I would argue that the hallmark of Peter Carey’s writing is not necessarily the Australiana, nor his attention to details, but the way he describes people: somehow showing them to be ridiculous, misguided, and confused, while simultaneously offering a warm, human regard for them. This imbues the characters with a believability — they are flawed, yes, but mostly sympathetic. Carey’s obvious love of language further strengthens his characters, who express themselves in language that’s perfectly ordinary — for them.
My Life as a Fake is no exception. The threads of the story, woven around and extrapolated from an event in Australian literary history, are less important, in the end, than the interplay of characters and the language they use to express themselves.
Plot-wise, this is far from my favorite Peter Carey book. It has some interesting diversions through the territories of Southeast Asia, an exploration of a grand quest, and a number of people experiencing revelations of their personal histories. But, really, the total plot arc was not as compelling as the individual stories of the characters.
The language of My Life as a Fake, however, is subtle, and though it lacks the almost brutal directness of some of Carey’s other works (compare The Thrue History of the Kelly Gang, or Jack Maggs), there is an elegance to it. There are some nice touches, like an Australian who has lived long years in Singapore still occasionally calls people “mate,” but will also sometimes append names with a familiar “-la.”
Dodie Smith, 1948, republished 1998, St. Martin’s Griffin
Early on, the narrator of this story is dismissed as “a bit consciously naïve” by the man she will fall in love with. And he’s right, although she’s also strangely precocious, reflective, and sometimes wise (and even a little reminiscent of the young Brione in Ian McEwan’s Atonement).
It would be easy to dismiss the book as dated or excessively cute, especially if one were to take a simple statement of the plot (e.g., poor English girls of an eccentric family looking for redemption through marriage to wealthy Americans). But such an assessment would overlook the charm and sincerity of the story. It is funny and touching. And while it uses absurd situations to poke (mostly) gentle fun at artists and the arts world, at British mores, and at Americans, it also has a very real sense of wonder for the world, it has very believable emotions and interactions between characters, and, perhaps most importantly, it is a delightful read.
Pauline Réage, 1954, read as eText from MemoWare.com
Well, this eText had some problems, which appeared to be caused by an occasional missing page from the source, but the intermittent gaps in the narrative were not enough to account for my disappointment.
Given what I knew of the story (i.e., very little, other than it had been extensively banned and involved sadomasochistic sexuality), I was expecting the tale to be shocking, titillating, or at least interesting. Instead, I found myself bored. The character of O spends all her time either being abused or whining about her love for her abusers. They, on the other hand, seem utterly unemotional and without any character other than their predilection for abuse. There’s no drama here, just dull repetition of uninvolving social gatherings, floggings, and mechanical sexuality.
I enjoy the hard-boiled noir genre, and am a sucker for a good Raymond Chandler novel, even if I often have trouble navigating the exact twists and turns of the plots. Devil in a Blue Dress not only fits the genre, but also manages to keep me confused as to exactly who is who and what it is they’re up to. It’s a fun read, that shares not only the feel of a Chandler novel, but Chandler’s exuberant use of the language.