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A Review of: My Life as a Fake
by Stewart Cole

I beheld the wretch- the miserable monster whom I had created. He held up the curtain of the bed; and his eyes, if eyes they may be called, were fixed on me.
-Mary Shelley, Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus, 1818, and as epigraph to Peter Carey, My Life as a Fake, 2003

Nearly two hundred years after its original publication, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein remains the touchstone account of the creative act gone disastrously awry, the unwitting creator eclipsed by the enormity of his creation, father destroyed by child. But I still question the extent of Victor Frankenstein's culpability. Brilliant as he might have been, the good doctor was only human, so isn't it unreasonable to expect that he could ever have predicted the gross ramifications of such god-like ambition?
My Life as a Fake, the latest novel by two-time Booker winner Peter Carey, transplants Frankenstein's bioethical dilemma to the realm of the literary. In mid-century Melbourne, struggling young formalist Christopher Chubb, ireful at the Modernist arbiters of poetic fashion, fixes to exact a mischievous revenge. Choosing as his target David Weiss, a younger and more successful former classmate and the editor of a trendy literary journal called (in a wry bit of foreshadowing) Personae, Chubb invents a poet, Bob McCorkle, imbuing his work with all the undisciplined bluster and overwrought allusiveness he so despises in the avant garde of the day. More than poetry, Chubb composes for McCorkle a history, a family, a tragedy-dead at 24-and most crucial for what is to come, a photograph. For when the McCorkle poems are unleashed on a public unready for their hints of libertinism, Weiss is charged with publishing obscenity, and here the novel's protean motif of creative responsibility-and its debt to Frankenstein-first become explicit:

Poetry on the front page! Imagine! The photograph I recognized as one I made myself, patched together from three different men. My creature. Over six feet tall. Fantastic head, huge powerful nose and cheekbones, great forehead like the bust of Shakespeare. I had put him together with the help of my friend Tess McMahon. Chopped him up and glued him.

Having anticipated only the self-satisfaction the hoax might accord him, Chubb had given little thought to questions of responsibility, had judged the poems too trite to be seriously considered obscene; so he is humbled by the grim fact of Weiss's prosecution, the proceedings of which he abashedly observes from the spectators' gallery. Carey brilliantly works the event of the trial to convey myriad thematic subtleties; firstly, the bare fact of an obscenity charge highlights the inevitable tension between creative freedoms and legal jurisdictions. Literature is a social enterprise, and in capitalist societies such enterprises rarely remain free of a commercial element. Although by the time of the trial, the hoax-and Chubb, as its perpetrator-has been revealed, note that it is Weiss, the editor who is charged because he is the one who decided to publish the poems. The crime lies not in the poems' authorship, but in their release for consumption.
But while a lesser writer might have cast such controversial issues in a harsher light, playing up the political relevance of his narrative, Carey is content to leave prosaic debates implied. He maintains the steady stalk of the plot, and his next step thrusts Christopher Chubb more explicitly into Victor Frankenstein's time-trodden boots. Chubb looks disconsolately on as Weiss attempts to explicate for the court a clever McCorkle double-entendre, when suddenly an untamed voice interrupts, "Ask the bloody author...Ask the author you fucking philistine." The court falls dumbstruck, while both Chubb and Weiss notice the striking resemblance the wild-haired rabble-rouser bears to the composite photograph of Bob McCorkle-and thus is a fake brought stunningly to life.
As he did with his previous novel, the Booker-winning True History of the Kelly Gang, Carey here uses historical source material as his base inspiration. An author's note at the book's end concedes that the case of real-life Australian fake, Ern Malley, provided court transcripts, letters, and the poems attributed to McCorkle, but as with True History (for which he used fragments of the real Ned Kelly's writing to fashion one of the most distinctive narrative voices in the history of the novel), Carey once again augments the scraps of factual roughage to create something audacious and strangely contemporary. When McCorkle springs shouting to physical life at the scene of the trial, the novel resonates with Carey's appeal to the author's authority, and the determination to give the author the final word.
The implicit assertion, though almost laughably obvious, is, in context, a powerful one: literature requires physical authors. The social and political realities into which works of art are born demand that there be someone to laud, criticize and, if necessary, hold accountable. So appropriately, when Christopher Chubb meets Bob McCorkle, his work of art made flesh, he is held mercilessly accountable by an angry creation demanding retribution for a usurped childhood. In true Frankenstein fashion the two engage in lifelong bout of bait and pursuit that leads them, ultimately, to steaming Kuala Lumpur.
Although I've given the tale of Chubb and McCorkle the dominant place in this review thus far, it is embedded amidst a layered narrative filtered through the first-person consciousness of one Sarah Wode-Douglass, poetry editor of the prestigious London literary journal The Modern Review. Sarah, like the Antarctic expedition leader Robert Walton in Frankenstein, brings an apt balance of incredulity and compassion to the primary narration. She meets a withering middle-aged Chubb in Kuala Lumpur and begins, at first reluctantly, to transcribe his story. But her editor's instincts are sent ravening on first scanning McCorkle's poetry, and she dispels her scruples, remarking coolly to herself that "if I can trust anything it is my taste-or, to risk a vulgarity, my heart. One's pulse rate is a very reliable indicator of what one encounters." The more fantastical narrative elements are lent a steely-gazed credibility in their conveyance through Sarah, and her restrained cynicism and eye for telling detail make her a near-perfect locus for Carey's sparse, witty prose.
But Wode-Douglass is also where the novel falters. The story of the hoax and its metaphysical implications is riveting, both for the way Carey deliberately roots it amongst canonical works like Frankenstein (and to a lesser extent Paradise Lost) and the way he imbues it, through both language and structure, with an idiomatic, orally-driven waywardness echoing the magical realist narratives of Rushdie, Garcia Marquez, and fellow Australian Murray Bail. But the character of Sarah-her journeying to Kuala Lumpur at the urgings of the aging playboy poet John Slater, whom she has always held vaguely responsible for the mysterious death of her mother-often fails to compel. She seems not so much a character as a list of functions: ultra-rational, slightly superior citizen of a faded imperial power, the British editor come to sift through the literary muddlings of the colonies. And the novel is structured so that the details Sarah reveals of her life apart from these functions seem overly tangential, their relevance to the bulk of the narrative difficult to discern.
Even the balmy Malaysian setting into which she, Chubb, and McCorkle are thrust (although a neat inversion of the desolate coldscape where Frankenstein culminates) seems chosen more to allow Carey to indulge his postcolonial preoccupations than for any pleasure it might afford the reader. Although his brief descriptions of the Japanese occupation during World War II and the subsequent struggle for independence from British rule are appropriately gruesome and moving, they are strikingly divergent from the novel's central concerns. Still, though, My Life as a Fake is far from incoherent; its primary fault is the ultimately admirable one of excessive ambition. If you believe, as I do, that Peter Carey is one of the finest living novelists (and quite possibly a future Nobel laureate) you might forgive him for writing a novel too slight to succeed at all it attempts, especially since its successes are so resounding.

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