Book Reviews

from Spring 2005 [Issue No. 6]

▪►Archived Reviews

▪►In This Issue

Monster Matinee:  My Life as a Fake, by Peter Carey, and The Trick of It, by Michael Frayn ▪► Benjamin Chambers

Monster Matinee:  

My Life as a Fake, by Peter Carey,

and The Trick of It, by Michael Frayn ▪► Benjamin Chambers


Peter Carey’s fiction has a way of reminding us forcefully of other writers.  Ten years ago, after attending Carey’s reading of The Unusual Life of Tristran Smith, we ran six blocks to a used bookstore just so we could present him, in person, with Max Apple’s sublime 1987 novel, The Propheteers.  (In retrospect, we could probably have chosen a more tactful way to express our admiration for Mr. Carey’s work than to give him a book by another author…) You can imagine our sense of déjà vu when we encountered Carey’s latest novel, My Life as a Fake, and were once again reminded of another book -- in this case, Michael Frayn’s 1989 novel, The Trick of It

My Life as a Fake departs fairly substantially from much of Carey’s recent work – it’s his first novel in a long time set in the 20th century (Tristan Smith is technically contemporary, but as a parable and alternative history, it hardly counts).  Fake has a female narrator, unlike his others; it is set largely in Malaysia, not in Australia (even the fictional country of Efica in Tristan Smith is really Australia); much of Fake is composed of dialogue or monologue.  There is one important similarity, though.  Much of Carey’s work is concerned in some way with authenticity, and cultural authenticity in particular, and in this regard, My Life as a Fake is unquestionably part of the Carey canon. 

Fake’s narrator, Sara Wode-Douglass, is the editor of a small but prestigious poetry journal.  A famous writer, a long-time friend of the family, convinces her to take a short trip to Malaysia.  While there, they meet by chance with Christopher Chubb, a poet who perpetrated a famous hoax decades before.  His victim was the editor of an avant-garde literary journal, who had brusquely rejected Chubb’s own work.  Chubb forces Wode-Douglass to listen to and transcribe the story of the hoax and all that befell him after, and it is Chubb’s narrative that constitutes the main body of Fake. 

We learn that Chubb gained his revenge on the editor who spurned his work by submitting a new set of poems under the entirely unpromising pseudonym of “Bob McCorkle.”  The poems were immediately published as the work of a great poet; Chubb revealed the hoax, shaming the unlucky editor, who was then prosecuted on the grounds that the poems were indecent.  Then, the strange turning point of Chubb’s tale:  outside the court room, he claims he was accosted by a man who said he was Bob McCorkle.

Impossible, of course.  But Chubb eventually bullies Wode-Douglass and the reader into believing that he did accidentally create a violent literary genius -- a living, breathing, animate artist whose powers far exceeded Chubb’s own.  Wode-Dougalss often suspects that Chubb is mad, or playing her – but Chubb’s own obdurate individuality, as indicated by his prejudices and the squalid details of his life, works against this.  Stubborn, opinionated, cunning and dictatorial, Chubb is nevertheless sane.  If his story can be believed, he has been horribly marked by the impact of his one rash act – the creation that overshadowed him.  It is McCorkle’s work that he uses to command Wode-Douglass’ continued attention as he tells her the story of his life – tantalized by the chance to publish McCorkle’s work, she puts up with Chubb … and is alternately fascinated, repulsed, and moved to pity.  The story he tells is hardly pleasant, but it is utterly riveting.  And we, like Wode-Douglass, ask ourselves throughout:  Can he be serious?  Are we meant to believe McCorkle actually lives, or is he a figment of Chubb’s imagination?  (That Wode-Douglass would be so ensnared on the hope that McCorkle’s work actually is unparalleled genius, and that she must publish it, is the weakest point of the story – but we were ourselves so interested in Chubb’s tale that we didn’t care.) 

