From a nation with many fine writers, Oz as it is apparently called affectionately has an unusual number of “fakes” of one kind or another. Some time back a young British immigrant woman almost passed herself off as a Ukrainian refugee – Why? I donot know, a white male writer masqueraded as an Aborigine woman – How? I donot want to know. Literary posturing is not new neither is it unique to Australia, but recently there seems to be a plethora of FakeLit coming from down under. Peter Carey’s narrative is quite binding by re-creating a fictional account of one of Australia’s better known early attempts at literary subterfuge.
In Australia, the “Ern Malley” affair remains notorious – poems apparently penned by an unknown genius of the 1940s. Carey spins his tale based on this scandal, bringing a fresh sense of life and place to his characters. He introduces Sarah Wode-Douglass, London literary magazine editor, and the man she’s long considered her family’s nemesis, John Slater. Sarah is lured to Kuala Lumpur, leading her to a disheveled old Australian, Christopher Chubb. Chubb has a secret, which he dangles enticingly before the editor. It’s a collection of poetry by a Bob McCorkle, who Chubb invented. The invention was to have highlighted the failure of the Australian literary elite to understand real poetry. In doing so, it would provide a comeuppance to Chubb’s former classmate and editor of “Personae”, David Weiss.
The situation gets freaky when Weiss issues the work and is charged with “publishing obscenity” by an holier than thou Melbourne policeman. Worse for Chubb, Bob McCorkle emerges as a “real” figure pursuing Chubb and demanding recognition as the “poetic genius” he’s been depicted. Chubb both chases and flees McCorkle, ending up in Malaysia on a bizarre quest. Chubb/Carey creates a monster in McCorkle – a massive man with violent tendencies, bent on retrieving a reputation he’s never earned. Lacking the violence, Chubb seeks his own recognition through Micks, and this story is dictated to her during her time in “KL”. She must endure a world entirely alien to her while negotiating for the manuscript with a man who is forthcoming in one way, but highly elusive in others.
Carey’s handling of this tale is masterful and flawless. The characters may seem outlandish, but the author conveys them with precision and finesse. Sarah is obsessed with her lust for the collection – one is almost reminded of the editors of the post-modernist journal “Social Text” blindly gobbling Alan Sokal’s wonderful hoax. Post-modernism has launched many bizarre tales. Carey’s knowledge of place is equally compelling as he takes us from KL, through Melbourne, Sydney and back to the Malay jungles. There are warlords, asides in time and place – none of which interrupt the narrative, since each provides enhancement – and a bruising finale.