing and the dominance of American literary culture must be deferred for future explorations.

That qualification made, it is clear that there is a strong American influence on Carey's work. It has become customary to see his fiction in the context of American black humour, metafiction, or fabulation. (Metafiction is 'fiction about fiction', self-consciously addressing and exposing its constructed nature; fabulation is defined, unhelpfully, by the coiner of the term, Robert Scholes [in Fabulation and Metafiction, 1979], as 'ethically controlled fantasy', revealing the contemporary 'plunge back into the tide of story'.) Such terms are conventionally used to characterise the dominant mode of contemporary writing in the United States, although it must be added that they are as representative of American appropriation of external influences as of exclusively indigenous traditions. Fabulation is more applicable to Borges and Marquez than to any American writer—hence the appropriation of these two writers into any discussion of American metafiction or fabulation. American fiction has been particularly adept at absorbing influences from elsewhere (in addition to Borges' fabulation, for instance, Camusian absurdist thought dominates post-war American comic fiction). Such absorption does not, however, disqualify its objects from incorporation and transformation into American traditions and ideologies. The orthodox view of the dominant stylistic characteristics of modern American fiction may be as constructed as any other form of orthodoxy but it serves as an important reference point for readers, and for Carey's reviewers.

The grounds for placing Peter Carey within an American context are essentially stylistic, but style is more than decoration. It is the product of a theory of 'the real', a view of the function of fiction, and thus of the status of the writer. The adoption of a style is also potentially the adoption of that theory of 'the real', and of the making of fictions, which produces it. Peter Carey's fiction is like much American fiction in that it uses its forms to expose and interrogate its fictional status. While relatively infrequent in Australian fiction, the adoption of formal strategies which have foregrounded the making of the fiction and its self-reflexivity has occurred in American fiction since Melville and almost conventionally since the 1960s. In recent American fiction, mimesis has been displaced while fantasy and romance have prospered; the recovery of the primacy of plot and design paradoxically coexists with reminders of their constructed and arbitrary nature.

This may look abstract, but it can take place at the most basic levels of narrative organisation. For example, in The World According to Garp, John Irving uses the past historic tense as his 'base tense', but breaks it up by intrusions of the future tense. The consequent dispelling of any illusion of the story 'telling itself' exposes and foregrounds the storytelling process rather than attempting to bury it in a realist narrator. Carey has used a similar method: beginning with the present, often dropping into the past as his base tense, and continually alluding to the future. This happens in many of his stories and is basic to the narrative organisation of Bliss and Illywhacker. Like Irving and other contemporary American writers, Carey also generalises from this formal problematic of fictionality, adopting a thematically metafictional view of the importance of fiction, of lies, to support social existence. In Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five, Billy Pilgrim overhears Rosewater say to a psychiatrist, 'I think you guys are going to have to come up with a lot of wonderful new lies, or people just aren't going to want to go on living'. It is a warning the Peter Carey of Bliss would understand.

The above quotation is not only about fiction, it is also about those fictions we call history. The interest in fictionality in modern American writing, the use of fantasy, and the consequent questioning of the real, has inevitably proposed the fictionality of history. This proposition is not confined to American writing; the work of Borges and Marquez in South America and of Fowles in the U.K. are important here. But, as Richard Poirier has remarked [in A World Elsewhere: The Place of Style in American Literature, 1967], 'Americans have always regarded reality as their own construction', and so American metafictionists such as John Barth, in The Sot-Weed Factor, or Robert Coover, in The Public Burning, are representative in their exploitation of the tension between the historical and the fantastic in their novels. The aim in such novels is to dissolve any easy distinction between the fictional and the historical; in The Public Burning the fantastic most often employs documentary, historical modes of representation, while The Sot-Weed Factor constructs its absurd world with all the apparent deference to history typical of the historical novel. In Slaughterhouse Five, again, the destruction of Dresden during World War II is represented as being as fantastic (that is, as difficult to believe) as the visit from the aliens of Tralfamadore. The point is not that the destruction of Dresden did not actually occur, but that history's silence on it has made it impossible to believe it occurred. History is revealed as a selection, a compositional act, and thus a fictional account of the real.

