Peter Carey’s work has always struck me as somewhat overrated. To be fair, I’ve only read some of his later stuff, but none of that has really proved to me that he is a great author, worthy of all the fuss that goes along with him. But My Life as a Fake is ostensibly about a rather interesting part of Australian literary history, so I thought I’d check it out.
Sarah Wode-Douglass is the editor of a small time London literary magazine, who has aspirations of making it big. And when an invitation from a family friend to go to Malaysia comes up, she accepts somewhat reluctantly. Though this quickly becomes the most important decision of her life as she is caught up in the history of two old men trying desperately to cling on to their past, as well as run away from it.
For those who are not aware of Australian literary history, the idea of a court case about indecent poetry may not seem familiar. Carey, as he is want to do, has stolen the basic background of the Ern Malley affair, and turned it into a novel. Kind of. My Life as a Fake is, in the end, not about the case so much as what happened to the people involved in the case, and how they lived their lives in the decades after – something I feel I should warn people about, since that’s not at all the impression I went into the novel with.
Carey’s evocation of Kuala Lumpur is beautiful. I should clarify, I’ve never been to KL, but he seems to evoke so much of that South East Asian feel, I feel like I have. It’s not just the people that he draws deftly – though he manages to sneak in a few background characters that work exceptionally well – but the atmosphere of the city is clear, from the oppressively humid weather to the air-conditioned cool of Sarah’s hotel, from the gaggle of women tailors who hate Chubb, to the Indian doorman of the swanky hotel. This is a place that is well and truly alive in Carey’s novel.
There is, of course, one key difference in Carey’s novel. The fake poet, Bob McCorkle, turns out to be a real man, and spends much of the second half actually chasing his creator, Chris Chubb, around. In many ways, this somewhat detracts from the rather excellent first half, and degenerates somewhat into a weird Heart of Darkness-esque trip through the jungles of Malaysia, interacting with the natives, and generally being a bit odd.
Christopher Chubb is a broken old man here, with a suit that is falling apart, and locals that hate him. This first impression slowly changes, as we realise what has happened to him, and the ordeals he has had to go through. Slater is presented, at first, as his polar opposite, but as Sarah’s family history is slowly revealed, he, too, turns out to be something very different. I like the contrast of the two men – they complement each other well, and their fractious relationship makes for some good stuff here.
Sarah, on the other hand, doesn’t come out of the novel very well. Her refusal to listen to Slater is, at first, completely justified. But at the same time, she doesn’t seem to have much interest in helping Chubb past getting a hold of the hoax poems, so she can justify to her investors why they should prop her magazine up. Indeed, her actions in the final third of the novel make her come off as rather unlikable, and unwilling to consider personal feelings in the face of a profit for her magazine.
Perhaps, then, this is the novel’s biggest problem. It’s not long, but there’s a lot going on: Sarah and Slater’s awkward relationship, their family history, Slater and Chubb’s relationship, Chubb’s original trial and exodus from Australia, his subsequent encounters with McCorkle in Malaysia, and the current events that are going on in Malaysia. In many ways, there is too much going on. Carey flips back and forth between narrative threads and time frames with little concern for proper transitioning, leaving one with a somewhat confused feeling about when and where one is.
I’m yet to find a Carey novel I truly connect with. My Life as a Fake has not done much to change that. I can see his writing as very good, yes, but his storytelling leaves a lot to be desired here. This is by no means a bad novel, but it is very patchy, and the messy second half doesn’t make up for a solid first half that sets up a situation Carey seems determined to ignore.