Although My Life as a Fake’s dominant theme is authenticity, it is also about the mystery of the creative process – the two themes work together.  If Chubb is Frankenstein to McCorkle the monster (the novel’s epigraph is from Mary Shelley), then he is as stunned as anyone else by how far his act of creative imposture goes beyond his aspirations.  He wants to be a great writer himself; failing that, he impersonates one – only, instead of creating an alter ego, he creates a separate being.  But McCorkle is not grateful.  He does not initially accept the idea that he is Chubb’s creation (and why should he?), and comes roaring into Chubb’s life with great violence, causing the death of a man close to Chubb before disappearing again.  Not long after, he appears again, brimming with resentment toward his creator, and kidnaps Chubb’s daughter.  Literarily fecund, he does not create his own child, but must steal the child of his creator.  McCorkle is the great writer Chubb can never be, but who, one must wonder, is the greater maker of fiction or life? 

Which brings us to Michael Frayn’s The Trick of It.  Frayn’s book is altogether gentler than Carey’s.  It sprang to mind while reading My Life as a Fake because Trick is a comic meditation on how writers write – on “the trick of it,” which relates thematically to the trick that Chubb pulls off when he creates with his pen not just a fake body of work, but a not-so-fake author to go with it.  The narrator of Trick is also, like Wode-Douglass, a literary midwife – he is a lecturer in literature at a small English university, and an expert in the life and works of an unnamed contemporary author.  When the unnamed author comes to his university to give a lecture, he seduces her and then impetuously but gradually inserts himself into her life, and eventually they marry. 

Where Chubb accidentally brings McCorkle to life and spends much of the rest of his life being terrorized by his creation, Richard intentionally pursues his author and proceeds to terrorize her – although “terror” is much too strong a word.  Though the letters he writes – it is an epistolary novel -- to his colleague in Australia are chirpily clever and often charming, the story he actually tells is of his increasingly stultifying influence on his favorite author.  Once they are married and have been living together for some time, he begins critiquing the novel she is writing.  He insists on a more self-conscious narrative, insists that the author must appear frequently in her own book, and when she follows his suggestions, she creates a deformed book, a book that no one likes except Richard, the critic.  Typically – for a critic – he insists that everyone except himself is mistaken.  The joke is on him, of course.  We learn that “she’d been performing a fiction for [Richard’s] benefit” – that she never intended to incorporate any of the changes he suggested, though she dutifully pretended to make them, and her own, original version becomes wildly popular.

He is not entirely without influence, however.  Though the two of them start the book living apart, she moves from London to join him at the small-town university where he teaches, leaving behind friends and a hectic social life; he begins to curtail her contacts with the press and her many fans; when her new novel is published to great acclaim and their household is swamped with journalists, he accepts a job at the University of Abu Dhabi, where they move forthwith.  As he writes to his friend, “[It] will be ideal for her.  Long days uninterrupted by telephone calls from agents or admirers.  (Do you know she is not published in Arabic?  I checked.)  Shutters over the windows, nothing to be heard but the hypnotic hum of the air-conditioner.  Perfect conditions for writing.”  Perfect conditions for him, he means:  at last, he has his songbird caged, to study at his leisure.  

And it is just here that we have to admit that Dracula, not Frankenstein, is the guiding monster-metaphor for The Trick of It.  Richard almost literally feeds off the author who becomes his wife by lecturing on her work:  it is her fiction that puts food on his table.  Then they meet, and he spends their courtship and marriage trying to learn “the trick of it” from her – in short, to consume the blood of her life, her creativity.  He even essays a novel himself, with disdainful arrogance.  What’s interesting – and blindingly clever – about The Trick of It, is that all the while Richard is attempting to leech the secret of creativity from his wife, she is quietly leeching him, ransacking his personal life for the raw materials of her next work.  When she’s completed it, she leaves him.

It is wrong to say that Richard creates her -- as Frankenstein does his monster, and Chubb does McCorkle -- but he tries to remake her, to subdue her by a kind of subtraction (of her friends, her home).  But the results are more or less the same.  True, she is less violent and destructive than McCorkle is to Chubb, but she is no less efficient in the way she dismantles Richard’s life for her art.  Not intentionally, perhaps, but without apology. 

 When you get down to it, Frayn is only poking fun at meddlesome, know-it-all academics and critics bankrupt of inspiration; Carey’s story is a taut, ferocious exploration of the consequences of mishandling one’s creative gift.  (As one of his characters says, “I would take any amount of skin and hair for the cause of poetry.”)  Both narratives suggest that creativity itself is an ambiguous gift – a maker and destroyer of lives. 

-Benjamin Chambers



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