Peter Carey has admitted an interest in this view of history. In an interview with Philip Neilsen ['Tell Me What Colour You Think the Sky Is'; published in extract, Australian Literary Studies, (1981)] he talked of his admiration for Marquez' combination of fantasy and history, and its magical, mythic effects. Carey's fantastic alternative worlds, like those of Barth, Coover, Vonnegut, and Marquez, can always be seen as alternative perspectives on an historical world, questioning it and exposing its constructed, arbitrary nature. Even Illywhacker, which begins uncharacteristically in an almost social realist style—a style which privileges history—eventually modulates into the fantastic—a style which is able to see history as a construction. As is the case with The Public Burning and One Hundred Years of Solitude, the mythic quality of Illywhacker proceeds from this modulation and the tension it produces. For Carey, and, incidentally, for Marquez, the interrogating of history as myth and the proposition of fiction as an alternative has a special significance within the literature of a post-colonial, but still colonised, culture.

The preceding remarks underline how difficult it is to describe formal narrative strategies independently of their cultural context. The description usually implies a history. More importantly, any consideration of formal properties must progress towards a consideration of the view of the world and of fiction they represent. So, a formal interest in fantasy and in science fiction can also be a thematic interest in the forms and construction of experience. The novelist's seizing of the opportunity to play with non-realist forms can nevertheless be directed towards a point of view on the real or on history. In Carey's work such linkages are rarely made systematically, as in allegory for instance, but exist as correspondences with or inferences towards Australian society and mythology. Such correspondences and inferences are made essential components of one's reading of Carey's fiction through the characteristic oscillations between the fantastic and the historical, something which is skilfully controlled and a key source of the reader's pleasure in both the novels and in such stories as 'American Dreams' and 'A Windmill in the West'.

One of the benefits of Todorov's book on the fantastic [The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, 1973] was his localising of the sensation of 'hesitation'. A definitive component of the fantastic, this occurs when the reader is caught between the explicable and the inexplicable (what Todorov calls the 'uncanny and the marvelous') as they read. It is the point where logical, natural explanations do not suffice, but where overtly supernatural explanations have not been explicitly invoked. At such moments, possibilities multiply and the real and fantasy worlds have either to be explicitly reconciled (as in a scientific explanation of an apparent ghost) or convincingly held apart (as a mystery, a dream, or, harder still, a plausible fantasy). This speculative pleasure is often brief and encapsulated. At the end of a supernatural thriller like The Hound of the Baskervilles, for instance, order is restored, fantasy consigned to its proper place in the shade of mimesis, and the hesitation is no more than a passing titillation, frisson in the pleasure of the text.

Carey, and he is by no means alone in this, tends not to resolve or dispel hesitation in this way. Rather, he tends to employ it as a method of closure. 'Peeling', for instance, or 'Exotic Pleasures', are stories where the possibilities of speculation are released rather than encapsulated by the end of the tale. A story such as 'Crabs' makes sufficient correspondences with the real world to enable the story to be seen as an alternative perspective on it. The ending then challenges the reader's determination to make a more systematic connection between the fantasy of the text and the real. (What does the drive-in mean? Is it an image of modernity at the end as it is at the beginning? Or does it sharpen into an image of totalitarianism, the destruction of the individual? Does Crabs' turning into a machine at the end have a social and critical function?) In the most characteristic stories, the tension this creates is not easily resolvable, and the reader 'hesitates'—neither wishing to see the story as allegory nor as ethically uncontrolled. The meaning of the fiction is typically elusive, dominated by the structure, the design of the narrative itself.

In many of Carey's stories, the design of the narrative, and the thematic function of storytelling itself, is crucial. Harry Joy uses language as ritual, to reconstruct his world; Herbert Badgery ultimately accepts few effective distinctions between truth and lies. Reality is seen as something one constructs rather than apprehends objectively, and one's own constructions of it are no less legitimate for being just that. Conversely, since history is a fiction too, our commonsense understandings of existence are only more familiar versions of the delusions suffered by Carla in 'The Chance', or the fat men's hopes of a counterrevolution in 'The Fat Man in History'. The foregrounding of fictionality in the formal organisation of the narratives is thus paralleled by the thematic proposition that all lives are constructions, all accounts are fictions, all explanations are partial or motivated.

