My Life as a Fake

By Peter Carey

Question: E. M. Forster speaks of his major characters sometimes taking over and dictating the course of his novels. Has this ever been a problem for you, or are you in complete command?

Nabokov: My knowledge of Mr. Forster’s works is limited to one novel which I dislike; and anyway it was not he who fathered that trite little whimsy about characters getting out of hand; it is as old as the quills, although of course one sympathizes with his people if they try to wriggle out of that trip to India or wherever he takes them. My characters are galley slaves.

In 2001 Peter Carey won his second Booker Prize for a novel based on the true story of the Australian outlaw Ned Kelly. He even called it the True History of the Kelly Gang. My Life as a Fake also comes out of a true story, and goes further in questioning just what it means for any literary work to be authentic. In doing so it also has something to say on the matter of that “trite little whimsy about characters getting out of hand.”

In the 1940s a pair of bookish pranksters played a hoax on literary Australia by inventing a poet named “Ernest Malley.” Ern Malley, according to the bio they whipped up, was a mechanic who had died young, leaving behind a collection of modernist verse that his sister (another creation) sent off to Angry Penguins, an avant-garde poetry review. Malley’s poetry went on to create a stir in more ways than one, even leading to the trial of Max Harris, the editor of Angry Penguins, for publishing obscene material.

In Carey’s novel Ern Malley is Bob McCorkle, the creation of a talented yet bitter Australian poet manqué named Christopher Chubb who wants to play a jealous prank on an old friend who has become a literary editor. But Chubb’s stunt backfires horribly when a real Bob McCorkle, a seven-foot-tall “monster,” erupts in the courtroom during the editor’s trial and proceeds to force his way into Chubb’s life. For the next twenty years Chubb is haunted and tormented by his own creation.

Chubb’s story is told to Sarah Wode-Douglass, the British editor of a small poetry magazine who discovers Chubb working in a bicycle repair shop while visiting Kuala Lumpur. Chubb fascinates her, and she is further tempted by the possibility of getting her hands on the manuscript of Bob McCorkle’s poetry – a book written on leaves of native plant life and titled My Life as a Fake.

The narrative frame involves too much irrelevant scaffolding, and Bob McCorkle remains a total cipher, but this is still a provocative, unforgettable novel. And it is all the more impressive for being saturated with other works of literature. As Chubb’s story unfolds we hear echoes of Pale Fire, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” “The Aspern Papers,” “The Secret Sharer,” and Frankenstein. This allusiveness could be a bit much, but it works here because the novel is about a case of literary madness and obsession.

As Nabokov recognized, the idea that an author’s characters can take on a life of their own, even “get out of hand,” is a cliché. And yet every successful work of art carries with it a sort of autonomy. Mary Shelley’s monster came to her (from where?) in a dream, and went on to become a myth with a progeny all its own. Many writers think of themselves as mediums, as though there is some other power working through them. They are not fully in control. If Nabokov were in complete command he would only be a craftsman. The true artist, it is sometimes said, doesn’t really know what he’s doing.

The notion of a character taking over isn’t just humbug. When Chubb begins to speak in the make-believe voice of McCorkle’s sister he seems a thing possessed. He takes on the sister’s character with her voice, just as Bob McCorkle, reciting Chubb’s parody verse, gives voice to something that “was and was not the poem Chubb had written . . . this lunatic had somehow recast it without altering a word. What had been clever had now become true.”

Of course characters in novels don’t really come to life. But fiction, like anything else we imagine, can become true. In fact it happens all the time. As Chubb finds out, this can also be a terrible thing.

Review first published December 6, 2003.


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