Peter Carey

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Peter Carey

BORN: 1943, Victoria, Australia


GENRE: Fiction

Oscar and Lucinda (1987)
True History of the Kelly Gang (2000)


Peter Carey's novels and short-story collections have won virtually every major literary award in Australia. He also

has won two Booker Prizes, in 1988 and 2001—a feat equaled only by the South African writer J. M. Coetzee. Though he has been living in New York since 1989, Carey describes himself as an Australian writer, and his books explore the constraints and possibilities specific to Australian history and culture.

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Beginnings Without Conclusions Peter Carey was born in Bacchus Marsh, Victoria, Australia, on May 7, 1943, to Percival Stanley and Helen Jean Carey, automobile dealers. In 1961 he began a science degree at Monash University but abandoned it in 1962 to work as an advertising copywriter. He married Leigh Weetman in 1964; the couple would separate in 1973.

Between 1964 and 1970, Carey wrote three novels that were not published, but was able to publish his first short stories. From 1967 to 1970, Carey lived in London and traveled extensively in Europe. From 1970 to 1973, he worked in advertising in Melbourne, Australia, and wrote in his spare time, completing a fourth novel, which was accepted for publication but was withdrawn by Carey before going to print. These early years were marked for Carey by a series of partial commitments, investments in both his personal and literary life that never quite came to fruition.

Succeeding at Lying Carey's first major publication, the short-story collection The Fat Man in History, appeared in 1974. Most of the stories in this collection portray individuals who experience sudden anxieties when they encounter surreal events in ordinary situations. In other stories, Carey satirizes the effects of technology and foreign influences on Australian culture and society. War Crimes (1979), his next short-story collection, attracted favorable critical attention and won Carey his first literary prize; there, Carey responds not to the Australian presence in the war in Vietnam, but rather to some of the worst excesses of capitalist exploitation on “the home front.” Bliss, his first published novel, was released in 1981. It portrays advertising as a dangerously addictive art form that colonizes and usurps the social roles of storytelling and mythmaking. The main character, an advertising executive named Harry Joy, reflects Carey's many years of experience working in the advertising industry, which included the co-creation of his own advertising agency in 1980.

Carey married Alison Margaret Summers in 1985, the same year his novel Illywhacker (1985) was nominated for the Booker Prize. The central focus of Illywhacker is the art of lying; the main character lies constantly in order to survive and improve his life, and Carey employs lying as a metaphor for writing fiction. Certainly, at this point, Carey had himself achieved an important degree of success in “the art of lying”: first as an adman, and now as a novelist.

Negotiating Australia from New York Carey's novel Oscar and Lucinda (1987) was awarded the Booker Prize in 1988. The novel portrays the odd romance between Carey's eccentric title characters, who are drawn together by their passion for gambling. As in Illywhacker, Carey endeavors in Oscar and Lucinda to reimagine Australian history. In particular, he responds to the outrages committed against the Aboriginal peoples inhabiting Australia long before the arrival of English adventurers and ne'er-do-wells.

In 1989, Carey moved to Greenwich Village in New York. The Tax Inspector, begun in Australia and completed in New York, was published in 1991. It sets a grimly detailed account of three generations of incest in the Catchprice family against a broader account of public corruption in Sydney, Australia. Carey's next novel, The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith (1995), concerns themes of national and cultural identity. The novel's protagonist is a citizen of Efica, an imaginary island nation that loosely resembles Australia. Efica has been colonized and exploited by Voorstand, a colossal world power based more or less on the United States.

Carey's novel Jack Maggs (1997) is a rewriting of the story of Abel Magwitch, the convict in Charles Dickens's Great Expectations (1860–1861). Here, Carey renegotiates the cultural dominance of England and its greatest writer over Australia, which was founded as a penal colony for British convicts.

Outlaws and Activists: Recent Perspectives Despite living in the United States, Carey still taps into the cultural heritage of his native land for many of his works. The author created a fictional autobiography of one of the most celebrated folk heroes of Australia in True History of the Kelly Gang (2000); the novel was a runaway best seller and won Carey his second Booker Prize.

Throughout his career Carey has fictionalized Australia from a variety of perspectives and historical and allegorical distance. The mirror he holds up to late-twentieth-century Australian society and culture, and its international context, never simply reflects. It distorts, and it is designed to allow Carey's readers to see the country, its culture, and its myths as if for the first time. Since 2003 Carey has served as director of the graduate program in creative writing at New York City's Hunter College while continuing to write. His 2008 novel His Illegal Self follows a young boy in search of his radical activist parents, on the now-familiar path from New York to Australia. Incorporated here are ever more urgent questions about the nature of belonging and the imperatives of citizenship, along with a search for something like truth.


Carey's famous contemporaries include:

Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1945–1982): German film-maker, influential in the New German Cinema movement; many of his films examine the influence of power in human relationships.