This is not to claim too much for Carey as a metaphysician or ideologue. His stories do not try to explain existence. In my view, Carey is not much interested in the metaphysical. His fiction's most basic structural situation is enclosure, entrapment, and he is interested in that. But he is less interested in these traps as political structures—as fuel for a social critique, for instance—than as material forms; he seems drawn to examine their complexity, their symmetry, their completeness. Carey's fictions do not examine what lives mean as much as they examine how lives are constructed in order to produce their meanings. And stories, lies, fantasies, are not the only kind of formal constructions in his fictions which are employed to generate meaning. Other kinds of constructions abound. We have the dome in 'Kristu Du'; the pet shop and Herbert's compulsive house-building in Illywhacker; the working with the wood and hammer in 'Williamson's Wood'; the prison door in 'The Chance'; the hole for the barbecue in 'The Fat Man in History'; the fence dividing Australia in 'A Windmill in the West'; the model of the town in 'American Dreams'; the penthouse within the factory in 'War Crimes'; the conversion of the drive-in to a refugee camp in 'Crabs'. Like fictions, these constructions are contingent and no matter how physically substantial they might be, they rarely have the desired effect of imposing stability or finality on the characters' lives.

Such are some of the connections which can be made between Carey's fiction and that of his formal models. It is understandable if such connections support claims for his internationalism, for his belonging to the world rather than Australia, and for displacing his Australian-ness.

As I said earlier, the appropriation of a formal strategy takes on more than its stylistic attributes; literary form is not innocent of ideology nor is it easily separable from the mythology of the cultural context which produced it. Black humour, for instance, can legitimately be seen as a peculiarly American form, composed of a blend of French existentialism and American pragmatism John Barth labelled 'cheerful nihilism'. [In a footnote, Turner adds: "The label is used in Barth's End of the Road, 1962, and is developed into a theoretical argument in Richard Boyd Hauck's A Cheerful Nihilism: Confidence and the Absurd in American Humorous Fiction, 1971."] It has more than a touch of American romanticism, which means that its version of the absurd incorporates a contradictory element of individualism. Our fiction tends not to be romantic in the same ways; nor is it absurdist or individualist. American fiction, unlike ours, supports the individual, seeing them as morally prior to the society, able to survive its impositions and, like Huck Finn, 'light out for the territory' without dying in a cave like Heriot, being eaten by aboriginals like Voss, or being disappeared by a hanging rock. Such differences between the two narrative traditions have to be negotiated, not only formally but also thematically and ideologically. In Carey's case, this negotiation occurs by way of his thematic preoccupation with colonialism and colonisation, essentially a nationalist position which views Americans with genuine suspicion as threats to an authentic Australian culture.

Carey's fiction regularly depicts isolated individuals or fragmented communities confronting an exploitative system. This system is usually powerful, inscrutable, and insensitive to the indigenous culture it has colonised. Often this indigenous culture is recognisable as Australian by the fact and details of its colonisation. In both Bliss and 'American Dreams' we know the place we are reading about is Australia because it is the subject of American colonisation. And although some of Carey's fictional societies are colonised from other sources—the Japanese in Illywhacker, the extra-terrestrial Fastalogians in 'The Chance'—it is the Americans who are most often the oppressors, the seducers, the invaders.

The Americans are overthrown by the revolution in 'The Fat Man in History'; the ground of the story is the slippage between the view of all Americans as fat, greedy and grotesque and its application to indigenous, defensibly glandular, fat men like Alex. In 'American Dreams', the ideology of American capitalism has colonised the indigenous community's subconscious: 'we all have dreams of the big city, of wealth, of modern houses, of big motor cars: American dreams, my father calls them'. In Carey's stories America has colonised the myths and forms of modernity itself: Crabs has 'American dreams' in Frank's luxurious '56 Dodge; 'The Report from the Shadow Industry' offers us the latest frightening consumer item from America; and Nathan Schick lures even the nationalistic Charles with the promise of the 'best pet shop in the world' in Illywhacker. In Bliss, the combination of the glittering forms of advertising and the myth of success, with their metonym of New York, goads Bettina to self-destruction and is the antithesis of the values advocated through Honey Barbara. The novel's central, and entirely traditional, opposition between Nature and Society is articulated through the conflict between indigenous Australian values—the bushman at the end—and the American 'imported shit', represented with the concentration of metaphor in the examples of petrol, cancer, and advertising.

Such a view of America is not without ambivalence, however. As Herbert Badgery in Illywhacker says, 'no matter how much he hated Henry Ford, he always loved Americans'. Nathan Schick, the provocation for this observation, is both exploiting and engaging:

Schick could talk a line of bullshit like I never heard before, and in this had the distinct advantage of being an American and therefore never hesitant about expressing an opinion. Australians, in comparison, lack confidence, and it is this, not steel mills or oil wells, that is the difference between the two nations.

