Peter Carey has a knack for hijacking history.
His Booker Prize-winning True History of the Kelly Gang reimagined the life of Australian outlaw Ned Kelly, while in Jack Maggs he cajoled several characters from Great Expectations into doing his bidding. Carey’s latest novel, My Life as a Fake, lifts its premise from a story that is, historically speaking, both true and false: the legend of Ern Malley.
In 1943, two Sydney poets who detested trendy modernism pulled off the 20th century’s most notorious literary hoax. They fabricated a book of modernist poems under the nom de plume Ern Malley, and then spun a whole backstory for him as a tragic, working-class mechanic—all designed to seduce the sensibilities of Max Harris, the young editor of a literary magazine called Angry Penguins. Harris fell in love with the work, and continued to profess his admiration even after the hoax was exposed. “For me Ern Malley embodies the true sorrow and pathos of our time,” Harris wrote later. “One had felt that somewhere in the streets of every city was an Ern Malley . . . a living person, alone, outside literary cliques, outside print, dying, outside humanity but of it.”
Although the incident convulsed the literary world at the time, Malley’s “work” still gets props today. All 16 Malley poems were reprinted in The Penguin Book of Modern Australian Poetry, and poet David Lehman wrote in a recent essay in the journal Jacket that his verse holds up to this day. Lehman argues that the hoax succeeded so brilliantly because “the creation of Ern Malley escaped the control of his creators and enjoyed an autonomous existence beyond, and at odds with, the critical and satirical intentions” of its authors. This idea—a prank poet taking on a life of his own—takes feverish flight in My Life as a Fake. Carey renames his bard Bob McCorkle, but his saga closely resembles Malley’s, right down to the poetry, lifted straight from Malley’s magnum opus, “The Darkening Ecliptic.”
Carey takes the joke much further than its original perpetrators did, though. In My Life as a Fake, a pompous bard named Christopher Chubb conjures the McCorkle hoax in order to humiliate the editor of a trendy literary magazine. But Chubb’s escapade returns to haunt him in a very tangible way: A wild, hulking fellow shows up one day proclaiming himself to be the real McCorkle. Reading aloud the poems that Chubb had written in jest, McCorkle imbues them with gorgeous pathos: “What had been clever had now become true, the song of the autodidact, the colonial, the damaged beast of the antipodes.” Soon McCorkle is writing verse more powerful than anything Chubb ever penned. A Frankensteinian monster, McCorkle stalks his maker, becoming increasingly unreasonable. First he demands a birth certificate; later, feeling resentful that Chubb failed to dream up a childhood for him, McCorkle swipes Chubb’s baby daughter as compensation.
A confused fictional sprawl, My Life as a Fake dazzles the reader with heady ideas and literary reference points (à la Frankenstein and Pale Fire), then catapults us into madcap action. Although he would happily have spent his life hiding in a library, Chubb is forced to chase McCorkle—tramping through the Indonesian jungle, riding a Vespa scooter through the chaotic streets of Penang, learning the art of revenge from an angry Tamil.
Unfortunately, Chubb’s tale lies embedded in multiple framing devices that dissipate the novel’s narrative thrust. The primary device is narrator Sarah Wode-Douglass, an aging editor of a London literary magazine. Sarah agrees to accompany an old family friend, the famous poet John Slater, on a trip to Malaysia, hoping that Slater will reveal some elusive truths about her dead parents. Along the way he leads her to Chubb, who ensnarls Sarah in the McCorkle mystery.
Sarah is a brittle storyteller, and she never quite comes to life—perhaps because she resists life at every turn. Preferring to inhabit the hermetic world of literature, Sarah has withered inside, and frequently denies any interest in sex or socializing. She shows little empathy for the increasingly pitiable Chubb, now a pauper in Kuala Lumpur, his spindly legs covered with festering sores. Sarah only agrees to hear his tale because she’s drooling to get her hands on McCorkle’s unseen poems. Carey brings these prigs to their knees, forcing them both to recognize that poetry can’t be reined in or cordoned off.
The boundary between art and life has always been pretty porous for Carey, whose oeuvre exudes a hallucinatory realism that makes imaginary universes feel concrete and believable. But Chubb’s story doesn’t take place in a fantastical realm. Carey firmly grounds his tale in mid-20th-century Australia, a place Chubb quietly despises as a nation of mediocre wannabes. Slater speculates that the hoax was motivated, at least in part, by Chubb’s “terror that he might be somehow tricked into admiring the second-rate, the derivative, the shallow, the provincial.” And perhaps the Aussie-born Carey intends to draw an unsettling parallel between McCorkle’s relationship to Chubb and Australia’s colonial relationship to England. Both are bastard offspring that took on exuberantly renegade, independent lives of their own. “Remember, this is the country of the duck-billed platypus,” Slater says. “When you are cut off from the rest of the world, things are bound to develop in interesting ways.”