Doris Kearns Goodwin (1943–): American historian, well-known for her biographies of U.S. presidents Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson, as well as the Kennedy political dynasty; awarded the Pulitzer Prize for History in 1995.

Les Murray (1938–): Australian poet, critic, and translator; openly inspired by Australia, his work gives voice to previously unheard aspects of the culture.

Oodgeroo Noonuccal (1920–1993): Australian Aboriginal poet, writer, and political activist; she was the first Aboriginal Australian to publish a book of poetry.

Patrick White (1912–1990): Australian novelist who used shifting viewpoints and stream of consciousness in his fiction; awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1973.

Works in Literary Context

Beyond Realism Peter Carey's early stories were influenced by science fiction, and his early novels by the modernist fiction of William Faulkner and the magic realism of Gabriel García Márquez. Although the short story occupies a distinguished position in Australian literary

history, Peter Carey was not writing within that tradition. His introduction to literature came during his training as an advertising writer, and his work responds more to the classics of world literature than to his Australian contemporaries. Like the stories of Franz Kafka, Milan Kundera, and J. G. Ballard, Carey's parables of imprisonment and change upset traditional constructions of fictional reality. The voice these stories articulate was a new one when Carey first began publishing, unlike anything previously heard in Australian fiction.

De-Mythologizing Australia Carey's more recent work has explored real and imagined episodes from Australian history, and mythology from a variety of revisionist perspectives, while maintaining a strong sympathy for, and identification with, the victims rather than the victors of history. His talents for placing extraordinary events in mundane contexts and for exposing the absurd and corrupt aspects of everyday life have drawn extensive praise from critics and comparison to such writers as Márquez, Samuel Beckett, and Jorge Luis Borges. Summarizing Carey's writing, A. J. Hassall has stated: “Like Beckett and Kafka … and also like [English satirist Jonathan] Swift, Carey defamiliarizes the stories from which ‘reality' is constructed, exposing absurdities and corruptions so familiar that they customarily pass unnoticed and unchallenged.” While this places him firmly within the tradition of authors trying to achieve what German playwright Bertolt Brecht called the Verfremdungseffekt or “alienation effect,” it also puts him on the side of social theorists who have, in recent years, sought to revise or do away with racist mythologies of national origin. That is, in offering new perspectives on Australian history, Carey has pushed readers to see more clearly the tragedies and oppression that began centuries ago and that remain in play in certain ways right up to the present day.

Works in Critical Context

Commentators have often described Carey's works as metafictional—that is, fiction that deals with creating fiction. Two of his novels, Bliss and Illywhacker, for instance, deal explicitly with telling stories and the relationship between truth and fiction. Scholars have noted that Carey typically attacks the reader's sense of narrative coherence, order, time, and sequence by providing conflicting versions of his narratives. Arguing that Carey views history as an act of selection, Graeme Turner has stated that Carey's “fantastic, alternative worlds …can always be seen as alternative perspectives on an historical world, questioning it and exposing its constructed, arbitrary nature.” This line of thought also influences the direction Carey takes in his exploration of individual characters. Turner argues that Carey's novels and stories “do not examine what lives mean as much as they examine how lives are constructed in order to produce their meanings.”

Carey's fiction is about much more than simply its own creation, however. As Robert Towers has noted, “Carey's prose can hold the ugly, the frightening, and the beautiful in uncanny suspension. It is this gift, among others, that makes him such a strong and remarkable writer.” That is, his talent lies in the ability to sustain true conflict, to understand and to communicate that a number of contradictory narratives—lies, even—can all be true at once.


Metafiction is a stylistic technique that involves the author commenting on the story-making process even as he or she tells a story. The author asks questions about fiction and reality— what is the difference? Who determines it? Here are some other works of metafiction:

“Elbow Room” (1977), a short story by James Alan McPherson. This short story, from the collection of the same title and by the first African American man to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, is about a biracial couple and their struggling relationship, as told by a writer friend of theirs; the friend's editor interrupts his tale with comments and requests for clarification, making the process of storytelling highly visible.

The Eyre Affair (2003), a novel by Jasper Fforde. Jane Eyre is kidnapped out of the book Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë and being held for ransom. Tuesday Next, literary detective, must cross over into the fictional world and rescue her.

The Life of Pi (2003), a novel by Yann Martel. In this award-winning book, an Indian boy named Pi is stranded on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger; the author introduces himself as a character and claims to have actually met the other characters in the novel.

The Matrix (1999), a film directed by Larry and Andy Wachowski. In this science fiction movie, a man discovers that the world as he knows it is nothing but a computer simulation, created by machines that use humans as their energy source.

“Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning” (1968), a short story by Donald Barthelme. This short story presents twenty-four short images of Robert Kennedy, the American politician and brother of the assassinated president; each short section presents a different version, reflecting the difficulty in truly knowing a public figure. (Robert Kennedy himself was assassinated a few months after this story was first published.)