Although it is Nathan who eventually develops 'the best pet shop in the world' to turn Australia into a theme park for American tourists, the puritanical Leah Goldstein 'loved Nathan Schick's vulgar suit and ringed hands':

She liked the garrulous checks, like leftover material from a Silly Friends party. Even as he had walked across the saloon bar, stepping over the snake so carelessly, even as he opened his gold-filled mouth to expose her for fraud, she liked him.

In Bliss, advertising is American. Bettina's love affair with America is negotiated through advertising, overheated by the myth of New York, and sufficiently strong to survive her affair with Joel. Her ads are brilliant, testimony to her complete adsorption of her American advertising annuals. The narrator's description of the ads she creates, displayed in a magic circle around their living room and provoking an immediate erection from Harry, is not without relish.

A comped-up ad is not a final ad. It is, technically, a rough. It is the sort of rough that is done when a client has no imagination or, more often, when the person doing the ad is too much in love with it to show it in any way that is really rough and does everything to make it appear finished, taking 'rough' photography and getting colour prints, ordering headline type and sticking down body copy in the exact type face (if not the correct words), carefully cut to give the appearance of the final paragraphs. And over all of this is placed a cell overlay, so that a comp. ad, framed with white, mounted on heavy board, covered with its glistening cell overlay, looks more precious to its maker than it ever will again.

Here and elsewhere in Bliss, the appeal of the ads and their magical power is enjoyed and savoured. As with Henry Ford and Nathan Schick, Carey's narrator might deplore the ideology but he loves the forms.

Such is probably a fair description of the relationship between Carey's fiction and its American models. If his resistance to American domination does not inhibit either his narrator's enthusiasm for advertising or Carey's own adoption of American narrative strategies, his use of American forms in his fiction does not simply recycle an anachronistic American ideology to an Australian audience. Instead he appropriates and transforms his models, adapting them to local use as the colonised strike back. As indicated earlier, individualism is easily supported by such formal models but Carey's fiction is ambivalent about the individual as well as critical of society. Its view of the natural world is romantic and in many ways reminiscent of the naive preference for the natural we see in American fictional traditions; however, there is also a strong post-romantic preference for nature in the Australian tradition. Further, while we can see the influence of fabulatory models in Illywhacker, we can also see the influence of Furphy's Such is Life. Tracing this relationship may be a project for someone in the future; for the purposes of this discussion, I wish to conclude by addressing two important effects of the processes I have been describing—effects which may be central to an understanding of Carey's fiction. The first is the way his fiction seems to be producing a new kind of popular readership; the second is its serving, in an unusually self-conscious manner, the cultural function of narrative.

Peter Carey does enjoy a wide readership in Australia. If one's conversations with one's students have any empirical value, it does seem that many have come to his fiction as their first experience of contemporary Australian writing; for some, it is their first experience of any Australian writing. Carey's reputation has spread beyond literary culture; I am encouraged in this view, if I can be forgiven recourse to anecdote, by a conversation I had with an airline clerk while returning from the conference where I presented an earlier version of this article; he told me he had enjoyed my paper on Carey and engaged me in a discussion about the relative merits of Bliss and Illywhacker. This is not a normal experience for those of us who labor in the groves of academe and, while hardly representative, is yet another indication that Carey is tapping a new, often younger, audience for Australian fiction. I believe there may be explanations for this in the formal properties of his work.

Since the 1890s, fiction in Australia has moved progressively away from its popular audience. This has not been so generally the case in the U.S.A., and American writers have traditionally been more comfortable with popular forms and popular culture than their Australian counterparts. The hip, counter-culture vernacular of a Vonnegut, a Brautigan, or a Tom Robbins, is contemporary evidence of this and it finds its Australian version in Peter Carey. Like them, he announces his adventurousness and displays himself as a writer, not by drawing on the avant-garde or the literary as much as by drawing on popular forms such as science fiction, and popular fashions and mythologies such as those which inform 'Crabs'. In this he differs from, say, a Frank Moorhouse, whose observations, while perceptive, are nevertheless made from a position outside popular culture and through literary forms which reject plot or sensation—the stuff of popular entertainment. There is a sense in which Carey's writing is antiliterary, hence his uneasy relationship with the academic world. Patricia Waugh has suggested [in Metafiction: The Theory and Practice of Self-Conscious Fiction, 1984] that by incorporating popular forms as Carey does, the writer undermines and shifts dominant constructions of 'good' literature, the role of the author, and the use of fiction itself. Literariness is not necessarily part of Carey's initial appeal to my students; they find him accessible and familiar before they find him original and demanding. His fiction's clear foregrounding of plot, of story, can be seen as a shifting of the dominant constructions of 'good' literature; it also enables the stories and the novels to be read within a number of reading conventions and at a number of levels—something that is not true of, for instance, David Malouf's fiction.

