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Peter (Philip) Carey Biography

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Nationality: Australian. Born: Bacchus Marsh, Victoria, 1943. Education: Geelong Grammar School; Monash University, Clayton, Victoria, 1961. Career: Worked in advertising in Australia, 1962-68 and after 1970, and in London, 1968-70; partner, McSpedden Carey Advertising Consultants, Chippendale, New South Wales, until 1988. Currently teacher, New York University and Princeton University. Lives in New York. Awards: New South Wales Premier's award, 1980, 1982; Miles Franklin award, 1981; National Book Council award, 1982, 1986; Australian Film Institute award, for screenplay, 1985; The Age Book of the Year award, 1985, 1994; Booker prize, 1988; Commonwealth Prize for best novel, 1998. Fellow, Royal Society of Literature. Agent: International Creative Management, 40 W. 57th St., New York, New York 10019, U.S.A.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

Bliss. St. Lucia, University of Queensland Press, London, Faber, andNew York, Harper, 1981.

Illywhacker. London, Faber, and New York, Harper, 1985.

Oscar and Lucinda. London, Faber, and New York, Harper, 1988.

The Tax Inspector. London, Faber, and New York, Knopf, 1992.

The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith. London, Faber, and New York, Knopf, 1995.

The Big Bazoohley. New York, Henry Holt, 1995.

Jack Maggs. St. Lucia, Australia, University of Queensland Press, 1997; New York, Knopf, 1998.

Short Stories

The Fat Man in History. St. Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1974; London, Faber, and New York, Random House, 1980; as Exotic Pleasures, London, Pan, 1981.

War Crimes. St. Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1979.

Collected Stories. St. Lucia, Australia, University of QueenslandPress, 1994.

A Letter to Our Son. St. Lucia, Australia, University of QueenslandPress, 1994.

Plays

Screenplay:

Bliss: The Screenplay, with Ray Lawrence, St. Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1986; as Bliss: The Film, London, Faber, 1986.

* * *

Peter Carey's short story collections The Fat Man in History and War Crimes established his reputation as one of Australia's most skilled and innovative writers of short fiction. His stories break away from the Australian tradition of realism as he experiments with surrealism, fantasy, cartoon characterization, and the "tall tale." In the often-anthologized story "Peeling," for example, when an old man's fantasies about his neighbor begin to come to fruition, he realizes that the fantasy is more appealing than the woman herself. She is left, after he has undressed her of her layers of clothing, with her flesh unzipped and peeled away. Thereafter, "with each touch she is dismembered, slowly, limb by limb." In "American Dream," a less fantastic but no less disturbing story, a replica of a small town in miniature, complete with townspeople and their secrets, becomes the vehicle for a poignant criticism of both provincialism and tourism.

In his novels Carey never seems afraid to play with the kind of experimentation associated with postmodernist writing or to be scathing in his social criticism. While no two Peter Carey novels look alike, they all share his fascination with the juxtaposition of the disturbing, the nightmarish, and the unexpected with the mundane and the real. Readers frequently compare Carey's work with that of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Salman Rushdie, Robert Kroetsch, and Murray Bail. Although Carey himself is "wary" of being labeled a magic realist, his work has often been cited as exemplary of the form in a postcolonial context.

Carey's tendency to write past the limits of expectation in his short stories is expanded in his novels. His stories and novels are thematically linked through a concern with contemporary social systems, the politics of everyday life, the oppressive remnants of colonialism, and consumer exploitation. Carey's first published novel, Bliss, displays a particularly sharp critique of the effects of capitalism. He relies on a combination of Juvenalian satire and metafiction to highlight both personal and corporate corruption. This is the sad-but-funny story of an advertising executive, Harry Joy, who suffers a near-fatal heart attack and revives with a radically different perception of reality. Upon recovery he believes that he is in Hell. It is through the theme of cancer (caused by the food additives in a product advertised by Harry's company) that Carey most forcefully links the capitalism represented by the advertising world and the deterioration of society into Hell. Harry's savior from this dystopian world is Honey Barbara, "pantheist, healer, whore," with whom he escapes into a forest commune to spend his life planting trees and raising bees.

The novel ends on a utopian note with the soul and blue essence of the dead Harry Joy being absorbed into a tree he planted 30 years earlier. Although the celebratory nature of the ending has been read by critics as providing too much of a cancellation of the sharp satiric criticism of the majority of the novel, Carey claims that it was not his intention to provide anything but a "temporary escape from a terminal future."

