My Life As A Fake by Peter Carey (2003) 277 p.
Apart from the theme of Australian identity that runs through his novels like a spine, the subjects of Peter Carey’s writing are hugely diverse: the Plymouth Brethren, gambling, adoptive fathers, incest, taxation, the Prince Rupert’s Drop, acrobatics, Charles Dickens and Irish mythology, to name a few. My Life As A Fake is a curious fusion of three very disparate things: Frankenstein, Malaysia and the Ern Malley hoax.
Now, I’m sure we’ve all heard of Frankenstein and Malaysia, but the Ern Malley hoax is little-known even in Australia outside of literary and academic circles. In 1944 the literary magazine Angry Penguins was embarrassed to find that some modernist poetry it had published and celebrated, submitted under the name of Ern Malley, had in fact been written in less than a day by two rival poets, James McAuley and Harold Stewart, in order to poke fun at what they saw as the nonsense verse of modernist poetry. The magazine was humiliated, but the joke was ultimately on McAuley and Stewart; nowadays the Malley poems are considered some of the finest examples of Australian modernist poetry. (Which I think says more about modernism than it does about the poems but, hey, whatever.)
My Life As A Fake is a fictionalised retelling of much of this true story, as an English magazine editor listens to the sad tale of disgraced Australian poet Christopher Chubb, exiled to Kuala Lumpur. Chubb’s own version of Ern Malley is Bob McCorkle, with one clear divergence from real life: soon after his hoaxing of a poetry editor, Chubb is confronted by a man claiming to be Bob McCorkle himself – not simply someone annoyed that Chubb ripped his name off, but the fictional poet in the flesh, claiming Chubb is entirely responsible for bringing him into being. (Apart from some small moments in True History of the Kelly Gang, this is probably Carey’s most magical realist novel.) Not only this, but McCorkle is a tall and violent man who resents his creator and, with echoes of Frankenstein, begins to torment him. This harassment culminates in the abduction of Chubb’s infant daughter, and Chubb must begin an arduous journey into the tropical heart of South-East Asia to recover her.
It’s an uneven novel, but not too bad. Carey captures the atmosphere of the Malay Peninsula beautifully – the heat, the melting pot of cultures, the fragrant rot of the jungle – and there are quite a number of memorable characters and events. I particularly liked the Tamil poisoner, and Chubb’s encounter in the deep jungle with a Malay nobleman whose household mistakes him for an evil spirit. Even when Carey isn’t at his best, he’s still pretty good.