Sunday, November 23, 2003

poetry or pretension?

My Life As a Fake by Peter Carey. Knopf. $24

By Jason Overdorf
(This book review appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review in November 2003).

THERE ARE NO MORE interesting characters than the genius and the fraud. Of the two, the fraud--who abhors messy perspiration, preferring instead a single, bold, elegant stroke of inspiration--is of course the more compelling. Just such a trickster is the central figure of My Life as a Fake, the latest novel from Man Booker Prize winner Peter Carey, a tale based on a literary hoax that occurred in Australia in 1944.

In the real story, two clever writers opposed to the abstruse direction taken by modernist poetry set out to prove the ignorance of its proponents. To this end, they cobbled together a fake poem from the flotsam and jetsam of some famous poets, titling it The Darkening Ecliptic. They submitted their work to an avant-garde Australian literary magazine called Angry Penguins under the pseudonym Ern Malley. The magazine's editor, who accepted and published the poem, was not only humiliated when the trick was revealed, but in a bizarre twist of events, he was taken to court for violating Australia's obscenity laws.

In Carey's fictional version, a lone poet named Christopher Chubb had perpetrated his hoax long before the novel begins. Chubb conjured up a rustic autodidact called Bob McCorkle and submitted his poem to an imaginary Australian magazine named Personae, hoping to show once and for all that the editor couldn't tell poetry from pretension. But Chubb's spiteful hoax proved more disastrous than he intended. Disgraced in print and in court, the editor of Personae killed himself. After the suicide of his pilloried victim, Chubb drops off the map for decades.

Enter London poetry magazine editor Sarah Wode-Douglass, the book's narrator, who discovers Chubb while she is on holiday in Kuala Lumpur. He now works as a bicycle mechanic--the career he facetiously devised for McCorkle. Chubb is covered in scabs and possesses a single, threadbare suit. But he still has something to hook Wode-Douglass with. He tempts her with a page of poetry that promises it might just be the real thing: literary genius.

"It was a poem, or part of a poem, composed in those thick rhythmic downstrokes which would later become, if only briefly, so familiar," Wode-Douglass explains. "I read with a full consciousness of the old man's history. I approached those twenty lines with both suspicion and hostility, and for a moment I thought I had him. It was a sort of Oriental Tristan Tzara, but that was too glib a response to something with very complicated internal rhymes . . . It slashed and stabbed its way across the page, at once familiar and alien. I wondered if the patois--Malay, Urdu--was disguising something other than cod Eliot. But that did not fit either, for you really cannot counterfeit a voice. All I knew now, in my moment of greatest confusion and suspicion, was that my heart was beating very fast indeed."

As coy as any poet's mistress (and certainly more so than any poet), Chubb refuses to show Wode-Douglass the entire poem until she listens to the story of its origin. He insists that it was not he who wrote it, but the real Bob McCorkle--a Frankenstein's monster who literally stepped into the world fully grown from the hoaxer's imagination. Wode-Douglass is wary of becoming the victim of a second, more astonishing, scam, but no matter who the author is, the brilliance of the page of poetry she has seen is undeniable. Perhaps Chubb is a madman, but she must know if he is a genius. She must read the entire work. And for that reason, she must listen to the trickster's tale, the heart of My Life as a Fake.

Like the monsters of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Bob McCorkle seems at once his creator's true self and his worst nightmare.

Though Chubb ostensibly fashioned the pseudonym to expose the stupidity of Australia's search for its "authentic" poet, in doing so he discovered and set free from the rigid confines of his Anglophile's body the very Australian voice he'd denied existed. In Wode-Douglass's words, Chubb's own poems are "priggish, self-serving, snobbish," while McCorkle's have "wildness," "nasal passion" and "the sense that nothing on earth can matter but a poem."

Imagine Chubb's horror. A literary snob, an exposer of fake artists, and he brings to life an alter ego more talented than himself, a genuine prodigy! Writers--notorious for their envy--shudder at the idea. They know the difficulty of the struggle for a real, honest, new voice, as well as the mixture of torture and joy in discovering that another has triumphed in it. But Chubb's trial is not limited to burning jealousy. His nemesis, hating his creator as monsters will, kidnaps Chubb's daughter and leads him into exile in the jungle, eventually forcing him to take on the working class penury he mocked with his hoax.

Carey, who won Booker prizes for Oscar and Lucinda and The True History of the Kelly Gang, is one of those rare writers whose works are greeted with nervous anticipation, for fear he might one day falter. But My Life as a Fake does not disappoint and Carey once again proves his formidable talent. Though the novel's pace bogs down a bit in the last third, this intelligent and playful work combines a witty reflection on the nature of art and a compulsively readable colonial adventure story with look-Mom-no-hands virtuosity.

One can hardly escape the impression that the author has staked his claim to being his country's Bob McCorkle and its Christopher Chubb: An unpretentious, genuine Australian voice and a clever, deceitful magician. This is very fine work--truth at its most feigning--and Carey performs without a net.