Observer review: My Life as a Fake by Peter Carey

Peter Carey combines an Australian literary hoax with Mary Shelley's Frankenstein to produce My Life as a Fake

My Life as a Fake
by Peter Carey
Faber £16.99, pp256

In 1944, an avant-garde Australian poetry magazine called Angry Penguins published The Darkening Ecliptic by Ern Malley, a humble garage mechanic who died from Graves' disease in his early twenties. Except that it wasn't. Rather, the magazine's editor, Max Harris, had fallen for a literary hoax, and both poet and poem were the creations of anti-modernists, Harold Stewart and James McAuley.

Harris's humiliation was complete when he found himself in the dock on obscenity charges and, for a brief moment, jeering tabloid headlines made poetry front-page news. Such is the spitefulness of the literary world, and of poets in particular, but as Peter Carey retells it in his new novel, this episode also illuminates plenty about the provincialism and cultural insecurities that characterised Australian society at that time.

Recasting Harris as David Weisz, whom he has tragically kill himself, Carey rolls the two hoaxers into one: Christopher Chubb, the chippy voice of conservative poetry whose favourite form is the double sestina. Chubb's nom de plume is Bob McCorkle, to whom Carey attributes Malley's actual lines, just as he uses court records to dramatise the absurdity of the trial. But where reality leaves off, Carey's myth-making picks up, drawing on Milton, voodoo and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. For, according to Chubb, on day one of Weisz's trial, proceedings were interrupted when a tall man with a wild mane of hair leapt to his feet claiming to be Bob McCorkle. In McCorkle's voice, we are told, 'what had been clever had now become true, the song of the autodidact, the colonial, the damaged beast of the Antipodes'.

Over the coming decades, McCorkle pursues his maker, looming over him at Weisz's funeral, and tracking him from Melbourne to a Sidney suburb, kidnapping Chubb's baby daughter and fleeing with her to Malaysia. Chubb pursues him, washing up in Kuala Lumpur where, decades later, our narrator, Sarah Wode-Douglass, stumbles upon him, his story and the McCorkle poems. By this point, Chubb has become a bicycle-wallah, a 'ragged creature hammering metal' in KL's steaming Jalan Campbell, his character bent into an almost comical mix of pride, pomposity and powerlessness.

Sarah, or Micks as she is known, is the aristocratic editor of a London-based poetry quarterly and has travelled to KL with John Slater, a British poet whom, she believes, drove her mother to suicide years earlier. Having arrived in KL seeking the truth about their relationship, Micks glimpses another truth in a single McCorkle poem shown to her by Chubb, the artistic truth that has eluded her throughout her career.

Australia may be a country in which billiards players rank far above poets (and while Carey may be its best living novelist, for the past 12 years he has been based in New York), but the London literary scene, as embodied by Slater, a squandered talent who has devoted himself to the 'social side of literature', is just as bleak. As Micks admits, the poets she publishes are all 'adequately talented', but she has never published a great poem.

This novel cajoles each and every one of its characters into becoming fakes, and while Carey casts doubt on Chubb's sanity and on Slater's motives (the pair turn out to share a feud-ridden and incestuous history), he has Sarah transcribe page after page of Chubb's crazed story in order to ferret out his cache of poems.

Kuala Lumpur is caught on the cusp of its colonial past and independent future, and the story of Bob McCorkle unfolds over a series of interviews in a hotel named the Merlin. Could Chubb really have brought McCorkle to life or is he just a figment of his guilty imagination? In the context of Carey's thrilling fiction, it seems perfectly possible.

As it is, Chubb, like Frankenstein, is enslaved to his creation, becoming more and more like him. When he speaks, Micks notes that his language 'had become marinated with the homilies of Kampong Burn'. In Shelley's story, Frankenstein's creation finds the scientist's notebook and comprehends his monstrousness, but here, book and knowledge flow in the opposite direction: Chubb's poetry is never more than adequate, but McCorkle's verse, written in a language he has made his own, is 'worth being born for'.

Its title? Ultimately, it is snatched back from Wode-Douglass's grasp, but while literature enshrined is shown to be literature lost, it does not seem such a tragedy that McCorkle's words will never fill her quarterly.

Contributor

Hephzibah Anderson

The GuardianTramp

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