Cultural Masterplots and Existential Authenticity
in Peter Carey's True History of the Kelly Gang
ASKED IN A 2002 INTERVIEW about the dismantling of English Departments in some Australian universities and what the interviewer saw as a concomitant devaluing of literary texts in today's academia, Peter Carey expressed a hope for “some sort of return to the oldfashioned close-reading of texts” as a means of “keeping literature alive.”1 When a reader or critic follows this suggestion, as I hope to do here, s/he finds – along with mesmerizing plots, fully realized worlds, and characters who can manage to be utterly believable while dematerializing, surviving their own repeated deaths, or concocting mad schemes to build and transport glass churches – a tendency to focus on narrative or the telling of stories. Carey uses narrative, in the forms of the stories he tells, the stories his characters recount, and the stories they often find themselves enacting, for the multiple purposes of plot, characterization, and theme.
This aspect of his work has already been much noted in the growing body of criticism his fiction has inspired. One such school of criticism is perhaps led by Helen Daniel, whose 1988 book Liars already saw Carey as one of a number of Australian fiction writers to stump readers with the Cretan Liar Paradox, which precludes adequate response to an admitted liar's admission that he is, 'in fact' or 'in truth', lying.2 Critics of this persuasion focus on
1 Nathanael O'Reilly, “The Voice of the Teller: A Conversation with Peter Carey,”
Antipodes 16.2 (2002): 167.
2 Helen Daniel, Liars: Australian New Novelists (Ringwood, Victoria: Penguin, 1988).