I admit it, I made heavy weather of this book. I was entranced by the quirky humour of Peter Carey’s early work, Oscar and Lucinda and Bliss, and quite enjoyed The Tax Inspector and Jack Maggs, but his subsequent books have failed to interest me at all. I’ve bought first editions of most them (including True History of the Kelly Gang which won the Booker and the Miles Franklin and the Commonwealth Writers Prize) because Carey is after all, Australia’s most famous literary export and people say he could be in line for the Nobel Prize. Carey was a nominee for the Man Booker too, but missed out to Ismail Kadare, who writes terrific books with significant political undertones. I really enjoyed The Siege (see my review) and The Palace of Dreams, and have The Concert nudging its way along the TBR, but I digress.
(To digress again – awarding the Nobel to Carey would be a smart move by the Nobel committee because it would please Americans – who’ve apparently been complaining about not getting one since Toni Morrison in 1993 – and also Australians – who don’t expect to get one but like winning anything especially when national pride is bruised by losing the Ashes. But I personally think that the committee should ignore peevish complaints and national tally boards of prize winners and stick to awarding the prize in the terms of the prize winner’s Will, a topic dear to my heart as my readers know.)
Anyway, despite Carey’s fame, my first editions sit pristine on the TBR. I feel mildly guilty and unpatriotic about this so have borrowed a couple of audio book versions in an effort to trigger some enthusiasm but no, it didn’t work, and I took those back to the library unfinished too. When Parrot and Olivier in America came out I didn’t buy it because I decided it was silly to spend money on a book I knew I wasn’t going to read even if it was conceivably an investment. So when it was nominated for the Miles Franklin I had to borrow a copy – but sent it back unread after the first few chapters, and I was peeved indeed when this title was chosen by poll for our ANZLL schedule this year!
But – the Fates had clearly spoken so I went back to the library, got it out again and read it, making heavy weather of it as I said above…
For me, it’s too florid, too baroque. Carey is a master of voice, sometimes too much so at the expense of his plot, and his first person narrators seem to be engaged in a competition to out-talk each other. Olivier is particularly tiresome, going on and on like an over-salted sandwich of adjectives and imagery, but Parrot’s loquacity got on my nerves too after a while. In this example, Parrot is shown to be an admirable character (if you believe him), but the turbulence of the prose is wearisome:
All my life I had moved forward. No matter what misfortune I had faced, I always knew how to continue, and even when I lost my da, I had confidence I could negotiate the day, the tide, the force of the wind or river, to end up somewhere, carry my burden to the next place, wear a dress if need be, but always be a man, be in the flow of life, hurrying towards a destination, the evening rise of rainbow trout, a home, a wife, a child, a meal, sweet sleep, breathing the air of a lover’s neck, and always with the strong certainty that I was Parrot and, being so, was a proud distinctive chap. (p339)
Remind you of anybody? Christina Stead in a good mood instead of a temper?? Elfriede Jelinek without the angst?? This piling up of images in a helter-skelter of tumbling words is very cleverly done, and it’s a style that is admired by Those in the Know. It’s witty, it’s effective and sometimes poignant – but it’s just not to my taste. I got sick of it.
And here and there, Carey gets preachy:
Philadelphia had been conceived in the style of an English rural town, one where houses and businesses would be spread far apart and surrounded by gardens and orchards. So thought Mr Penn – and Mr Penn alone. In the absence of those of a superior class to set the tone, the city’s inhabitants, in pursuit of their own profit, crowded by the Delaware River and subdivided and resold their lots as many times as you can fold a piece of paper. Thus, while the grand centre of the town is often praised as the birthplace of American democracy, it is only at the waterfront that one views the consequences of majority rule. (p245)
There’s nothing new about having a go at America for its materialism; D.B.C Pierre did it to comic effect in Vernon God Little and American authors themselves have been mining that theme for decades. But, for all that the reviewers find ‘sparkling’ and ‘witty’ about the fledgling American democracy in Parrot and Olivier in America, to me the book seemed to have a hollow core.
Democracy in all its manifestations is both a blessing and a curse, and as Winston Churchill famously said,
Democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.
I think Carey wasted an opportunity here to beef up his Nobel and Man Booker credentials by exploring the pros and cons of American democracy in a more intellectually rigorous way. He has a lot of fun playing with his characters but there’s no substance to his critique. Read Balzac, an unreconstructed Royalist forever trying to come to terms with the French Republic and although you may not agree with his politics you have to acknowledge the validity of his arguments. He’s no fool about the excesses of the monarchy but time and again his stories show the venality, corruption and greed of those in power who replaced it. Time and again he shows that the ordinary Parisian is no better off. His perceptive analysis about the temptations of human nature make him wary of power and money, and taken as a whole La Comédie Humaine is a pessimistic reminder that society needs checks and balances to protect the vulnerable.
But Parrot and Olivier in America rarely goes below the surface. A French aristocrat escapes the Revolution but can’t reconcile democracy and popular taste with culture and good manners. He knows the French Monarchy is an anachronism but he doesn’t fit into the alternative. That’s basically Carey’s rather simplistic conclusion, though there is an occasional aside about the imperfections of democracy, such as the one about Negroes being unable to vote despite having the franchise (in that state) because ‘they would be ill-treated’ for ‘the law with us is nothing if it is not supported by public opinion’ (p249) But Olivier has by then been so firmly entrenched in the reader’s mind as an arrogant snob that his scornful dismissal of the ‘majority’ swamps the thought behind the comment. Similarly, Deponceau (governor of the model prison in Philadelphia) says that appointments to the prison are incompetents:
Seldom does the choice fall on an able man. All official positions are given for political reasons; the spirits of faction and intrigue grow here as they do under monarchies. Only the master is different. (p253)
But this thread isn’t developed either. I shan’t go on and on about this book. I would have liked to enjoy it more…
PS (A little later the same day)
Perry Middlemiss has just posted on Matilda that Parrot and Olivier in America was judged Best Book for 2010 by The Economist and by Publishers Weekly. ..
Update (the next day, in response to Kevin’s comment below)
I had forgotten that Kevin from Canada had reviewed this book when it made the 2010 Booker Shortlist – he had reservations about it too.
Author: Peter Carey
Title: Parrot and Olivier in America
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton (Penguin) 2009
Source: Kingston Library