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Sunday, November 16, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
By Mary Ann Gwinn
Thanks to Harry Potter, a word formerly confined to the halls of British prep schools and films has crept into the American lexicon: "wizard." Wizard as adjective: excellent, wonderful.
The works of Australian writer Peter Carey conjure up the word wizard, both in its nominal and adjectival forms; not just excellent, not just wonderful, but magical, in a mysterious, sleight-of-hand quality that few writers working today can match.
Peter Carey's new novel, "My Life as a Fake," is another wizard book (or book by a wizard). It's the story of a piece of literary fakery, and it seems almost beside the point that it's based on an actual event in Australian literary history, so thoroughly does it engage as a work of fiction.
"My Life as a Fake" lacks the epic sweep of Carey's Booker-winning "True History of the Kelly Gang," based on the life of Australian outlaw Ned Kelly. Nor is it infused with the doomed romance of "Oscar and Lucinda," Carey's other Booker-winning novel. But in common with these novels, it's a story about grandiose illusions, come to grief.
Sarah's hopes for solving her own personal mysteries are eclipsed by an encounter one day on a busy Kuala Lumpur street, with "a middle aged white man in a dirty sarong. He had lop-sided eyebrows and very close-cropped hair which made me think of both a prisoner and a monk." Though Slater warns her to stand clear of this disheveled character, she engages with Christopher Chubb, a man who perpetrated a hoax on an Australian literary editor that resulted in the hoaxee's trial for obscenity and eventual suicide.
Chubb shows Sarah a fragment of brilliant poetry, one that sets her literary acquisitiveness aflame to get it, she willingly transcribes Chubb's sorry tale. It's the saga of his struggles with Bob McCorkle, the putative author of the fragment, a fictive poet Chubb created to perpetrate the hoax and an imaginary man who comes to horrible life.
In following the Chubb/McCorkle story, Carey makes the fantastic so real it seems entirely plausible. Is McCorkle real or a figment of Chubb's deranged imagination, a Mr. Hyde-like creation on which Chubb can lay the blame for his many crimes? It hardly matters, so thoroughly is the reader convinced of McCorkle's vengeful ferocity: "You never gave me a childhood, he said. ... Can you imagine what it is to be born at twenty-four?"
As Chubb pursues his alter/ego nemesis through remotest Malaysia, the dreamlike, hypnotic quality of pre-Vietnam-War southeast Asia works its spell. "Years later Chubb would recall the sweet air clinging to his sweating skin, the smells of fish, hawkers' fires, jasmine, the salty mud flats at the creeks, and all that coral-blue sea off the right side of the road. In 1956 Panang must have been Paradise. Some bungalows here and there, dusty casuarinas, but mostly the giddy smell of a still-unpolluted sea." The author pulls the reader on through this fever dream to a fitting, if not entirely satisfying, conclusion, with side trips up alleys of red herrings, humor and word play.
"My Life as a Fake" borrows from many literary traditions. It's a ghost story and an "Ancient Mariner" style odyssey. It's a fable of the human compulsion to create myths to make our own lives explicable. It's a variation on the Jekyll/Hyde theme. There's even a stolen baby.
It's original, audacious, ironic and entertaining. When it comes to fiction, there's no fakery here Peter Carey is the real thing.
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