True History of the Kelly Gang Although Carey had enjoyed a certain amount of critical success prior to the publication of True History of the Kelly Gang in 2000, it was this novel that brought his greatest renown and made

him an internationally best-selling author. Critical response was overwhelmingly positive, with much attention focusing on Carey's attempt at an authentic voice for his narrator, the infamous Australian criminal Ned Kelly, based on a letter the man wrote a year before he was executed in 1880. Douglas Ivison, in a review for the Journal of Australian Studies, calls Carey's narrative voice “a remarkable achievement” that is “simultaneously poetic and authentic; vernacular and idiomatic without being condescending or sentimental; ungrammatical and randomly punctuated but yet highly readable.” Ivison does note, however, that the book paints Kelly as more of a romantic hero than a criminal, and he states, “The contradictions in Kelly's character, and in the socio-political role played by the Kelly gang, go largely unexamined.” Robert Ross, in a review for World and I, observes that the novel treads the same territory as much of Carey's previous work—a search for a national Australian identity—but concludes, “If he is indeed writing the same novel again and again, he has done so with flair and infinite variety.”

Responses to Literature

  1. Peter Carey has said that lying is a metaphor for fiction. What does this mean? Explain your understanding with reference to Carey's own work. To what extent do you agree with him? How does this fit or contrast with the popular idea that fiction can serve as a route to the truth?
  2. Former British prime minister Winston Churchill once said, “History is written by the victors.” How does Carey's work serve to support or refute this statement?
  3. In True History of the Kelly Gang, Carey based his writing style on the Jerilderie Letter, an actual letter written by the real Ned Kelly. Using your library or the Internet, find and read a copy of this letter and compare it to Carey's writing style in the novel. What characteristics can you find that Carey borrowed from the letter? In your opinion, did Carey create an authentic version of Ned Kelly's writing style? Is that the same as creating an “authentic version” of Ned Kelly himself? Why or why not?
  4. Australia was settled by Europeans in the late eighteenth and nineteenth century, with many of the colonists being convicts or outsiders who had difficulty succeeding in Great Britain. How is this “outsider identity” expressed and challenged in Carey's writing? Provide examples from at least one of his novels.



Baker, Candida. Yacker: Australian Writers Talk about Their Work. Sydney: Pan, 1986.

Hassall, Anthony J. Dancing on Hot Macadam: Peter Carey's Fiction. 3rd ed. St. Lucia, Australia: University of Queensland Press, 1998.

Huggan, Graham. Peter Carey. Melbourne, Australia: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Lamb, Karen. Peter Carey: The Genesis of Fame. Pymble, Australia: Angus & Robertson, 1992.

Woodcock, Bruce. Peter Carey. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1996.


Ivison, Douglas. Review of True History of the Kelly Gang. Journal of Australian Studies 71 (December 15, 2001): 144–145.

Munro, Craig. “Building the Fabulist Extensions.” Makar 12 (June 1976): 3–12.

Ross, Robert. “Heroic Underdog Down Under (review of True History of the Kelly Gang).” World and I 16, no. 6 (June 2001): 251.

Web sites

Carey, Peter. Peter Carey. Retrieved April 19, 2008, from

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CAREY, Peter (Philip)

Nationality: Australian. Born: Bacchus Marsh, Victoria, 7 May 1943. Education: Geelong Grammar School; Monash University, Clayton, Victoria, 1961. Family: Married 1) Leigh Weetman; 2) Alison Summers in 1985, one son. Career: Worked in advertising in Australia, 1962-68 and after 1970, and in London, 1968-70; partner, McSpedden Carey Advertising Consultants, Chippendale, New South Wales, until 1988. Currently teacher, New York University and Princeton University. Lives in New York. Awards: New South Wales Premier's award, 1980, 1982; Miles Franklin award, 1981; National Book Council award, 1982, 1986; Australian Film Institute award, for screenplay, 1985; The Age Book of the Year award, 1985, 1994; Booker prize, 1988; Commonwealth Prize for best novel, 1998. Fellow, Royal Society of Literature. Agent: International Creative Management, 40 W. 57th St., New York, New York 10019, U.S.A.



Bliss. St. Lucia, University of Queensland Press, London, Faber, andNew York, Harper, 1981.

Illywhacker. London, Faber, and New York, Harper, 1985.

Oscar and Lucinda. London, Faber, and New York, Harper, 1988.

The Tax Inspector. London, Faber, and New York, Knopf, 1992.

The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith. London, Faber, and New York, Knopf, 1995.

The Big Bazoohley. New York, Henry Holt, 1995.

Jack Maggs. St. Lucia, Australia, University of Queensland Press, 1997; New York, Knopf, 1998.

Short Stories

The Fat Man in History. St. Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1974; London, Faber, and New York, Random House, 1980; as Exotic Pleasures, London, Pan, 1981.

War Crimes. St. Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1979.

Collected Stories. St. Lucia, Australia, University of QueenslandPress, 1994.

A Letter to Our Son. St. Lucia, Australia, University of QueenslandPress, 1994.



