Tuesday, June 15, 2010

A life had been available to me

I keep forgetting how much I like Peter Carey. I've only read a couple of his books; I approach them with trepidation, enjoy them thoroughly, look forward to the fact that there are so many books in his back catalogue for me to get to, promptly forget, and then start all over again.

This new Peter Carey novel, Parrot and Olivier in America — truly delightful!

The story switches between the perspectives of Olivier, French aristocrat still coming to terms with the Revolution, inspired by Alexis de Tocqueville, and Parrot, orphaned son of a printer with several talents (engraving among them, all exploited). They sail together to America, Olivier sent by his family, to be out of the way and out of danger, Parrot as his secretary. Olivier starts out with his best friend, and Parrot arranges for his artist mistress and her mother to come along for the ride. Our two title characters really can't stand each other to start, but as you might guess, they get past that.

Both of them have to travel far, be displaced, in order to find themselves.

[I don't know a thing about de Tocqueville, but I have a hard time believing my pleasure in this book would be increased just because I might occasionally nod my head knowingly that Olivier's comment was an obscure reference to something hidden away in the bowels of On Democracy in America. (That is to say, you don't need to know a thing about him to enjoy this book.)]

I like how some events in this book get told twice, once from each perspective, and others don't really get told at all but rather are barely alluded to from both sides. Some readers may wish for more resolution of these subsubplots, but I found this technique effective in both drawing me in and my coming to appreciate the extent of the character's lives beyond the pages.

Plus, Carey writes some magical sentences, expecially when it comes to describing art, and the quality of the light in the art. "In the world of these small canvases no one could be beautiful, and yet each was illuminated by that holy light glowing from beneath their injured skin."

Carey recently spoke at the Sydney Writer's Festival. According to the Telegraph:

"We are getting dumber every day," he said. "We are really, literally, forgetting how to read. We have yet to grasp the fact that consuming cultural junk is completely destructive of democracy."

He said that society had "forgotten how to be still" and was "intolerant of any news that is not entertaining".

These are very much themes of this new novel. Parrot is looking for stasis. There's a lovely bit holding up the rocking chair as a symbol of America; it's disguised as relaxation but really it enables America's restlessness.

There are some jibes at democracy too. Olivier imagines a future where an idiot might be elected to run the country, which is uncomfortably funny, with Bush not so very far behind us.

I happened across some notes I'd made regarding another book the other day, and they seemed pertinent to this novel, in respect of whether publishing (and this is ultimately what Parrot's enterprise amounts to) is an art or a business. This is not the first book in which Carey points out that a large component of that which we call "art" is business.

Parrot and Olivier are both wonderful characters, but I think my heart lies with Parrot. "What torture to hear that a life had been available to me that I had not been man enough to live." (Tragic!) Olivier fizzles out like the aristocracy he represents; democracy ultimately is shown to triumph in Parrot.

This is one of the finest "new releases" I've read in quite some time.

Q&A with Peter Carey: "Toquevelle was worried about the same things I'm worried about. I'm worried we are swimming in a sea of cultural crap, which we are."

New York times review.
Guradian review (Ursula K LeGuin).
BBC interview.

Chapter 1 (I wasn't swept away by the opening, but it gets so much better).
Brief excerpt.
Peter Carey.
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