Saturday, May 13, 2006

Peter Carey and "culture cringe"

Peter Carey's new novel, Theft: A Love Story, is officially released this week and it moves to the top of my "to read" list.

Ron Charles calls Theft "a story that shifts before our eyes--maddeningly complex, hypnotically brilliant, entirely original." Theft, says Laura Miller in Salon, "is a hard-boiled detective story of sorts, complete with an ingenious conspiracy and a ravishingly deceitful femme fatale."

There is apparently a good deal of what Australians call "culture cringe" underlying the novel. "Dutch," this blog's Australia expert, has often told me that "culture cringe" is one of the defining sociological characteristics of Australians. As one writer defined it in the Sydney Morning Herald:
Culture cringe is the mostly unarticulated fear that because we're such a provincial backwater, "Australian" means "inferior". Salvation lies in aspiring to foreign ways of thinking and talking. Dialectically, in the first half of the 20th century, "foreign" meant British. This prestige dialect of its time was reflected in newsreaders, conservative politicians, academics and senior members of the public service and clergy.

Come the second half of the century, it was America's turn. As England divested herself of Empire, loosening the ties that joined us, snuggling ever closer to the then European Common Market, we adjusted our sense of the prestige model. American influences were coming our way through TV, advertising, the film industry and popular music.
That formulation may be outdated, casting "culture cringe" more negatively than is the case in contemporary Australia.

In Theft, Carey says he's somewhat influenced by--or is it playing off?--this idea of "culture cringe":
"One thing about the Australian condition historically is we've continually set ourselves up, and been set up, to be judged by outside experts: What do they think in London? What do they think in New York? How do you like it here? All that stuff we crave and resent. One of the pleasures of Ern Malley [a major poetry hoax, more famous in Australia than in America] is to show the great metropolitan centres are fools and that modernism was crap. I felt this was the periphery giving the metropolitan centres a bit of a belt around to show that 'We're tired of you bastards telling us what's good and what's not good'.

"In Theft: A Love Story, Butcher's from the periphery and he can't bear to be judged by the centre but reputations are made in the great metropolitan centres. This is a similar but different revenge on the centre by the periphery. I think we like those tricks."
And Theft isn't the first or only awareness of the "cringe" that Carey exhibits. In this interview, Carey recalls his reply to a student who said that Patrick White's characters are often "losers":

And I said, "In our culture, we don't call them losers. We call them battlers." A battler is someone who struggles forever and will never, ever, really get anywhere. And in Australia that's a really honorable position.
Carey, it should be noted, has lived in New York City for several years.

Read an excerpt from Theft here.

For a brief literary biography of Carey by the author of one of my favorite items here on the blog, click here.

Not interested in Australian fiction or sociology but find gossip irresistible? Then check out this article which reports that Carey's ex-wife thinks she's the too-obvious model for a character known as "The Plaintiff" in Theft. "My greatest debt [is] to my wife, Alison Summers" for her "clear literary intelligence and flawless dramatic instinct," Carey wrote in the acknowledgements to True History of the Kelly Gang, which earned him his second Booker prize, in 2000. Clearly, things have changed.

--Marshal Zeringue