Bliss: The Screenplay, with Ray Lawrence, St. Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1986; as Bliss: The Film, London, Faber, 1986.

* * *

Peter Carey's short story collections The Fat Man in History and War Crimes established his reputation as one of Australia's most skilled and innovative writers of short fiction. His stories break away from the Australian tradition of realism as he experiments with surrealism, fantasy, cartoon characterization, and the "tall tale." In the often-anthologized story "Peeling," for example, when an old man's fantasies about his neighbor begin to come to fruition, he realizes that the fantasy is more appealing than the woman herself. She is left, after he has undressed her of her layers of clothing, with her flesh unzipped and peeled away. Thereafter, "with each touch she is dismembered, slowly, limb by limb." In "American Dream," a less fantastic but no less disturbing story, a replica of a small town in miniature, complete with townspeople and their secrets, becomes the vehicle for a poignant criticism of both provincialism and tourism.

In his novels Carey never seems afraid to play with the kind of experimentation associated with postmodernist writing or to be scathing in his social criticism. While no two Peter Carey novels look alike, they all share his fascination with the juxtaposition of the disturbing, the nightmarish, and the unexpected with the mundane and the real. Readers frequently compare Carey's work with that of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Salman Rushdie, Robert Kroetsch, and Murray Bail. Although Carey himself is "wary" of being labeled a magic realist, his work has often been cited as exemplary of the form in a postcolonial context.

Carey's tendency to write past the limits of expectation in his short stories is expanded in his novels. His stories and novels are thematically linked through a concern with contemporary social systems, the politics of everyday life, the oppressive remnants of colonialism, and consumer exploitation. Carey's first published novel, Bliss, displays a particularly sharp critique of the effects of capitalism. He relies on a combination of Juvenalian satire and metafiction to highlight both personal and corporate corruption. This is the sad-but-funny story of an advertising executive, Harry Joy, who suffers a near-fatal heart attack and revives with a radically different perception of reality. Upon recovery he believes that he is in Hell. It is through the theme of cancer (caused by the food additives in a product advertised by Harry's company) that Carey most forcefully links the capitalism represented by the advertising world and the deterioration of society into Hell. Harry's savior from this dystopian world is Honey Barbara, "pantheist, healer, whore," with whom he escapes into a forest commune to spend his life planting trees and raising bees.

The novel ends on a utopian note with the soul and blue essence of the dead Harry Joy being absorbed into a tree he planted 30 years earlier. Although the celebratory nature of the ending has been read by critics as providing too much of a cancellation of the sharp satiric criticism of the majority of the novel, Carey claims that it was not his intention to provide anything but a "temporary escape from a terminal future."

Such a "terminal future" is evident in Illywhacker, the story of the 139-year-old Herbert Badgery, the illywhacker or trickster/spieler hero-narrator of the title. Although Carey frequently plays with Australian myths in order to debunk them in his writing, such play reaches a crescendo in this novel. The stories of Badgery's life, and the lives of his son and grandson, provide a parallel history to the stories of Australia. The epigraph from Mark Twain points to the premise of the novel: "Australian history does not read like history, but like the most beautiful lies; and all of a fresh sort, no moldy stale ones." The central lies of Australian history exposed in the novel are the notion of pre-colonial Australia as terra nullis, the denial of a reliance on American interests in the economy (illustrated in the form of General Motors' "Australia's Own Car"), and the idea that Australians are free, proud, independent, and anti-authoritarian. The final third of the novel details the development of the Best Pet Shop in the World, which is clearly a metaphor for the increasing commercialization of Australian flora, fauna, and people. What begins as a celebration of "pure Australiana" ends as a grotesque exhibition of Australians themselves (including most of the surviving central characters). Again, Carey's exaggerated realism exposes the horrors of capitalism. Illywhacker celebrates the indomitable spirit of pioneers like Badgery, yet it also exposes flaws in the nation and culture they helped to create.

Carey's Booker Prize-winning third novel, Oscar and Lucinda, continues his fascination with the stories of Australian history. Set in the nineteenth century, the story follows the lives of Oscar, an "Odd Bod" English Anglican minister who chooses to emigrate to New South Wales as punishment for his gambling addiction, and Lucinda, an heiress who champions women's rights, owns a glass factory, and is a compulsive gambler herself. Narrated by Oscar's great-grandson in contemporary Australia, 1985, the novel is the story of how, 120 years earlier, Oscar and Lucinda come together in their addictions but not in their love. It is also a story that Woodcock notes "reveals the brutal cultural expropriation" of the land "with disturbing violence." Carey weaves the love story into the commentary on aboriginal cultural genocide in the final sections of the novel as Oscar travels with a glass church through the Outback. In the style of historiographic metafiction, Kumbaingiri Billy, an aboriginal storyteller, tells an alternative version of history when he tells of Oscar's visit in the tale of how "Jesus come to Belligen long time ago." Carey presents facts about the settling of Australia in a self-reflexive narrative structured around a series of seemingly unconnected episodes. Oscar and Lucinda is, therefore, both a story about storytelling and a story about the fictionality and arbitrariness of history. Carey's narrative rings with verisimilitudinous historical detail. It transports the reader to nineteenth-century Epsom Downs, Darling Harbour, and rural New South Wales. Oscar and Lucinda is thought by many readers to be Carey's most technically and narratively complete novel.

