The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith by Peter Carey (1994) 422 p.
If the varied works of Peter Carey have a unifying thread, it’s his fascination with what it means to be Australian, and Australia’s relationship with the rest of the world. Illywhacker, his second novel, was the first to thoroughly explore this theme, covering three generations of an Australian family across the 20th century, their country in thrall first to the British and later to the Americans. The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith, written a few years after Carey moved permanently to New York, explores this relationship through the use of two invented countries: Efica, a French-settled collection of subtropical islands with a population of three million, and Voorstand, an enormous, continent-sized superpower originally settled by the Dutch.
Tristan Smith is born in Chemin Rouge, the capital of Efica, to Felicity Smith, the founder and operator of a left-wing theatre and acting troupe. His father may be any one of her three lovers: Vincent, a business magnate, Wally, the theatre’s producer, and Bill, one of the young actors. Unfortunately for him, Tristan is born a deformed cripple with mangled legs and not enough skin across his face, and the novel follows his difficult life in Efica and later Voorstand.
Tristan is the novel’s narrator (an oddly omniscient one, not unlike Illywhacker and Oscar and Lucinda) and he addresses his story to a hypothetical reader in Voorstand, admitting that this is “the periphery shouting at the centre.” Later, when he arrives in Voorstand as an adult and is dismayed by how the dirty and decrepit cities do not match up to his expectations, he explains to the reader why this upsets him: “Madam, Meneer, you are part of our hearts in a way you could not dream.” The novel is littered with Tristan’s patient explanations to the Voorstand reader about just how important Voorstand is to the rest of the world, in subtle ways they may not grasp.
This is not unique to Australia, of course. People in countries all over the world, these days, grow up on a diet of American culture. You feel you know the place well before you ever go there, and you know much, much more about America than Americans know about wherever you’re from. (This is also true of Australia looking up to the United Kingdom, and perhaps New Zealand looking up to Australia.) It’s not a negative thing, it’s just very interesting, and odd in the sense that Americans themselves can never experience it, because no country’s culture is more pervasive than their own.
Passive cultural domination is one thing; aggressive political and military domination is quite another. The caves in Efica’s southern islands are threaded with Voorstandish naval navigation cable; their northern islands contain toxic waste dumps from Voorstand’s nuclear plants; and when Tristan’s mother runs for office and looks set to claim a victory for her left-wing party, the Voorstandish intelligence agencies become increasingly, horrifyingly hostile. This segment of the book is based in part on Peter Carey’s long-standing belief (which he explores more thoroughly in his 2014 novel Amnesia) that the CIA played in active role in the dismissal of Australia’s left-wing Prime Minister Gough Whitlam in 1975. This belief is of dubious merit, in my opinion, but no matter; one does not need to look far to find the long arm of American interests meddling in the governments of minor countries all over the globe, all over history. The useful thing about using allegorical countries is that they can stand in for many real countries, and indeed Carey has spoken about how The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith was received in different countries:
INTERVIEWER: As you write in Tristan Smith, again addressing Voorstand, “You stand with your hand over your heart when the Great Song is played. You daily watch new images of your armies in the vids and the zines.”
CAREY: When I read that line to a Canadian audience, I can feel them ‘get’ the line. I mean, they understand about the big country and the little country and they know which is which. Yet I have sometimes been surprised to discover American readers who never saw any connection between Voorstand and the United States. I suppose that one of the things about false consciousness is not having self-perception.
Carey spends a lot of time developing this alternate little world dominated by Voorstand – a world in which he can naturally never mention America or Australia, nor any part of the New World at all, but in which Europe and Africa and Asia still exist. The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith is full of footnotes, asides, maps, and references to fictional books and documentaries, all in an attempt to build a sense of verisimilitude for these made-up nations; for Efica with its history of dyeing and convict settlements, for Voorstand with its unsettling Disney-esque religion and the great entertainment of the Sirkus. Carey also invents hundreds of slang words derived from French and Dutch, used in dialogue throughout and filling a glossary appendix. Whether this worldbuilding succeeds or not is largely a matter of opinion. Personally I thought he scraped through.
The novel is then, unfortunately, let down by its own plot. It creaks along well enough for the first half, carried by the reader’s expectation that this will all build to something. The second half becomes something of a shaggy dog story – and not in a good way like Illywhacker. Carey lost my attention about two thirds of the way through and never regained it. His prose here also seems to lack something. I couldn’t quite put my finger on what. Perhaps it’s so caught up in servicing the fictional world that it doesn’t strike the level of wry clarity I’ve come to expect from him. It feels a lot more like one of his bizarre short stories than one of his great novels.
The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith is undeniably an ambitious book. It’s big, it’s bold, it makes an audacious and unapologetic demand for your suspension of disbelief. I can understand why Carey wrote it and why some people would love it. But for me, although it strikes some interesting notes (mostly because I’m Australian) it’s ultimately a failure. Carey is one of my favourite writers, but I found this to be his least interesting novel since Bliss.
His next two are Jack Maggs and True History of The Kelly Gang, both of which I’ve already read, so next up is either his non-fiction book 30 Days In Sydney: A Wildly Distorted Account or his 2003 novel My Life As A Fake.