Another effect of this dominance of plot—the level of display in the narrative design which foregrounds the storyteller in the inventiveness of the plot itself, let alone its constitutive discourses—is that it enunciates the author as a figure, as a visionary in his or her own right. The mythologising of Kurt Vonnegut in the U.S.A., the ease with which his Mark Twain-like cracker-barrel philosophising has found an audience, is an image of the potential for the writer to become not just part of the literary culture, but part of popular culture. Carey's involvement with film, through Bliss, (1985) and Dead-End Drive-In (1986), and popular music, through the rock-opera Illusion (1985), seems to be exploiting that potential. Such factors may be affecting the nature of his readership.

More important, however, is Carey's fiction's fulfilling of the cultural function of narrative. Elsewhere, [National Fictions: Literature, Film and the Construction of Australian Narrative, 1986], I have talked about this—the largely post-structuralist argument that all narrative (film, fiction, myths) serves comparable functions for its culture; crudely, that of helping to make sense of experience within that culture. (Such a view of narrative and culture also informs Robert Dixon's discussion of the historical novel [in 'Rolf Boldrewood's War to the Knife: Narrative Form and Ideology in the Historical Novel' (1986)] in Australian Literary Studies). Narrative has the potential to both produce and reproduce mythologies, to question or legitimate the culture's explanations of itself, to resolve its contradictions. It seems essential, inasmuch as while not all cultures have novels, all cultures have narrative. Developments in narrative theory have suggested that narrative is an epistemological category; this is not to make the conventional claim that 'we make up stories in order to understand the world', but rather that 'the world comes to us in the shape of stories' [William C. Dowling, Jameson, Althusser, Marx: An Introduction to the Political Unconscious, 1984].

Clearly, for the cultural function of narrative, myth is of central importance. Peter Carey's work has been celebrated for its mythic quality, its facility for creating stories which have a fable-like significance. In a story such as 'American Dreams', a myth is proposed; one of resistance to colonisation, to domination from outside the culture. Such a myth is presumably more powerful within and appropriate to an Australian cultural context than either British or American contexts. One of the ways in which it articulates itself is through the image of the 'American dreams' of its characters—the colonising of their dreams by another culture. The image is rich, and its appropriateness is emphasised by the fact that it has occurred elsewhere in Australian cultural production, within a similarly resistant argument. In 1958, Tom Weir wrote an article [published in Albert Moran and Tom O'Regan, eds., An Australian Film Reader, 1985] calling for support for an Australian film industry, in which he argued for the dissemination of Australian images and mythologies through the narrative feature film. He called his article 'No Daydreams of Our Own: The Film as National Self-Expression', and both his and Carey's image of a colonised subconscious are mobilised to attack the influence of foreign mythologies, and to argue for the need to buy back the mythological farm.

In Carey's fiction, this endeavour is specific at the literal and the thematic levels. His thematic emphasis on story, together with his sensitivity to the indigenous culture and its vulnerability to colonisation, proposes fiction-making as an activity that is constitutive of the community and is thus essential to it. His most detailed depiction of this is through Harry Joy at the end of Bliss:

And he also gave value to a story so that it was something of work, as important in its way, as a strong house or a good dam. He insisted that the story was not his, and not theirs either. You must give something, he told the children, a sapphire, or blue bread from cedar ash. And what began as a game ended as a ritual.

They were the refugees of a broken culture who had only the flotsam of belief and ceremony to cling to, or sometimes, the looted relics from other people's temples. Harry cut new wood grown on their soil and built something solid they all felt comfortable with. They were hungry for ceremony and story. There was no embarrassment in these new constructions.

Here fiction and myth elide into each other as the stories are possessed by their audience, becoming the rituals and ceremonies which bind the community together.

It is, perhaps, at such moments in Carey's fiction where the emphasis on fictionality is so clear, that his American influences are most obvious. However, these influences are put to nationalist use by these 'refugees of a broken culture'. In Bliss, Carey is arguing the necessity of constructing stories to live by, stories which emerge from and are given value by the community itself, rather than from the importation of American dreams. Harry Joy's eventual function within this new community in Bliss can be regarded as a kind of model for the writer within the Australian culture, providing fictions, Australian dreams, for a culture 'hungry for ceremony and story'.

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