In a dramatic shift into the present, Carey's next novel, The Tax Inspector, is an unsettling portrait of urban social and moral decay in the 1990s. The novel follows the Catchprice family through the four days their family motor business is under investigation by a government tax inspector. In those four days we are witness, in an almost cinematic style, to the nightmarish lives of the caricatured members of the Catchprice clan. (The cinematic pace of the novel is perhaps because Carey was writing this novel at the same time as he was working on Until the End of the World, a film he co-wrote with Wim Wenders.) One of the most disturbing themes in the novel is that of incest and sexual abuse. This metaphor of moral degeneration is set beside the ideals of social reparation represented by the tax inspector.

While The Tax Inspector is a non-linear, hyper-realist novel relying on flashbacks and immediate narration, The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith signals a return to the fantastic nature of Carey's earlier short story writing. This futuristic, dystopian, picaresque novel, narrated by Tristan Smith, the physically deformed son of an actress and three fathers, is set in the small inconsequential nation of Efica ("so unimportant that you are already confusing the name with Ithaca or Africa") and the overpowering and ruthless nation of Voorstand. The high-tech capitalist Voorstand Sirkus is juxtaposed with the morally and culturally idealist agit-prop theater group of Tristan's mother. Perhaps Carey's most overtly postcolonial novel, The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith is a complex allegory of colonialism. As a migrant narrator, Tristan can champion the culture and values of the colonized land even as he seeks salvation in the anonymity available to him in the overwhelming cultural imperialism of Voorstand.

In Jack Maggs Carey returns to early Victorian England, but it is a bleaker nation than in Oscar and Lucinda. The title character is a convict illegally returned to London from New South Wales in search of the young gentleman, Henry Phipps, he has made wealthy. As the novel "writes back" to Charles Dickens's Great Expectations, Carey compellingly recreates the gray, foggy, crowded nature of Dickensian London complete with devoted footmen, adulterous authors, and expert young silver thieves. Through the use of hypnosis, Tobias Oates, a young novelist-journalist whose sketches of London riffraff have made him a celebrity, unveils the secrets of Jack's past as he steals his story, the story of the Criminal Mind. Jack Maggs is the most overtly metafictional of Carey's novels. The biographic novel that Oates is writing about Jack Maggs is fittingly called Jack Maggs. In its use of postmodern hyperbole and untruths, this version of Jack Maggs contradicts the version that we are reading. As we see the unreliability of Oates's narrative, the unreliability of Carey's narrative is also, implicitly, called into question. In a sense, Carey is returning to the idea of questioning the lies of history he highlighted in both Illywhacker and Oscar and Lucinda.

Carey is one of the most important figures in recent Australian literature. He has consistently been at the forefront of literary experimentation in his use of form and at the forefront of cultural criticism in the themes he has chosen. Carey's work is certainly central in the growing canon of world literature written in English.

Laura Moss

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CAREY, Peter (Philip)

Nationality: Australian. Born: Bacchus Marsh, Victoria, 7 May 1943. Education: Geelong Grammar School; Monash University, Clayton, Victoria, 1961. Family: Married 1) Leigh Weetman; 2) Alison Summers in 1985, one son. Career: Worked in advertising in Australia, 1962-68 and after 1970, and in London, 1968-70; partner, McSpedden Carey Advertising Consultants, Chippendale, New South Wales, until 1988; full-time writer, from 1988; currently professor, New York University. Lives in New York. Awards: New South Wales Premier's award, 1980, 1982; Miles Franklin award, 1981; National Book Council award, 1982, 1986; Australian Film Institute award, for screenplay, 1985; The Age Book of the Year award. 1985; Booker prize, 1988. Member: Fellow, Royal Society of Literature.


Short Stories

The Fat Man in History. 1974; as Exotic Pleasures, 1981.

War Crimes. 1979.

Collected Stories. n.d.


Bliss. 1981.

Illywhacker. 1985.

Oscar and Lucinda. 1988.

The Tax Inspector. 1991.

The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith. n.d.

The Big Bazoohley. n.d.

Jack Maggs. 1998.


Bliss: The Screenplay. 1986; as Bliss: The Film, 1986.


Bliss, with Ray Lawrence, 1987; Until the End of the World, with Wim Wenders.


Critical Studies:

"What Happened to the Short Story?" by Frank Moorhouse, in Australian Literary Studies 8, October 1977; "Bizarre Realities: An Interview with Carey" by John Maddocks, Southerly 41, March 1981; Peter Carey: The Genesis of Fame by Karen Lamb, 1992; Dancing on Hot Macadam: Peter Carey's Fiction by Anthony J. Hassall, 1994; Peter Carey by Graham Huggan, 1996; Peter Carey by Bruce Woodcock, 1996.

