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Book Review - My Life as a Fake by Peter Carey

Peter Carey blurs the lines between truth and fiction

My Life as a Fake
by
Peter Carey

Published by Alfred A. Knopf

Review by W. R. Greer


To understand the background for the story in My Life as a Fake, one must know the story of the Ern Malley affair. In Australia in 1944, an avant-garde poetry magazine received a set of poems from the sister of a man, Ern Malley, who had died from Graves disease. She said she didn't know much about poetry, but she thought his poems should at least be looked at to see if they had any merit. The publisher of the poetry magazine, thinking Ern Malley's poems to be the work of genius, published the set of poems known as The Darkening Ecliptic. Two poets then came forth and claimed to invent Ern Malley, his sister, and the nonsensical poetry which came from various sources to create a satire of post-modernist poetry. To add insult to injury, the publisher was prosecuted for obscene references in one of Ern Malley's poem.

In My Life as a Fake, Peter Carey uses this hoax as the setting for his story. Christopher Chubb is the Australian who creates the poet Bob McCorkle, and the publisher is named David Weiss. Like the Ern Malley affair, the letter to the magazine came from McCorkle's sister claiming he has passed away, the poems are called The Darkening Ecliptic, and David Weiss is prosecuted for an obscene reference in one of the poems. Peter Carey uses this background to create a disturbing and moving novel to challenge the ideas of fiction and reality, obsession, desire, and love.

Sarah Wode-Douglass is a fortyish, single woman whose primary endeavor in life is her career as the editor of a London poetry magazine. It's a magazine that barely survives, primarily with the financial backing of a wealthy benefactor. Sarah's main regret appears to be that she's never published a great poem. John Slater is a famous poet, and is infamous for his indulgence of his celebrity and womanizing ways. He was also a friend of Sarah's parents and she blames him for the disastrous end to her parents' marriage. As My Life as a Fake opens, Slater convinces Sarah to accompany him to Malaysia where he's spent many years and received the inspiration for his most famous book of poetry. Sarah, unable to refuse his forceful personality, goes in hopes of finding the truth about his involvement in her parents' lives.

While in Kuala Lumpur, Sarah comes across an Australian man who, while taking a break from his mechanic duties at a bike shop, is reading a book by Rilke. Assuming he's a poetry lover, Sarah leaves him with a copy of her poetry magazine. This disheveled man and local pariah turns out to be none other than Christopher Chubb, and he shows Sarah a part of a poem by Bob McCorkle. Sarah realizes she's found the great poem she's always wanted to publish. Desperate to get the rights to the poem, Sarah must first listen to Chubb's story about Bob McCorkle. When John Slater realizes that Sarah has met Christopher Chubb, he does all he can do to dissuade her from listening to Chubb's story, even going so far as to undermine her attempts to meet with him. Sarah perseveres, eventually getting the entire story from both Chubb and Slater, who had his own small part in the affair.

Chubb's story of the Bob McCorkle hoax and its ramifications is a disturbing mix of lies and truths with a shade of the Frankenstien theme thrown in. Chubb is a lover of poetry, but a second-rate poet at best. Soon after the end of World War II, he creates the character of Bob McCorkle, complete with birth certificate and portrait cobbled together from other photographs, and sends The Darkening Ecliptic to David Weiss at the poetry magazine, Personae. After exposing the hoax, he feels sorry for David Weiss and attends his obscenity trial. According the Chubb, even the trial was not really about the obscenity charges, but was really about David Weiss' arrogance as a Jew in Christian Australian society and his slight treatment of the aristocratic daughters he's dated and dropped when his desire for them waned. This beginning of Chubb's story, along with Sarah's first experiences in Malaysia, highlight the fact that things are not always what they seem. As layers of deceit and the vengeance hidden within the lies are peeled back, the truth of any matter becomes even harder to ascertain. As David Weiss' trial progresses, it's interrupted by a man claiming to be the real Bob McCorkle. Christopher Chubb knows he created the character of Bob McCorkle and assumes this man is a lunatic who has assumed the McCorkle persona for some unknown, and probably insane, reason.

This new Bob McCorkle is the equivalent of the Frankenstein monster, wreaking revenge on society once he's unleashed. He becomes Chubb's tormentor, seeking to flesh out the remainder of his reality at Chubb's expense. As his creator, McCorkle feels that Chubb must provide everything necessary for his existence, demanding a copy of his birth certificate and stealing facets of Chubb's life from him. This leads to violence, death, kidnapping, and a chase across Australia, Indonesia, and Malaysia. Chubb's obsession is to regain what he believes is his, and his hatred of McCorkle drives him to greater and greater lengths to achieve his vengeance, consequences be damned.

This lunatic, this monster brought alive by the hoax, is the author of the poem Sarah craves. This book of poetry is her obsession. Driven by the desire to publish a great poem, she's willing to go to any lengths to give Chubb what he desires. Chubb wants his story told, that the world understands who the real Bob McCorkle is. Of course, the reality is that nobody knows who Bob McCorkle really is. Is he the fictional character created within the hoax, or is he the man who then assumed that persona? John Slater moves in and out of the story, always appearing at inopportune moments in an attempt to thwart Sarah's aims to get her hands on the book of poetry. His intentions are always unclear, whether he's protecting her or protecting himself.

Every character with My Life as a Fake believes their own cause to be just, that their obsession with their version of the truth or reality is the one that must trump all the others. Peter Carey does a masterful job of obscuring the truth, using his characters to skew reality with their allegiance to their own perspective. The vengeance, obsession, and desire that drives each character also forces them to accept their own version of the truth to justify their own actions. The reader is left with a wary approach to each character's story resulting in a hunt for where the truth might lie, if the truth can be ascertained at all.

As an American who is unaware of many British, Australian, and Malaysian words and references, My Life as a Fake began slowly for me. The key to any novel with a foreign setting, whether of time or place, is to work the unknown factors in seamlessly so that their meaning can be gathered from their inclusion within an intriguing story that keeps the pages turning. This is not an indictment of Peter Carey's style, but rather just a warning to American readers of a novel written by an Australian concerning British and Australian characters. It's easy to put this book aside for the first half of the book, because it's hard to become immersed in the novel. It's also accompanied by a bit of astonishment that the hoax and resulting obsessions and deceits were for just a book of poems. Staying with this novel is worth the effort, though, as once all the characters and settings are understood, the story takes flight in the second half of the novel.

Peter Carey has fashioned a story where the drama is found in the search for the truth. Starting with a story based on actual events, the line between fiction and reality becomes blurred. From this story of lies and obsession, the item of beauty that is desired by all was created by a man who knows his life was a fake. This is not a feel-good book, one where the final words bring a smile of satisfaction, but is instead one that crawls inside your mind and plants seeds of thought that stay with you long after the book is finished. My Life as a Fake challenges the reader with the idea that in the search for truth and beauty, our ultimate goal may be stymied by our own limitations as human beings. While that may seem to be an obvious message, it's one that Peter Carey delivers in an entertaining and provoking novel.

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