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My Life as a Fake by Peter Carey
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My Life as a Fake (2003)

by Peter Carey

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1,154327,054 (3.33)39
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In 1943 two conservative classicists set out to expose the absurdity of modernist poetry. Both James McAuley and Harold Stewart were classical trained poets, who didn’t think much about modernism; it didn’t rhyme, didn’t make sense and it just didn’t look right, it was fake poetry. If an everyman can abandon technique and rhythm and create poetry, what was the point of high art? They created this everyman, Ern Malley and submitted poetry under this name to the literary magazine Angry Penguins. The Ern Malley hoax has become one of the biggest literary scandals in Australian history. While the hoax crippled modernist poetry within Australia, ultimately this parody backfired on McAuley and Stewart. The poetry, which was written in a day and full of word plays and puns became a sensation in the 1970’s. Their attempt to parody modern poetry and create something fake turned into something real, beyond their control and is now celebrated as fine examples of surrealist poetry.

Peter Carey’s My Life is a Fake explores the idea of fakery while paying homage to the Ern Malley hoax. Knowledge of this hoax is the backbone of this post-modernist novel, so much so that he covers his thoughts on it in the back of the book. Thinking about this novel I get the idea that this is a book that demands the reader to think about the purpose of reading. While this is considered contemporary fiction, it really demands a lot from the read and it wants to address a number of literary issues. Editor for Monthly Review Sarah Wode-Douglass, while traveling to Kuala Lumpur, encounters the perpetrator of the hoax after many years. The novel goes on to explore the literate mystery of forgeries but I won’t go into too much detail, it is quite a ride.

“I still believe in Ern Malley. (…) For me Ern Malley embodies the true sorrow and pathos of our time. One had felt that somewhere in the streets of every city was an Ern Malley (…) a living person, alone, outside literary cliques, outside print, dying, outside humanity but of it. (…) As I imagined him Ern Malley had something of the soft staring brilliance of Franz Kafka; something of Rilke’s anguished solitude; something of Wilfred Owen’s angry fatalism. And I believe he really walked down Princess Street somewhere in Melbourne. (…) I can still close my eyes and conjure up such a person in our streets. A young person. A person without the protection of the world that comes from living in it. A man outside.” Max Harris, editor of Angry Penguins.

While this book is told in a first person narrative, from the perspective of Sarah, as a reader I wrestled with the perspective. The novel explored the life of Sarah, her traveling partner John Slater who she describes as an unapologetically narcissist. Also we learn about Christopher Chubb and his monster, the non-existent Bob McCorkle. My mind wrested with questions like, whose life was I reading about? Whose words am I reading? Whose mythology do I accept? Personally I think these are the questions Carey wants us to ask, also I have to wonder what type of fakery are we talking about in the title?

Now I called the fictional poet Bob McCorkle a monster because this novel is influenced by a lot of literature but the most obvious is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Like McAuley and Stewart’s hoax, Bob McCorkle was a monster in the eyes of its creator and takes on a life of its own. There are also references to Paradise Lost (which can be connected to Frankenstein) and T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. An understanding of Greek mythology is helpful as well, especially Orpheus. This is a tricky book to read, and it took me a while to get the hang of it. Once I got into the rhythm of the novel, I think understanding and progress was a lot easier, though I do think a better understanding of literature would be helpful.

My Life as a Fake explores the power of creation, sometimes it just takes a life on its own with no way of stopping it. We must wrestle with the question of whether the man claiming to be Bob McCorkle is a fanatic; someone with an identity delusion, a hoaxer’s hoaxer, an accident, or an illusion called into being by its creator. As My Life as a Fake is an Australian novel, I can’t help but wonder if this is exploring the idea that Australia doesn’t produce Art, rather parodies and fakeries. The misconception that Australian artist must trade in masquerades to get noticed, a slightly old point of view but one that might have been still relevant in the time of the hoax.

I had to read this book for a university course so I also had to think about post-colonialism (a common theme in the subject). I’m not sure how this works as a post-colonial novel but I have to ask, as a colonized nation is this book viewing Australia as Frankenstein’s monster. Whose country are we in? Why does it matter? Are we the bastard spawn of a powerful creator (England)? Are we just fakes in the eyes of Europeans? Did we start off as fakes that took on a life of its own? Not really important questions for the book but interesting enough to share in this review.

Given that Frankenstein heavily influences My Life as a Fake, does this make this a modern gothic novel? They do invoke similar themes, interesting that this novel is meant to be popular fiction and yet it still explores high art in a complex, post modern way. Makes me wonder just how successful this novel was for Peter Carey. For me, while it was a difficult read, I found pleasure in studying this book, makes me want to read all of Carey’s books, maybe I’ll try The True History of the Ned Kelly Gang next.

This review originally appeared on my blog; http://literary-exploration.com/2014/02/16/my-life-as-a-fake-by-peter-carey/ ( )
  knowledge_lost | Dec 3, 2014 |
An exceptional novel from Peter Carey. It's even better than the amazing True History of the Kelly Gang. I can not recommend it too highly. A dazzler. ( )
  William345 | Jun 11, 2014 |
My first thought on starting this book with its ye-olde, unevenly cut pages but modern, trendy abolition of quotation marks round direct speech was that the title was apt – there was a fake quality to the production. I was seriously annoyed at times at the lack of immediate clarity from the lack of quotation marks which, like all punctuation marks, are intended to add ease to reading. Yes, I could go back a few words when I’d set off on the wrong foot, but it just seemed so unnecessary.

