Pick of the Geek – My Life as a Fake by Peter Carey

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Peter Carey has spent a lot of his recent career writing about notorious figures from Australian history and public life, whether it’s using their own names and stories (as in the Booker Prize-winning The True History of the Kelly Gang) or in a more general sense (his 2014 computer hacking novel Amnesia is clearly informed by public debate around Julian Assange). The most fascinating of these novels is My Life as a Fake, a fiction based on fact about fiction masquerading as fact, and every bit the dizzying hall of mirrors that implies. The obvious and acknowledged source is the Ern Malley affair, a literary prank by two conservative Australian poets, James McAuley and Harold Stewart. Furious that their own, classical poetry was being ignored in favour of experimental verse, they submitted nonsense poems to literary magazines under the name Ern Malley, an angry, working-class, troubled (and conveniently dead) avant-gardist.

Even after the hoax was exposed, it was generally held that Malley’s parodic poems were better than anything McAuley and Stewart created sincerely, and it’s this notion of a creation getting away from its creators that seems to inspire Carey. He wraps the two real-life poets up into the character of the slimy Christopher Chubb, a one-time lit-scene gadfly who’s gone to ground after an event straight out of a Gothic horror novel – perhaps by Mary Shelley. After creating the fictional free-verse poet Bob McCorkle, he was contacted by a man claiming to be the poet – and he wanted his work back… From this irresistible hook, Carey finds hoaxes and concealments everywhere in his story, from the personal life of Sarah Wode-Douglass, the English literary editor who uncovers Chubb, to Carey’s typically acute dive into the trickier corners of Australian history. A film version, perhaps with Toby Jones as Chubb and Rebecca Hall as Sarah, would be wonderful.

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