In steamy, fetid Kuala Lumpur in 1972, Sarah Wode-Douglass, editor of a London poetry journal, meets the mysterious Christopher Chubb. An Australian literary hoaxer, Chubb is carting around a manuscript likely filled with deceit. In this dubious work Sarah recognises a real genius. But whose genius? She is drawn into a fantastic story of imposture, murder, kidnapping and exile, which couldn't be true unless its teller were mad. Or perhaps haunted.My Life as a Fake is a Frankenstein story in which what is imagined comes to life and exacts its due.
Once again, Carey gives us a heavily Far Eastern influenced blend of eccentric and complicated characters, reminiscent of Illywacker. While most of the action in My Life as a Fake takes place in Malaysia, the cast of characters is drawn from England, Malaysia, Australia, authors and poets from other lands and the minds of the characters in this book.
Carey takes liberties with, according to the Author’s Notes, a real literary hoax from the mid 1940’s. In Carey’s version of the story, the hoax becomes a parable of how we are shaped by how we perceive our own memories. None of the characters we are introduced to are quite what they seem to be and even the patently invented characters take on a life of their own because of the way people believe in them. In the end, you are left questioning what is real and what is not, very similar to the questions left after Martel’s Life of Pi. Just remember, this is a story . . . isn’t it?
After reading My Life as a Fake, I can’t help but wonder why Peter Carey is not better known in America. His writing is just plain brilliant. As with Illywacker, Carey writes very graphically. I had no trouble envisioning the people or settings described in the book. The liberal use of Malay dialect in the narrative pulled me even further into the story. The scenes became so vivid, I began to cast people for a movie in my head while reading. One of the few detracting features is Carey did not use quotes to separate dialog from exposition. Then again, the story deals with poetic license and the inability to separate reality from fantasy, so the physical layout of the book mirrors the story as well. Very fitting.
If you like the division between fantasy and reality clearly defined, this book may give you trouble. If you like realistic characters with as many levels of interpretation as real people, you will enjoy this work. If nothing else, read this for the exotic locale and quirky people you will meet. While not casual escapism, this novel is certainly a break from reality.
But that is also the trouble. What was the point of the three years of research he put into this book? Why make it so such in cultural references? Why learn so much about Malaysia? He isn't Naipaul -- he isn't writing to tell us about the Tamils in Malaysia. The book is really about poets, their lives and ambitions, publishing, literary hoaxes, the rarity and nature of genius, and so forth: things that have nothing to do with the profusion of cultural details.
Of course it's inevitable that a title like this will make readers think of the author. The book is "fake" in the sense that Carey hides some of his thoughts about genius and its relation to sanity in a zoological garden of ethnographic details. It doesn't make me want to read another of his books.
The story is framed by the hunt and wish of a young female editor, Sarah, to discover a great, unknown poet and make a scoop. She stumbles upon Chubb who leads the miserable life of an absolute loser in Kuala Lumpur. Despite her travel companion's attempts to save her from herself and Chubb, whom he seems to know all about, Sarah is sure she's onto her great discovery. Chubb carefully entices her to listen to his life story, holding the supposedly great works out as bait.
Chubb is an outcast. In his youth he wrote a pastiche of some poetry of a friend, attributing / publishing those poems under the pseudonym Bob McCorkle. This McCorkle, shows up in flesh and blood, claiming to be the author and starts haunting and causing havoc in Chubb's life. McCorkle kidnaps Chubb's daughter and disappears to southeast Asia, where Chubb eventually tracks him down, and manages to liberate his child, who is completely estranged from him. When Sarah meets Chubb, many years later, Chubb is revered by his wife and daughter, who guard his works like guardian angels.
The novel has stark overtones, reminding us of Conrad's Asian and African novels and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. McCorkle is like an evil genii, called up or into existence by Chubb. Originally, Chubb created McCorkle, or so he thought, and tracking down his malicious creation reverberates the hunt for the monster of Frankenstein.
There are several other, remaining strands. The role of Sarah's travel companion is not very clear. He draws her attention to Chubb, apparently casually, but fully and knowingly of who Chubb is. He acts a bit like Sarah's mentor. The novel extensively explores issues of authorship and copyrights, and the moral rights attached to that.
Throughout the book, Chubb is put forward as an utterly repulsive figure. Repeatedly, we are confronted with his legs, covered with pustules and boils, his miserable life style, his run-down clothes and even his deteriorated English. Nobody wants to have anything to do with him, except for the deluded, misguided, his wife (apparently), his daughter (supposedly) and desperate Sarah.
The story begins in London where Sarah, the youngest editor of a literary magazine, is somewhat depressed for not having introduced a major work to the world in her 12 years in the job. She is enticed by an old family friend – John Slater, a mediocre poet turned critic still living off the reputation of his first work – to Malaysia.
