You would think that a novelist who has twice won the prestigious Booker Prize (and seems a reasonable candidate for a third, given the breathtaking accomplishment of his newest novel, My Life as a Fake) would be set for life. Especially when one of those novels – Oscar & Lucinda – was adapted into a popular movie. And when the remaining novels in his exceptional body of work have been published to critical acclaim here in the U.S., in Great Britain and in Australia, where he was born and lived most of his life before moving to the U.S.
But such are the vagaries of literary fortune that Peter Carey found himself driving over the George Washington Bridge some time ago telling his wife, theater director Alison Summers, that they faced a situation in which they had half as much money coming in as they had expected. Not a brilliant prospect when you live in New York’s Greenwich Village and have two growing boys to raise and educate.
"A prize really does do something," Carey says during a call to his office in the Village, "and guarantees nothing." Carey retains his Australian accent and speaks with energy and good humor. "Nothing is guaranteed if you do this sort of writing. You have a silly idea and you spend three years pursuing it and you can’t guess whether people will like it or hate it or whether it will sell or not sell."
Of course Carey’s newest "silly idea" – inspired by the events of the Ern Malley hoax (a literary scandal in Australia in the 1940s), pursued into a devastating dead end, then revived in a burst of creative ventriloquism – turns out to be his riskiest and most pleasurable bit of storytelling to date. But more on that in a moment.
To smooth out the economic rough spots, Carey began teaching writing classes in New York, first at New York University and then at other schools in the city. This fall, he became director of the writing program at Hunter College. "It’s a serious job," he says, "full time in a way that still permits me to write every day."
It also permits him to run things – Hunter’s literary reading series, for example – his own way. "I’m the most easily bored man on Earth," he says, "and, frankly, if I’m going to run a reading series I want to have things I want to listen to."
In his own writing, Carey is not only an accomplished stylist but a keen observer of life. There is, for example, the remarkable letter he wrote to the literary editor of The Observer shortly after the September 11 terrorist attack. In it he describes hearing the first plane fly overhead, his subsequent anxiety about the fate of his wife, who was at the World Trade Center when the attack occurred (and his relief at her lucky escape and return), and a remarkable nighttime walk through the city with his 15-year-old son that leaves him filled with a sense of pride and belonging.
"I’m one of those people that feels he has two homes," says Carey, who has lived in New York for 13 years, and returns frequently to Australia. "I have a lot of friends here who I would sorely miss if I went back to Australia. And at the same time, I miss Australia. I think I’ve created a little problem for myself that really can’t be solved."
Maybe that is why Australia – particularly its complicated moral and cultural history – has so often been the subject of Carey’s novels. My Life as a Fake, too, has Australia as a starting point. That is, the story within the story of this beautifully labyrinthine tale is an imaginative recasting of the real-life Ern Malley hoax.
But, Carey cautions, "This book is not about the Ern Malley hoax. It uses the Ern Malley hoax, I don’t mean to sound too grandiose, like Miles Davis uses Bye Bye Blackbird’ – to make something new. If the book has to be about anything, it’s about the power of imagination and the sort of magical thinking that novelists often have that if they write something, then maybe it will come true."
In Carey’s riff on the hoax story, a minor poet named Christopher Chubb is offended by the trendy experimentation in an Australian poetry journal. He invents a 24-year-old poet named Bob McCorkle and submits McCorkle’s tricked-up modernist poems for publication. When the fraud is exposed, the editor is humiliated, as Chubb has intended. And Bob McCorkle comes to life.
"When I started writing the book," Carey says, "my intention was to write in the first person from McCorkle’s point of view beginning with him being born in the backyard of a suburban house at the age of 24. I really love the beginning I wrote, but after six months I realized that no matter how much I sandpapered it or fixed sentences, I couldn’t make it work. So I had probably the worst day and night of my writing life. The next morning I woke up and thought, there is a story here and if it can’t work this way, then there must be another way."
Carey eventually discovered the voice of Sarah Wode-Douglass, the conflicted, spinsterish, middle-aged editor of London’s pre-eminent poetry magazine. It’s her voice that tells the story within which the other stories of the novel – "the Chinese boxes," as Carey calls them – unfold. On a trip to Malaysia in the 1970s, Wode-Douglass meets an aging Chubb, who teases her with new poems by Bob McCorkle, poems that seemed marked by genius. Obsessed with finding and publishing the remaining poems, Wode-Douglass begins a quest that takes her deeper into the mysteries of the imagination and the identity of the invented Bob McCorkle.
Carey says My Life as a Fake is "a weird book to talk about." And he’s right. No brief summary can do justice to the haunting beauty, the playfulness, the humor and the riveting storytelling of this masterful novel. In My Life as a Fake Carey brilliantly writes in accord with his belief that writers should be "people whose job it is to find a way to imagine something that they don’t know and make it real."
According to Carey, "When people ask that staggering, unnerving question, ‘Why do you write?’ I remember that when I started to write, I wanted to make something very beautiful that had never existed before. That’s the ambition. And the pleasure comes when one thinks one’s getting close to achieving that."
Alden Mudge writes from Oakland, California.