November 2009

Arts & Letters

Sub-prime

By Philip Hensher
Peter Carey’s ‘Parrot and Olivier in America’

Peter Carey said a decade ago: “My fictional project has always been the invention or discovery of my own country.” Whatever place he meant by those last three words may now have shifted. Oscar and Lucinda (1988), True History of the Kelly Gang (2001) and My Life as a Fake (2003) were wholly successful attempts to write epics on specifically Australian episodes. But The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith (1994) was a novel of genuinely global scope and now, with Parrot and Olivier in America (Hamish Hamilton, 464pp; $49.95), Carey’s ambition to invent and discover a country turns its focus to America.

With Parrot and Olivier, Carey returns to the full-dress historical novel that has provided him with some of his biggest triumphs. It is set in France, England and America, mostly at that time between revolutions: the 1820s and 1830s. Napoleon, Louis-Philippe, the July Revolution and, finally, Andrew Jackson all form a ghostly backdrop, which is alluded to by some of the characters and guides their lives and principles. Olivier is the son of an aristocratic French family, still acutely aware of the terror of the guillotine suffered a generation before. Parrot (John Larrit) is the prodigious middle-aged scion of the English rural labouring classes; he has the useful abilities of being able to repeat what he hears and reproduce in drawing what he sees. The two men are forcibly brought together by the violent and terrifying Marquis de Tilbot, and dispatched to America. Olivier’s task is to write a report “On the Penitentiary System in the United States and Its Application in France”; Parrot’s task is to pretend to act as Olivier’s servant, while actually spying on him.

But who, really, is Sancho Panza, who Don Quixote? Who the straight one, who the jokester? In the democratic cauldron of America, these questions are not so easily answered. “In a democracy,” Olivier says sagely, without perceiving that this may always have been the case, “both parties know that the servant may at any moment become the master and that he has the ambition to become so.”

Parrot and Olivier ends with a disagreement between the two heroes that has some prophetic weight. Olivier says:

Your presidents … will be as barbarians at the head of armies, ignorant of geography and science, the leaders of a mob daily educated by a perfidious press which will make them so confident and ignorant that the only books on their shelves will be instruction manuals, the only theatre gaudy spectacles, the paintings made to please that vulgar class of bankers …

Parrot is more optimistic: “There is no tyranny in America, nor ever could be … the great ignoramus will not be elected. The illiterate will never rule.”

There is no particular art, in 2009, in making fictional characters predict (or fail to predict) the election of George W Bush, the popularity of Siegfried and Roy, and the hailing of Andy Warhol as a major artist. Yet more specifically mordant comments on the future – or the recent past – of America follow. Peek, an American, attempts to blind Olivier with science on the subject of “the business of land in Manhattan”. “The first equation expresses the quantity of housing (in logs) as a linear function of the attributes X of housing unit i.” “It is Greek to me,” Olivier says. “No matter what the equation, it makes no sense to lend money to a debtor who will almost certainly default.” It would be a dull reader, who, at this point, did not think of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and of the loans policies, hardly understood by anyone, which are reducing large swathes of America to ruin. But Carey has it both ways, for some rapture surely lies behind Peek’s contention that “there are countless acres of America owned by no one, waiting to be taken. You want our American Avignon, it is empty. It is yours. I give it to you.”

To make historical characters speak with such knowledge about what we already know might – or does – happen, seems mildly fatuous. But here such passages are alluring and even mesmerising, because they speak from Carey’s most long-held imaginative convictions. As ever in Carey, the idyll is poisoned from the start. The disillusioned and dirty consequences of human engagement are visible to the reader in even the most pristine and rapturous landscapes. This has been Carey’s subject since his first novel, Bliss (1981), recapitulated in Magwitch’s ecstatic visions of Australia in Jack Maggs (1997) – “Sir, hatfuls of birds” – and again in the celebrated set-piece in Oscar and Lucinda as the glass church sails up the river on a raft.

We shake our heads at Olivier’s optimism. The emphasis is on ruin and failure. Even Parrot’s boyhood bliss, though perpetuated by its telling, presents both the experience, and the words in which it is embodied, as fragile, losable things:

All around me bindweed, bluebell, chamomile and coltsfoot, ferns uncurling like a thought, white butterflies around my shoulders. All these things I could name and draw, though not so well as I imagined, but they were my deep familiars and they must have given me that comfort a boy does not know he has until it is lost to him and he finds himself robbed of names by Providence.

The comfort and idyll implicit in names, in words, is plausible here because Parrot and Olivier is so well written. Parrot’s voice exults in a sort of demotic poetry – in the imaginative force of plain words – which reminds you somewhat of the voice Carey contrived for Ned Kelly. Frenchmen have “smooth waxy faces … and [a] careful lippy shaping of their words”; a captain is “as hard and scrawny as a piece of rope”; and Parrot, thinking of his lover, “could already smell that musty rutty salty perfume our parts made in the night”. The beautiful contrivance of Parrot’s language goes a long way towards mitigating the rather rococo impression of the rest of the novel, even if it chiefly impresses as exactly that – a contrivance.

Carey had no shortage of models here. French aristocrats who went to America, fleeing the Terror, hoping to further American ideals or simply in order to observe and write about it as a model for the older society, include Lafayette, Lucie de la Tour du Pin and Tocqueville, whose study is evidently at the forefront of Carey’s mind. The pastiche of early nineteenth-century views of America can be so exact in its representation as to reflect the dullness of the ideas, too. Olivier says:

No matter how strong their religious sentiments, or their passion about the reform of criminals, the Americans quickly revealed themselves to be obsessed with trade and money and beyond the walls of that particular cell they simply could not see anything that diminished their enthusiasm for self-congratulation.

The level of platitude is perfectly caught, to the degree that, in fact, it simply repeats the platitudinous without much irony. One admires Carey’s commitment, but, over time, it does begin to affect the reader’s enjoyment.

Parrot and Olivier is in many ways beautifully done; it is written with all its author’s celebrated mastery of style; it is organised very neatly around sets of ideas, including original and reproduction, master and servant; it has the surface appearance of great energy. But nothing human in it much engaged me, and I found myself reading on for the pleasure of the sentences only. It amounts to an exquisite divertissement but, as the book goes on, the suspicion grows that the author is diverting himself much more than the reader. After all, divertissements were written in Carey’s chosen period with the full intention that the audience would carry on conversations simultaneously, relegating the artistic invention to the background of their attention.

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