THIS IS THE story of a joke, which backfires big time. Lives are lost, reputations shattered, frailties exposed. And it all starts quite parochially in the backwaters of literary publishing in Melbourne in the late 1940s. A bumptious Australian poet called Christopher Chubb decides to teach his country a lesson by exposing its neediness to appear cultured. He targets a literary magazine and submits some convincing modernist poetry, claiming it to be the work of Bob McCorkle, a working-class genius whose frank and vigorous sexual poems had simply been ignored in his lifetime. Chubb makes up McCorkle’s entire life story (conveniently, he is supposed to have died aged twenty-four) as well as his poems, even sending in a faded doctored photograph of this phantom poet.
The magazine’s editor thinks he has found another T S Eliot, but what would have been just an amusing little farce becomes deadly serious when the authorities sue the editor for obscenity. The joke unwinds further when, at the trial, a man looking exactly like the phantom poet of the photograph leaps to his feet, and Chubb, to his horror, finds that his very own Frankenstein’s monster has been born. The editor then dies in violent circumstances. What starts as a straightforward story about sending up Australian pretension and cultural defensiveness in the 1940s becomes a terrifying journey into madness, brilliantly told and scarily effective.
In his recent novel Jack Maggs, Carey used a complex structure involving a power struggle, a double love story, a quest, and a tale of trickery and disguise. It was about taking possession of an inheritance, of another person’s soul, of your own destiny, and being taken possession of. Not least, it was the story of one writer’s being possessed by another. In My L$ as a Fake Carey has used many of these devices again and has again written a post-colonial novel of utter brilliance. Although the setting may be a narrow world of poets and editors, the story embraces every weakness and blemish of human behaviour.
The tale is partly narrated by Sarah Wode-Douglass, the dau”gh ter of a beautiful, impatient Australian woman and a rather grand, equally good-looking Englishman, Lord William Wode-Douglass, known as Boofy. Sarah believes that an English poet called John Slater had an affair with her mother prior to her suicide. Sarah and Slater cross paths many years later when Sarah is herself the editor of a literarv, mag”a zine in London and Slater a respected, if rather second-rate, poet. On an improbable holiday together, in Kuala Lumpur, where Sarah expects Slater to explain the affair with her mother, they come across ~hubbb,y this time a wretched, desperate figure, reduced to an almost incoherent, beggarly state as a repairman in a decrepit bicycle shop. It has been vears since the McCorkle affair but its effects are still reverberating. Sarah elicits the story of what happened from Chubb, drop by drop, while Slater does his best to prevent their conversations.
Sarah thinks she may have found a genius in this washed-up hoaxer, hoping that the poetry that has not been seen since the McCorkle debacle will be a literary revelation. But all this becomes a subplot to the story that Chubb is desperate for Sarah to validate in her magazine: namely Carey’s raw, visceral reworlung of the Frankenstein formula about how McCorkle torments and hunts his maker – the terrikng story of Chubb’s downfall since hs prank blew up in his face. At the same time we learn about the unravelling of Sarah’s life – her own complicated and somewhat sad sex life, her father’s equally complicated affairs, and the secret of her mother’s suicide.
This is a great octopus of a novel, every tentacle stretched out and fixed round the dark, inky centre of the hoax and the monstrous phantom born of it. There is a great deal of violence in the novel, with scalpings and beatings, and masterly descriptions of a man reduced to little more than pathetic beggary. The language is simple and faultless; the complexity of thought is deep and moving. Twice a Booker Prize winner, Carey is without a doubt in the running for a third.