* * *

In some ways the short fiction of Peter Carey seems to have served as a warmup for his work as a novelist. The two collections upon which his reputation rests, The Fat Man in History and War Crimes, were both published in the 1970s, while in the 1980s he turned his attention more exclusively to the novels. Like his novels, the stories are speculative and fanciful, often starting from the question, "What if… ?" Stories ask, for example, "What if a person could buy a new and randomly selected genetic makeup?" ("The Chance"). Or, what if the psyche could be stripped of concealing layers as easily as the body can be stripped of clothing? ("Peeling"). In similar fashion Carey's novels imagine what would happen if a man could die more than once (Bliss) or postulate that the whole of Australian history might be a series of lies people have conned themselves into believing (Illywhacker).

In Carey's fictional scenarios metaphor is often literalized and then driven to its (il)logical extremes. In "The Fat Man in History," for instance, the obese are hated and persecuted because they are thought literally to embody the gluttonous and self-indulgent greed of capitalism, which a communistic revolution has supplanted. One group of fat men responds in kind to these assumptions, deciding to "purify" the revolution by separating its nourishing aspects from the dross. To do this they plan to pass it through their digestive systems, "bodily consuming an official of the Revolution." Carey has likened the method he employs in stories like "Fat Man" to that of a cartoonist, exaggerating, caricaturing, and pushing things to a "ludicrous … extension."

Both the short fiction and the novels exhibit this cartoonist's take on reality, and they share other technical features as well. Most notable is a masterful blending of the convincingly real, the disturbingly surreal, and the unabashedly outlandish. The mix variously recalls such literary progenitors as Kafka, Faulkner, Borges, García Márquez, Donald Barthelme, and Nabokov. Kafka, we remember, turns a character into a giant insect and then with sober realism narrates what must inevitably follow. Faulkner has a corpse recount the story of her life, and García Márquez sets an ascension into heaven amidst wet sheets. Similarly Carey supplies enough corroborative, authenticating detail in the story "'Do You Love Me?"' to make us accept the proposition that unloved regions, buildings, and people will begin to dematerialize.

A different but related effect is achieved when Carey self-consciously explores his role as artificer, as he does in "Report on the Shadow Industry." Here he sees even fiction as part of a product line of diaphanous, deceptive, unsubstantial, and unsatisfying "shadows," supplied by a consumption-based culture to meet manufactured needs.

Such techniques—sometimes grouped under the rubric "magic realism" to suggest a matter-of-fact rendering of the physically impossible and blatantly symbolic—are used to varying degrees in Carey's fiction, and he is quite capable of abandoning them altogether. When he does it is often in favor of a probing psychological realism such as that of "A Schoolboy Prank," in which middle-aged men gather to honor, but end by tormenting, a former teacher because he reminds them of adolescent homoerotic experiments they would rather forget. In his novels, too, Carey demonstrates repeatedly that he knows as much about human nature as he does about postmodern literary pyrotechnics.

In several ways, then, the stories are kin to the novels. But they also have their own rewards for the reader. More tightly choreographed than the longer works, they shift the emphasis from character development to theme and fictional premise. In so doing they not only delight with their inventiveness and virtuosity but offer themselves as compact fables or parables for our times. Appropriately, the theme to which Carey recurs in the stories is power: political, financial, emotional, and psychological. As he explores its permutations, he is interested in how power is sought, acquired, wielded, defended, abused, and withheld from its victims. Many of his stories are set in a vaguely futuristic time and an ill-defined place, tactics that increase the reader's sense that these are universally applicable allegories of our age.

It may be a useful oversimplification to think of Carey's first volume of short stories, The Fat Man in History, as concerned with victimization and impotence, while the second collection, War Crimes, emphasizes the wrongly or lethally empowered. Fat Man is full of people caught in a variety of "Catch-22s." There is Crabs ("Crabs"), whose car is disabled by a gang of parts thieves. They leave him trapped in a drive-in theater to which other crippled vehicles and their occupants are delivered daily. When he finally escapes the theater he finds nothing outside: all life is within the drive-in, from which he is now excluded. In another story, "Life and Death in the South Side Pavilion," the first-person narrator is employed by a nameless company to tend horses, who keep drowning in a pool the company won't fence. When the narrator gives up trying to save the horses and drives them into the pool, the company simply delivers another lot. The narrator's profound disorientation—his inability to grasp who, where, or what he's supposed to be—is mirrored by the protagonist of "A Windmill in the West," a soldier left alone in central Australia who shoots down a plane because he can no longer distinguish what he was ordered to guard from whom. In these stories faceless authorities manipulate their underlings by imposing ignorance and isolation.

