The postcolonial search for national identity dominates Peter Carey’s fiction. An Australian by birth, Carey moved to New York in the late 1980’s, but he continued to address the concerns that have characterized his work from the outset: Australian national consciousness (or that of any postcolonial country), the inherited burden of colonialism, history’s lies, and a fascination with the center–that is, New York or London. To enlarge on these themes, Carey has experimented radically in fictional forms.
Born in a country town–Bacchus Marsh, Victoria–Carey grew up in a family whose men worked as car salesmen and aviators. He attended Geelong Grammar School, a venerable Australian institution patterned after a British boys’ school. He then moved to Victoria’s capital, Melbourne–one of those almost London-like cities that dot the world’s far-flung English-speaking outposts. After a year studying science at Monash University, Carey joined a Melbourne advertising agency. During 1968 he made the requisite stay in London, then settled in Sydney, where he continued his advertising career, interrupted by spells in a commune in Queensland’s rain forest. After serving as artist-in-residence at New York University in 1990, he remained in New York, where he writes and occasionally teaches classes in creative writing, including stints at Princeton and Columbia universities. He has traveled extensively in the United States and Europe, giving readings and attending conferences, where he promotes not only his own work but that of fellow Australian writers as well.
When Carey’s short stories appeared, first in Australian journals, then in two collections, they immediately attracted admirers at home and abroad. Both The Fat Man in History and War Crimes record the Australian experience in ways far afield from the social realism that long dominated the country’s fiction. At times futuristic and apocalyptic, in other instances revolutionary and paranoid, always satirical and ironic, the stories usually have no specific settings, nothing local about them, as they squarely confront the issues and problems faced by a postcolonial people.
Although Carey’s first novel, Bliss, is his weakest, it displays the energy, fantastic qualities, and originality that saw better use in his following work. The narrative takes up Harry Joy’s middle-aged male angst, worsened by a heart attack and confinement in a mental hospital. Leaving his unfaithful wife, who longs to go to New York, and his delinquent children behind, he moves to a commune in the rain forest, where he spends his days happily planting trees and telling stories. The next novel, Illywhacker, also features a storyteller, one who sets out to relate the whole, strange history of Australia. “Illywhacker” is Australian slang for con artist, a label that fits the 139-year-old, self-proclaimed liar who narrates adventures involving a host of colorful characters and incorporating all strands of Australian mythology. To round out the central character’s sometime career as a bush pilot and car salesman, Carey draws from his family’s early involvement in the automobile business and aviation, and just as in Bliss he relies on his time in a commune.
Oscar and Lucinda, which received Great Britain’s distinguished Booker Prize and which may well be Carey’s finest work, moves away from contemporary Australia and the author’s experience. Instead it reinvents the typical plot of an early Australian novel: life in England, followed by the voyage to Australia, then the struggle in the antipodes. Solidly textured as it renders an earlier England and re-creates colonial nineteenth century Sydney, the novel follows the unconsummated romance and misguided adventures of two compulsive gamblers: Oscar, a Church of England priest, and Lucinda, owner of a glass factory. In the early parts, the narrative adheres to reality, even while mocking the historical novel, but the story turns fantastic once Oscar and Lucinda construct a glass church, which they send on an ill-fated move into the outback. The metaphor of the shattered glass chapel seems to suggest the fragility and absurdity of white settlement on the ancient continent where the Aborigines had dwelled for forty thousand years.
Returning to the present, Carey satirizes contemporary Australian society in The Tax Inspector, a bizarre tale of the Catchprices, who own an automobile dealership in suburban Sydney. A tax audit initiates the four days of the novel’s action, during which the family’s history unravels, including two generations of sexual abuse–a dangerous and daring metaphor for corruption that Carey manages skillfully. In the novel’s apocalyptic conclusion, Granny Catchprice, a dynamite fancier and expert, blows up the family business and home in an attempt to erase the decadent past.
For The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith, Carey creates his own world, consisting of a distant colony called Efica (probably Australia) and a powerful imperial force called Voorstand (likely the United States). Tristan Smith, the Efican protagonist, grotesquely deformed and stunted in growth, harbors both a fascination with and revulsion toward Voorstand. More reminiscent of Carey’s short stories than the preceding novels in its leap beyond realism, The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith probes most deeply Carey’s obsession with the postcolonial condition.
Jack Maggs constituted Carey’s appropriation of Charles Dickens; his title character is a version of the Australian convict Abel Magwitch from Great Expectations. The novel relates his experiences on returning to England after becoming an important landowner in Australia and his involvement with a mesmerist and writer who bears a strong resemblance to Dickens.
Both Jack Maggs and Carey’s next novel, True History of the Kelly Gang, won the Commonwealth Writers Prize, and True History also gave Carey his second Booker Prize. This novel repeats Carey’s interest in the convict and outlaw history of Australia, elevating the legendary bushranger Ned Kelly to the status of archetypal Australian, driven to outlawry by oppressive colonialist exploitation.