While in this vein I also disliked the way the story kept developing backwards so that we gradually learn what had happened while the forward motion of the book is pretty stagnant. Carey seems to try to generate suspense when he has the narrator, Sarah Wode-Douglass says clichéd things like ‘I felt the hairs rise on my neck’. Carey seems fond of neck hair, repeating the phrase to describe Chubb’s reaction to McCorkle calling him ‘dear Father’ so that ‘he felt the hairs rise on his neck’.

This leads on to another aspect of the book I found hard to accept. It appears that we’re dealing with magic realism, a genre used in two of my favourite books, Miller’s ‘Ingenious Pain’ and Knox’s ‘The Vintner’s Luck’ but I don’t think Carey handles it well since he has the narrator gullibly accepting Chubb’s story of how his creation McCorkle came alive and how she wanted to get her hands on some of the poems even after Chubb had been exposed for duping a previous editor. In other words, I can accept Chubb’s professed reaction to being confronted by his creation: ‘It was not the last time Chubb would be brought trembling to the abyss, where he might consider the blasphemous possibility that he had, with his own pen, created blood and bone and a beating heart’ but I’d expected similar caution from Micks.

I also felt I detected some animosity from Carey towards Australia. I remember from a while back he was particularly touchy about issues to do with his nationality. So, rather oddly in a book with exotic aspects one way or another, he refers to the Lindy Chamberlain case as a contrast to the way Chubb doesn’t get convicted of child murder where she did. This little comparison seemed to me just to be Carey taking the opportunity to have a go at the country where he lived for most of the first 47 years of his life. Yes, there’s a lot to criticise in Australia (not the least at present being the inhumane treatment of asylum seekers), but I didn’t feel Carey incorporated criticisms in any sort of intrinsic way.

Still, there were parts I enjoyed, even only momentarily. For example, when Chubb loses the baby and is in shock and asks to sit down in the kitchen we find ‘Mr Blackhall consulted his watch and then fetched him a chair’. As there was no reason for Mr Blackhall to consult his watch, it effectively and amusingly indicates his reluctance to show any sympathy for his lodger.

I can’t say, though, that I found much to ponder on in this story inspired by the Ern Malley hoax – perhaps it’s because of its origins that the novel seems devoid of anything substantial to me. ( )
  evening | Feb 11, 2014 |
I found this a hard book to get into. Fake poet mysteriously come to life, golem like tracking his creator through Australia and Malaysia, living his life vicariously and sucking the vitality and creative juices out of him. The story is told by a parasitic literary critic and editor from London, after a story to keep her literary life afloat. it's not a likeable book - all the characters are in their different ways selfish and self serving; the landscape and environment veers from lush to urban, but is always defiantly alien.
  otterley | Dec 4, 2013 |
I like that it's based (very loosely) on a real situation, and the story was interesting, but I did not care for the way it was written. ( )
  amyolivia | Oct 25, 2013 |
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0375414983, Hardcover)

Peter Carey's My Life as a Fake is a literate mystery of forgeries and doppelgangers with a fictional manuscript at its heart. The mystery--the origin of a brilliant but purportedly faked poem--fuels a whirlwind pursuit through Australia and across the wilds of Malaysia. Grappling with her own childhood demons, Carey's bibliophile sleuth, Sarah Wode-Douglass, sometimes becomes lost in the exotic and bloody chase.

The novel opens as Sarah, the reluctant tourist and editor of The Modern Review, is dragged by a foppish poet-friend, John Slater, to Kuala Lumpur. Sarah is intent on biding her time in her hotel, but a chance encounter with a scabrous reader of Rilke soon transforms Sarah's plans and, ultimately, her life. The reader, the Australian poet Christopher Chubb, is the disgraced initiator of a great literary hoax--the faked poems of the non-existent Bob McCorkle. The McCorkle hoax was Chubb's attempt to bring down a rising poetry editor, David Weiss. When the hoax was exposed, Weiss was believed to have committed suicide. But, living in exile, Chubb has hidden a secret for decades: Bob McCorkle had seemingly materialized in human form, killing Weiss and destroying Chubb's life. Sarah is tantalized by a fragment of supposed McCorkle poetry that Chubb has shared with her. Whether it is a fake or the work of a madman, Sarah believes it is genius. Her obsession, however, drives her and Chubb to the precipice of self-destruction.

The primary story--Chubb's pursuit of McCorkle--lives in the fictional past, and the plot occasionally becomes muddled in the nest of narrators recalling conversations second or third hand. In playing out the McCorkle affair, Carey’s denouement comes too quickly. If Sarah is transformed, Carey doesn't reveal enough of her in the text. He is mesmerized, as is the reader, by Chubb's horrific tale.

With its small shortcomings, the novel offers a sophisticated interrogation of authorship and fakery and the power of art. Carey avoids simplifying the McCorkle mystery, leaving the reader to puzzle out McCorkle's bizarre incarnation. While My Life as a Fake is frequently entertaining, the atmospheric mystery occasionally glimpses the profound. --Patrick O'Kelley

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:25:46 -0400)

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Accompanying the arrogant poet, John Slater, to Malaysia, London editor Sarah Wode-Douglass finds herself obsessively drawn to a mysterious manuscript that bears a legacy of fraud and danger.

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