Those in power may also turn the disenfranchised against each other, as they do in the volume's title story. Here, the fat men's attempt to oppose the revolution by consuming it ends in their consumption of one of their own instead. Their leader is killed and eaten, his place usurped by another member of the group. In a final irony Carey reveals that the whole takeover was engineered by an outside agent, whose job is to inspire disruptive internal squabbling within the ranks of a potentially subversive element.

Like Fat Man, War Crimes is peopled with victims: the vaporizing father of "'Do You Love Me?,"' the battered young woman of "The Uses of Williamson Wood," and the retired schoolmaster whose dead dog is nailed to his door in "A Schoolboy Prank." But in this volume Carey more thoroughly examines the dynamics by which victims may become victimizers and power may become an addictive drug. A case in point is the architect of "Krista-Du," who designs a magnificent gathering place for the feuding tribes of a third-world nation but whose good intentions actually make him the accomplice of the brutal dictator who hired him. The architect consoles himself that when the tribes come together under the lofty dome of his "Krista-Du," they will unite to overthrow the dictator. Instead the hot breath of so many people rises to form clouds under the dome, a phenomenon that the dictator uses to subdue his superstitious peoples with evidence of his prowess as a sorcerer.

Self-deception, Carey warns, can threaten others as much as oneself. In "The Chance" the narrator tries to convince his lover that she needn't be ugly and malformed to be a sincere ideological revolutionary. Undeterred by his arguments, she destroys her beauty and their relationship in a misconceived political act. Spectacular examples of legitimate motives run amok and power misused occur in the title story, "War Crimes," whose first-person narrator carries out his mandate to reverse the sales slump at a frozen-foods factory by means of intimidation, torture, and treachery. Finally he launches a full-scale war.

Critics of Carey's short fiction have frequently pointed to the surprising sense of truth and reality emanating from texts marked by fabulous plots and fantastic characters. This effect probably arises from the alchemy through which, as Carey remarked in an interview with Ray Willbanks, "lies becom[e] truths." "One can look at the fact of imagination," Carey says, "as a way of actually shaping the future." A fictional plot, in other words, can become a prediction.

He goes on in the interview to explain the "great responsibility" that accrues to the writer because of this tendency of the imagined to transmogrify into reality. The responsibility is to "tell the truth," both about those ugly lies that have already hardened into fact and about "the potential of the human spirit" to reimagine and so reinvent something better. For these reasons, as critic Robert Ross has observed, stories and storytelling really matter to Carey. He has admired the power and the potency in Borges; his own readers recognize the same qualities in Carey's work.

—Carolyn Bliss

See the essay on "American Dreams."

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Peter Carey

Australian writer Peter Carey (born 1943) won over twelve awards and received two major award nominations for his works of fiction (short stories, novels, and film adaptations) between 1981-1994. Carey was one of the first Australian writers to create a world of absurd realities by blending fantasy and dark humor; this style is now emulated by many other authors.

Australian writer Peter Carey, born in the small town of Bacchus Marsh, Victoria, in 1943, has won twelve awards in thirteen years (1981-94) for his short stories, novels, and film adaptations.

Carey found work in Melbourne as an advertising copywriter after graduating from Monasch University in 1961. Close contact with writers Barry Oakley and Morris Lurie provided the inspiration he needed to seriously start writing fiction. According to Oakley, who critiqued Carey's initial work, Carey's ability was obvious from the beginning but Carey himself had no idea of the magnitude of his own talent.

Carey lived in London for a brief time in the late 1960s, then returned to Australia in 1973. He married theater director Alison Summers in 1985.

Carey first made his mark on the Australian literary scene with a series of short stories that blended fantasy and dark humor, two characteristics which have since become trademarks of modern Australian fiction. Proclaimed an Australian landmark at the time of its publication, the short stories assembled in The Fat Man in History (1974) move through macabre fantasy worlds that reduce reality to the level of absurdity.

Carey's second collection, War Crimes, solidified his reputation as a remarkable, new, fabulistic author. (Original stories from both works can also be found in an expanded collection of Carey's short stories, Collected Stories, 1994.)

Carey's first award-winning novel, Bliss (1981) is the story of advertising man Harry Joy's three drastically opposing experiences with death and resurrection. According to critics, Carey's storytelling created a world that hovered between fantasy and reality, a world that dismantled a reader's assumptions about time, reality, history, and character. One reviewer claimed, "Carey is arguing the necessity of constructing stories to live by, stories which emerge from and are given value by the community itself, rather than from the importation of American dreams." Carey's book Bliss has won the Miles Franklin Award (1981), the New South Wales Premier's Literary Award (1982), the National Book Council Award (1982), and the A.W.G.I.E. Award (1985).

Demonstrating some of the flexibility and inventiveness learned during his advertising days, Carey adapted quickly to the demands of other writing styles. He collaborated with film director Ray Lawrence to create a film adaptation of Bliss. The film achieved a moderate commercial success despite Carey's much-publicized conflict with the director and won three Australian Film Industry awards including best feature film (1985).

