In some ways, Peter Carey is difficult to categorize as a novelist. He has acknowledged the influence of William Faulkner and Gabriel García Márquez, but he shows many features of the postmodern novel in his work—constant shifting of plots, self-consciousness in producing text, and a refusal to construct consistent characters or endings. However, he is also a typical Australian storyteller, much like novelists Neville Shute, Ivan Southall, Morris West, and Thomas Keneally, whose good yarns are spun by larger-than-life narrators in highly colloquial speech that is full of expletives and tales of hard living. Carey’s writing, which attempts to reconstruct Australian consciousness of its history in a highly ironic, even parodic way, shows a postcolonial focus as well. His work, which traces the postcolonial cultural shift from Europe to America, has been compared to that of writers Salman Rushdie and Michael Ondaatje.
Carey’s first novel, Bliss, is typical of a number of his later novels for being somewhat autobiographical. In Bliss, his work in the advertising industry forms the basis for the life of his main character, an advertising executive who has various out-of-body experiences. The novel is full of zany black humor and ends up as a story of communal living, which Carey experienced as well. The novel was followed by Illywhacker and Oscar and Lucinda, both novels cementing his place as a major new talent.
The Tax Inspector deals with government bureaucracy, one of Carey’s best comedic inspirations. Jack Maggs is a sort of sequel to Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations (1860-1861, serial; 1861, book). In the Dickens novel, Magwitch goes off to Australia as a convict, then returns illegally to meet his death. In Oscar and Lucinda, Carey rewrites an old plot, bringing Magwitch back to England to have more time with his adoptive son Henry Phipps and Victorian novelist Titus Oates. Like Dickens, Carey uses the criminal underworld as an ironic social and cultural perspective. The criminal underworld in Australia is exposed again in True History of the Kelly Gang, a story not only of rampant police corruption but also of crime among the lower classes.
My Life as a Fake takes another Carey theme, that of trickery and charlatanism, and weaves a story from a real Australian hoax of the 1940’s. Theft, a Love Story, continues this theme, this time using the subgenre of the boozy artist, made famous by namesake Joyce Cary’s Gully Jimson in From the Horse’s Mouth (1944). Carey also weaves a plot around its hero, Butch, and his mentally disabled brother, using the latter as one of the narrators. The novel also includes jokes about the modern commercial art world.
The title of Carey’s second novel, Illywhacker, is Australian slang, suggesting a specifically Australian novel. The word defines not only the novel’s narrator but also the book’s narrative and genre. An “illywhacker” is a trickster, especially the kind found at fairgrounds; they are like the con artists who sell fake jewelry and medicine.
The novel’s opening is a trick; it undermines its own narrative reliability by proclaiming that the narrator can tell lies yet also proclaiming that his “authentic” age is 139. With these claims, Carey is playing with the “truth” of fiction, leading critics to categorize the novel as metafiction. The novel draws attention to itself, its untruthfulness, at the same time that it examines the place of story and story-telling in Australian culture.
Illywhacker also can be categorized as postcolonial fiction because it covers the period...
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