Magazine article The Spectator

Spooked by a Spoof

Magazine article The Spectator

Spooked by a Spoof

Article excerpt

Spooked by a spoof MY LIFE AS A FAKE by Peter Carey Faber, L16.99, pp. 265, ISBN 0571216188

Readers who have heard that Peter Carey's new novel is a 'roman a clef' should be warned that they will need a whole bunch of keys to unlock its mysteries. Carey seems to have decided that one good template deserves another, so that the Ern Malley swindle of 1944 in Melbourne is coupled with a makeover of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, the whole topped up with some Somerset Maugham Malayan expatriation and a haunted pursuit out of Mr Norris Changes Trains (the dreadful Schmidt becomes Carey's implacable poet McCorkle). It hardly matters how the modules Carey plays with are adapted: what counts is the knowingness of the fictional typology. The book is haunted by literature. As Auden, one of many writers almost in the story, puts it, 'All is stale yet all is strange.' It should take courage for a novelist to enter the self-referential world of poetry, but Carey is one of several champions of more popular forms to have recognised recently that while poems don't interest the public the scandals of poets' lives are prime fictional real estate. Go to the bottom of the class, Tom Stoppard.

This is what gets the novel off on the wrong foot. Ern Malley was the poet-monster created by two Doctors Frankenstein, Harold Stewart and James Macauley. They concocted a set of verses entitled The Darkening Ecliptic, and fooled Max Harris, editor of Angry Penguins, that these were written by a working-class genius who died young. By now the legend has gone into reverse and it is the fakers who are held in derision: the Malley poems are judged better than their authors' serious works.

Carey has fashioned Stewart and Macauley into one bewildered fraudster, Christopher Chubb, who becomes a doomed wanderer overtaken by his fake's coming alive. Only those who never knew the acerbic Catholic convert Macauley could credit that Chubb has anything of Macauley in him, and the real-life Stewart shares merely a long residence in the Orient with Chubb. Thus the Ern Malley parallel is dropped after serving to get the story started. Carey's version of Malley is Bob McCorkle, a mysterious and violent giant of a man who claims he really exists though created irresponsibly by Chubb. …

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