Carey later wrote a second screenplay, Until the End of the World (1992), for director Wim Wender.

The paradoxical nature of Carey's novels, the merging of lies with truth, fantasy with reality, is strongly reflected in his novel Illywhacker (1985) which sold 60,000 copies, 20 times the normal print run of an Australian novel. (The term "illywhacker" refers to a con-man or trickster.)

In Illywhacker, Carey draws upon the multiple strands of Australia's own culture and mythology. The story of 139-year-old illywhacker Herbert Badgery is the story of Australia itself. In an epigraph, Carey draws upon a line from Mark Twain, saying "[Illywhacker] does not read like history, but like the most beautiful lies." This popular novel was nominated for both the Booker Prize (1985) and the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel (1986) and was winner of the Ditmar Award for Best Australian Science Fiction (1986).

Carey's most critically-acclaimed novel Oscar and Lucinda (1988) also has a sense of historical allegory. As Carey develops the relationship between the story's two main characters, Rev. Oscar Hopkins and Lucinda Leplastrier, he creates an unsettling view of 19th-century Australia. Despite a bleak ending, Carey has called the novel a "celebration of the human spirit." Oscar and Lucinda won both the Booker Prize and the Miles Franklin Award in 1988.

Although Carey's stories have been compared to the works of Jorge Luis Borges and Donald Barthelme, the stories more strongly reflect that peculiar blend of "real through fantastic" noticeable in the writings of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Similarities in style can also be found between Carey's books and the works of writers like James Joyce, Jack Kerouac, William Faulkner, Robbe-Grillet, Bob Dylan, and Graham Greene.

Throughout Carey's writings there is a sense of the absurd, of a paradox that reflects the contradictions in contemporary life. His writing is outstanding in its breadth of scope and its cultural significance as well as its offer of a new vision, a magical reality, a vision through which the author becomes the ultimate illywhacker.

Other works by Carey not mentioned above include {novels} The Tax Inspector (1991) and The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith (1994), winner of the Miles Franklin Award (1994) and Age Book of the Year Award (1994); {children's book} The Big Bazoohley (1995); {short stories and short story collections} "Room No. 5, Escribo," "Report on the Shadow Industry," and Exotic Pleasures (1990); {non-fiction} A Letter to Our Son (1994). Carey is currently working on the 1997 release of his sixth novel, Mags, a story based on the character Magwitch in Charles Dicken's Great Expectations. There are also indications that his novel Oscar and Lucinda will be produced as a film within the near future.

Further Reading

Beautiful Lies: a Film about Peter Carey (1985) is a biographical film about Carey. He has also been a popular subject for interviews in the Australian weekly press. A more substantial interview may be found in Candida Baker's Yacker: Australian Writers Talk About Their Work (Woollahra, N.S.W.: 1986). Van Ikin's interview, "Answers to Seventeen Questions," in Science Fiction (Sydney) (1977), explores aspects of speculative fiction in Carey's work.

John Maddock's interview with Carey (published in "Bizarre Realities: an Interview with Peter Carey" (Southerly, 1981) provides one of the most useful insights into the influences and literary antecedents which have influenced Carey. Other discussions of Carey's work include Graeme Turner's "American Dreaming: The Fictions of Peter Carey" in Australian Literary Studies (October 1986) and Teresa Dovey's "An infinite Onion Narrative Structure in Peter Carey's Fiction" in Australian Literary Studies (October 1983). A study of Carey's techniques and precedents may be found in C.K. Stead's "Careyland" in Scripsi (1989), while a view of Carey's 'metafiction' and post-modernism can be found in Wenche Ommundsen's "Narrative Navel-Grazing, Or How to Recognise a Metafiction When You See One" (Southern Review, 1989). □

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CAREY, Peter

CAREY, Peter. Australian, b. 1943. Genres: Novels, Novellas/Short stories. Career: New York University and Princeton University, writing instructor; worked part-time in advertising in Australia, 1962-88; full-time writer, currently. Publications: STORIES: The Fat Man in History, 1974, in U.K. as Exotic Pleasures, 1981; War Crimes, 1979. NOVELS: Bliss, 1981, as film, 1985; Illywhacker, 1985; Oscar and Lucinda (Booker Prize), 1988; The Tax Inspector, 1991; The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith, 1995; Jack Maggs, 1998; True History of the Kelly Gang, 2000 (Booker Prize, 2001); My Life as a Fake, 2003. OTHER: 30 Days in Sydney, 2001. Address: c/o Amanda Urban, ICM, 40 W 57th St, New York, NY 10019, U.S.A.

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Carey, Peter (1943– ) Australian novelist and short-story writer. Beside J. M. Coetzee, Carey is the only writer to receive two Booker Prizes – for Oscar and Lucinda (1988) and The True History of the Kelly Gang (2001). Other novels include Bliss (1981), Illywacker (1985), and Jack Maggs (1997).