Friday, June 16, 2006

"Cultural cringe" and Peter Carey's "Theft"

Before I read the new Peter Carey novel I posted an item on his--and Australia's--cultural cringe. Professor Nicholas Birns and "Dutch," the blog's Australia expert, splashed some more light on the subject here and here.

I recently finished Theft--and highly recommend it--and can confirm that it will be read as a major text on the subject of "cultural cringe."

Birns says that The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith is the Carey novel which deals with this subject most explicitly, but I think he said that before reading Theft; he may reconsider.

Now I see that James Wood has taken up the topic in his review of Theft on the London Review of Books. It's a fine review, though it gives away more about the plot than I would have cared to know before reading the book.

Wood writes:
As in [My Life as a Fake], the real subject [of Theft]--Carey’s abiding subject, addressed in novel after novel--is the hoax of Australian identity, and its self-tortured relationship with the rest of the world. The narrator of Illywhacker, Herbert Badgery, is a self-confessed liar and conman who discovers, while in prison, a history of Australia by M.V. Anderson (Carey’s invention). This history, an extract from which is reproduced, seeks to expose the lie of the country’s origins:
Our forefathers were all great liars. They lied about the lands they selected and the cattle they owned. They lied about their backgrounds and the parentage of their wives. However it is their first lie that is the most impressive for being so monumental, i.e. that the continent, at the time of first settlement, was said to be occupied but not cultivated and by that simple device they were able to give the legal owners short shrift and, when they objected, to use the musket or poison flour, and to do so with a clear conscience.
That novel is much consumed with the question of Australian self-hatred. Herbert argues against the Australian ‘cringe’ towards Europe and America, the relationship of ‘a child serving a parent’. But his wife, Phoebe McGrath, rails against the mediocrity of her smalltown Geelong-Bacchus Marsh life, only to reach Sydney, where she starts a literary magazine called Malley’s Urn, a jokey homage to the famous hoax. In My Life as a Fake, the literary hoaxer, Christopher Chubb, ‘came from the dreary lower-middle-class suburbs. I would say he loathed where he came from.’ The motive for his will-to-hoax is laid at the door of this frustrated provincialism--which is to say, at the door of frustrated Australianism.
Then Wood shares this passage from Theft which leapt off the page at me when I read it, primed as I was for explicit references to cultural cringe. It is in the voice of Michael Boone, AKA "Butcher Bones," one of the two narrators, who is an Australian painter, bitterly divorced and much reduced from his once-celebrity reputation.
If you are American you will never understand what it is to be an artist on the edge of the world, to be 36 years old and get an ad in Studio International. And, no, it is in no way like being from Lubbock, Texas, or Grand Forks, North Dakota. If you are Australian you are free to argue that this cringing shit had disappeared by 1981, that history does not count, and that, in any case, we were soon to become the centre of the fucking universe, the flavour of the month, the coalition of the willing etc, but I will tell you, frankly, nothing like this had been conceivable in my lifetime.
Wood adds:
The danger with Carey’s last two books is that the distinction between exploring or dramatising the condition of Australian cultural self-hatred and rather awkwardly embodying it can look thin.... this new novel seems, quite explicitly, to find in Butcher’s devotion to his art an analogue of his own creative drive. Like Butcher, Carey is passionately serious about his work, indentured to the highest standards. Yet he is also the son of the secondhand car dealer from Bacchus Marsh, the raw writer who used to delight in telling newspaper interviewers that he had read no books until he was 18, an Australian incapable of false aestheticism or preciousness, devoted to the hygienic stringencies of scepticism and year-round bullshit-detection.
Click here to listen to an interview with Peter Carey.

For more information on Carey and his work, click here.

--Marshal Zeringue