There, while strolling through a shopping alley Sarah spies a western man working in a bike repair shop reading Rilke. Anyone reading Rilke would be interested in her magazine she thought, so she returns to the shop and leaves a copy for him. Quickly he gets in touch with her and we meet Christopher Chubb who considers himself a poet - and who once did submit some work to Sarah’s magazine that was rejected. He shows her one page of his work which he believes is “great” and Sarah is immediately interested. But to see the rest of the work Sarah must hear his story.
From this point the novel is a monologue as Chubb tells his story and Sarah frantically takes notes while John Slater, who knows of Chubb more intimately than he makes out, tries to wrest her away. We learn of Chubb’s hoax some 30year earlier (based on the infamous 1944 Australian Ern Malley hoax) where he tries to embarrass an old school chum who had rejected his works. The editor falls for the hoax but Carey’s story takes a different turn from the original when Weiss is charged with publishing obscenities. Chubb would like to help the editor get off the charge, but during the trial a strange man appears who vaguely resembles a montage photo of Bob McCorkle, the unrecognized Australian working class poet that Chubb created.
The imaginary man becomes real and Chubb is stalked by “McCorkle” who is seeking a full identity from his creator - and eventually a passport. Chubb’s life becomes a nightmare. McCorkle gets his new identity with the help of Chubb’s lover, the woman to whom he may or may not be the father of her newly born daughter, and a friend of hers – who turns out to be John Slater, who had a one-night stand about the time the daughter was conceived. Who is who and who is not start becoming confused.
McCorkle gets custody of the daughter as the mother - a libertine and socialite - is more interested in a party life than motherhood. He flees to South-East Asia where he has little difficulty in attracting benefactors. Enraged, Chubb chases him and spends the next couple of decades tracking him down and reclaiming his daughter.
This story has a Frankenstein element of the creator being haunted by his creation leading to the creator destroying his creation in this story. But as the story unfolds characters and roles become confused, and the issue of truth, lies and deception takes central stage. Is McCorkle the creation of Chubb or is Chubb appropriating McCorkle’s work? Why does John Slater understate his knowledge of Chubb? Is Sarah deceiving herself in her pursuit of a “major work”? Where do facts end and lies begin becomes harder to tell.
Carey has a great way with words and is a good storyteller and these skills compensate for the less than satisfactory ending of this story. Who is the fake? Read and enjoy.
If I had any complaints with Carey's work here, it is that there is simply too much going on. It's like a season of 24, with betrayals, glimpses of the truth, action sequences; and all of this skips about merrily and dramatically, until by the end of the book I can hardly remember how it all began.
One day they decide to teach Harris a lesson. They made up 17 'modern' poems using random words and phrases from the Oxford English Dictionary and other books. They send them to Harris with a letter from a woman claiming to be the sister of the author of the poems who found them going through her husband's things after his death. When Harris received the poems, he declares he's discovered a new great poet. He immediately releases a special issue of "Angry Penguins;" he even commissions a special cover from a famous Australian painter.
The novel has a story line much more convoluted, complex and sometimes confusing. Sarah Wode-Douglass is the editor of a poetry journal in the U.K. She meets at one party John Slater, the best known British poet of the day, who she's known since she was a child- he is 20 years her senior and she think he had an affair with her mother that led to her suicide. Somehow he convinces her to travel with him to Kuala Lumpur where she meets Christopher Chubb, who fixes bicycles, lives in poverty with a Chinese woman and a younger girl. Chubb claims he has the writings of Robert McCorkle, the 'fake' poet. We see Sarah chasing and looking for Chubb trying to figure out what he really has. We are not sure if McCorkle is real or fake- Chubb makes him sound as real. Sarah is trying to find Chubb while Chubb is trying to find McCorkle.
In the end, both of Chubb's women kill him. While Sarah, and the reader, isn't sure if McCorkle killed him- but is McCorkle a real person? The book purportedly written by McCorkle remains in their hands. Sarah goes back to England and remains unsure of McCorkle's existence.
This book was inspired in part by the real-life story of Ern Malley, a literary hoax whose creation resulted in a court case. But Carey then diverges from the story by introducing elements of magical realism, most notably the character of Bob McCorkle, the apparently turned-to-real-life fruition of Chubb's creative joke. The storytelling is deceptively simple, appearing to be simply the earnest narration of Sarah but then turning into stories within stories as she hears from Chubb and then learns alternate perspectives from Slater, Chubb's daughter Tina, and Tina's caregiver Mrs. Linn, with the plot unfolding layer after layer. In this way, Carey plays not only with literary conventions but also with themes related to the nature of reality, the reliability of memory, and the elements that go into perception. Some things are deliberately (and I think well so) left vague, so that the reader must decide for him or herself exactly what has transpired and which story to believe - or which parts from each story are to be believed.
The version I had was an audiobook narrated by Susan Lyons, who did an excellent job of conveying a number of emotions and stories passionately while also doing a fantastic job of speaking with the many accents required by the cast of characters presented. I highly recommend this book for a relatively short read that will leave you with plenty of food for thought on a variety of topics.