Such a "terminal future" is evident in Illywhacker, the story of the 139-year-old Herbert Badgery, the illywhacker or trickster/spieler hero-narrator of the title. Although Carey frequently plays with Australian myths in order to debunk them in his writing, such play reaches a crescendo in this novel. The stories of Badgery's life, and the lives of his son and grandson, provide a parallel history to the stories of Australia. The epigraph from Mark Twain points to the premise of the novel: "Australian history … does not read like history, but like the most beautiful lies; and all of a fresh sort, no moldy stale ones." The central lies of Australian history exposed in the novel are the notion of pre-colonial Australia as terra nullis, the denial of a reliance on American interests in the economy (illustrated in the form of General Motors' "Australia's Own Car"), and the idea that Australians are free, proud, independent, and anti-authoritarian. The final third of the novel details the development of the Best Pet Shop in the World, which is clearly a metaphor for the increasing commercialization of Australian flora, fauna, and people. What begins as a celebration of "pure Australiana" ends as a grotesque exhibition of Australians themselves (including most of the surviving central characters). Again, Carey's exaggerated realism exposes the horrors of capitalism. Illywhacker celebrates the indomitable spirit of pioneers like Badgery, yet it also exposes flaws in the nation and culture they helped to create.

Carey's Booker Prize-winning third novel, Oscar and Lucinda, continues his fascination with the stories of Australian history. Set in the nineteenth century, the story follows the lives of Oscar, an "Odd Bod" English Anglican minister who chooses to emigrate to New South Wales as punishment for his gambling addiction, and Lucinda, an heiress who champions women's rights, owns a glass factory, and is a compulsive gambler herself. Narrated by Oscar's great-grandson in contemporary Australia, 1985, the novel is the story of how, 120 years earlier, Oscar and Lucinda come together in their addictions but not in their love. It is also a story that Woodcock notes "reveals the brutal cultural expropriation" of the land "with disturbing violence." Carey weaves the love story into the commentary on aboriginal cultural genocide in the final sections of the novel as Oscar travels with a glass church through the Outback. In the style of historiographic metafiction, Kumbaingiri Billy, an aboriginal storyteller, tells an alternative version of history when he tells of Oscar's visit in the tale of how "Jesus come to Belligen long time ago." Carey presents facts about the settling of Australia in a self-reflexive narrative structured around a series of seemingly unconnected episodes. Oscar and Lucinda is, therefore, both a story about storytelling and a story about the fictionality and arbitrariness of history. Carey's narrative rings with verisimilitudinous historical detail. It transports the reader to nineteenth-century Epsom Downs, Darling Harbour, and rural New South Wales. Oscar and Lucinda is thought by many readers to be Carey's most technically and narratively complete novel.

In a dramatic shift into the present, Carey's next novel, The Tax Inspector, is an unsettling portrait of urban social and moral decay in the 1990s. The novel follows the Catchprice family through the four days their family motor business is under investigation by a government tax inspector. In those four days we are witness, in an almost cinematic style, to the nightmarish lives of the caricatured members of the Catchprice clan. (The cinematic pace of the novel is perhaps because Carey was writing this novel at the same time as he was working on Until the End of the World, a film he co-wrote with Wim Wenders.) One of the most disturbing themes in the novel is that of incest and sexual abuse. This metaphor of moral degeneration is set beside the ideals of social reparation represented by the tax inspector.

While The Tax Inspector is a non-linear, hyper-realist novel relying on flashbacks and immediate narration, The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith signals a return to the fantastic nature of Carey's earlier short story writing. This futuristic, dystopian, picaresque novel, narrated by Tristan Smith, the physically deformed son of an actress and three fathers, is set in the small inconsequential nation of Efica ("so unimportant that you are already confusing the name with Ithaca or Africa") and the overpowering and ruthless nation of Voorstand. The high-tech capitalist Voorstand Sirkus is juxtaposed with the morally and culturally idealist agit-prop theater group of Tristan's mother. Perhaps Carey's most overtly postcolonial novel, The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith is a complex allegory of colonialism. As a migrant narrator, Tristan can champion the culture and values of the colonized land even as he seeks salvation in the anonymity available to him in the overwhelming cultural imperialism of Voorstand.

In Jack Maggs Carey returns to early Victorian England, but it is a bleaker nation than in Oscar and Lucinda. The title character is a convict illegally returned to London from New South Wales in search of the young gentleman, Henry Phipps, he has made wealthy. As the novel "writes back" to Charles Dickens's Great Expectations, Carey compellingly recreates the gray, foggy, crowded nature of Dickensian London complete with devoted footmen, adulterous authors, and expert young silver thieves. Through the use of hypnosis, Tobias Oates, a young novelist-journalist whose sketches of London riffraff have made him a celebrity, unveils the secrets of Jack's past as he steals his story, the story of the Criminal Mind. Jack Maggs is the most overtly metafictional of Carey's novels. The biographic novel that Oates is writing about Jack Maggs is fittingly called Jack Maggs. In its use of postmodern hyperbole and untruths, this version of Jack Maggs contradicts the version that we are reading. As we see the unreliability of Oates's narrative, the unreliability of Carey's narrative is also, implicitly, called into question. In a sense, Carey is returning to the idea of questioning the lies of history he highlighted in both Illywhacker and Oscar and Lucinda.

Carey is one of the most important figures in recent Australian literature. He has consistently been at the forefront of literary experimentation in his use of form and at the forefront of cultural criticism in the themes he has chosen. Carey's work is certainly central in the growing canon of world literature written in English.

—Laura Moss

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