One of the most stunning acts of literary criticism in modern times was perpetrated in an Australian magazine called Angry Penguins during World War II. It consisted of a small body of faux experimental poetry, purporting to be the work of an obscure garage mechanic who had recently died, and to have been discovered by his sister. The editor was completely taken in.
The real story of this elaborate hoax was fully told by Michael Heyward in “The Ern Malley Affair,” published by Faber in 1993.
The Australian writer Peter Carey’s new novel, “My Life as a Fake,” turns the real events into a wonderful picaresque confection. Carey’s fictional tale does not take place exclusively in Australia, but also in England and in parts of Asia. Indeed it begins in England at a Faber literary party.
It is told in the persona of a young woman “born Sarah Elizabeth Jane to a beautiful, impatient Australian mother and a no less handsome but rather posh English father, Lord William Wode-Douglass, generally known as Boofy.” Writing of the events in a country retreat some time after they occurred, the erstwhile poetry editor gives us her account. But she edited a magazine in England, not Australia.
From the margins of London literary society, Sarah is catapulted on a whim to Kuala Lumpur. The person who whisks her away is an old friend of her parents, a minor poet named John Slater, whom she disliked from childhood. Her reason for disliking him has to do with his ambiguous relations with her late mother. But in the course of the story, further ambiguities, about the father and the daughter, too, gradually emerge.
What impels Sarah to visit Malaya (the name at the time for states on the southern Malay Peninsula) is the need for a change and rest, but what keeps her there for more than a decade is a literary quest. Abandoned by Slater soon after their arrival, she is soon intrigued by a strange foreigner she encounters outside a bicycle repair shop in the city. His name is Christopher Chubb, and he turns out to be a poet also.
A glimpse of some manuscripts that Chubb brings to her hotel, and an unfulfilled wish to find a piece of really significant literary work for her own journal, sends the young editor off on her adventures. Her measure of “significance” is something like T.S. Eliot’s long poem “The Waste Land”: a paradigm shift in literary technique and perception. And this is where the criticism enters in.
The real hoax, in 1944, was intended as an attack on the worse aspects of Modernism. The fake poems, concocted by two young Australian poets in one day and which so convinced the editor of an avant-garde magazine, are quoted in the text of Carey’s novel. Carey also draws on the records of a trial for obscenity that followed the revelation of the hoax and submitted the editor to further, absurd humiliation. Yet the real editor of Angry Penguins, an afterword reveals, continued to believe that the poet could somehow actually exist.
An epigraph from Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” (1818) helps to prepare us in the book for the appearance of the “constructed” poet at the Melbourne trial — in the figure of Bob McCorkle. The young Chubb, McCorkle’s inventor and a blossoming poet himself, then pursues this unlikely doppelganger from Australia across the intervening countries to Malaya. All the while McCorkle becomes more monstrous and intimidating.
There are plenty of surprises in this fast-moving story, part of which takes place during the Japanese invasion of the Malay Peninsula. The many strands in the unfolding plot include the kidnapping of Chubb’s infant daughter by McCorkle, and the real Australian’s virtual enslavement by a Chinese woman, which brings him to the bicycle shop where the narrator finds him. But there is one other classic tale that informs the story.
Though it is mentioned only once, Joseph Conrad’s novel “Lord Jim” (1900) clearly contributes something to the narrative structure, as well as the location of the story. Like Jim, Chubb is addressed as Tuan by the local people, and haunted by a terrible mistake: “He seemed a soul in hell, like a prisoner turning the capstan in the drowning room, forever indentured to something to which he himself had given birth.”
For Conrad’s Marlowe, the informal narrator of the eponymous hero’s adventures in “Lord Jim,” we have Sarah Wode-Douglass, interviewing the exiled poet Chubb and coaxing him into the expanding revelations that become the substance of Carey’s imaginary tale.
As befits an author who has twice won Britain’s most distinguished award for fiction (the Man Booker Prize), this book is both clever and highly entertaining.