Peter Carey

You can’t escape the black square with the ominous slit: it’s about as familiar and inevitable in Australia as the icon for male or female. Ned’s iron mask now directs you to the National Library’s website of Australian images. There it is, black on red ochre, an importunate camera, staring back as we look through it ...

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Oscar and Lucinda is the next best thing we have to that gleaming oxymoron a contemporary Australian literary classic. It won a swag of prizes (not least the Booker); it is a long vibrant narrative, including history full of the rustle of Victorian costumes, but with a whisper of the horrors on which this country was founded with a brief ghastly moment representing the murder of Aborigines.

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Peter Carey has constructed a labyrinth. Let me gropingly try to lead you through it. The year is 1837. A convict, transported to New South Wales for the term of his natural life, returns to London intent on finding the boy who years before did him a kindness. The boy, Henry Phipps, has grown up a gentleman ...

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The first draft didn’t have Tristan, this deformed little character. Then I was reading to the kids, Beauty and the Beast. It was very beautifully written, terribly moving – and they were moved. I read it to them many times, thinking it would be interesting to look at that. Then, round about this time, I was walking along the street and glimpsed a terribly deformed young man in a wheelchair. I couldn’t bear to look at him yet I carried with me afterwards a vision, this bright, bright intelligence and this weird twisted-up face. It was quite moving and, having flinched from it, as from a fire or being cut, I began to make myself think about what was in there. That really goes back again to the very beginning of my work, the short stories. In the very beginning I was affected by Faulkner and As I Lay Dying because Faulkner was giving rich, interior worlds to people who you might otherwise pass by. That’s been a continual thing in my work, perhaps.

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This is a dazzling book. A sprawling, sensual, rambunctious marvel of a novel, it drives its readers out of their everyday world and every comfortable preconception. It takes enormous risks, not least that of demanding our understanding for the monstrous.

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From short stories Peter Carey has proceeded to long novels. This is his third. It is dense with incident and meticulously delineated characters who drop in and out of the narrative, always with a purpose. In some ways it is as surreal as Bliss, in others as naturalistic as Illywacker ...

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An Illywhacker, Peter Carey reminds us at the start of his latest and by far his longest novel, is a trickster or spieler. Wilkes cites it in Kylie Tennant’s famous novel of 1941, The Battlers. The other epigraph to the novel is also preoccupied with deception and is familiar to anyone who knows Carey’s work: Brian Kiernan used it as the title of his anthology of new Australian short story writers, The Most Beautiful Lies, an anthology in which Carey himself was represented: It is from Mark Twain and reads in part: ‘Australian history … does not read like history, but like the most beautiful lies; and all of a fresh new sort, no mouldy old stale ones. It is full of surprises and adventures, the incongruities, and contradictions, and incredibilities; but they are all true, they all happened.’

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True Love and How to Get It by Gerard Lee & Bliss by Peter Carey

by
June 1982, no. 41

Peter Carey’s first novel, Bliss, will be self-recommending to all admirers of his astonishing short stories. The Fat Man in History and the even better War Crimes mark Carey as the most genuinely original of our storytellers – a fabulist and, in some corners of his imagination, a surrealist of disturbing power. Part of his achievement and, arguably, a sign of his freshness of vision is that his fictions manage so adroitly to slip through the critic’s webs of explication. They tend to resist any simple yielding up of their inner meaning at the same time as they touch the nerves of our general experience and social fears. The central figures of his narratives are typically trapped in the labyrinths of their obsessions or delusions, they are solitaries, often, like the fat men in the title story, both victims and perpetrators of their condition.

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