Peter Carey became one of my favourite authors from my HSC study of Oscar and Lucinda. I suspect the reason behind this was that that work was set in the same period as some of the other (to my younger self) fusty works but brimmed with self-confidence and interest.
I’ve managed to reread it on an almost yearly basis since I first devoured it (the night before a reading diary was due – one I’d supposedly been writing all holidays) though in the years since I’ve discovered that this compulsive consumption is common where Carey’s involved: something certainly true of Jack Maggs.
The book is another interpretation of an existing work. As Oscar and Lucinda is to Patrick White’s Voss, so is Jack Maggs to Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. It’s not a direct crib, more an exploration of the feeling of the original. Obviously there’s difference in names, but the main players – Maggs, Phipps and Oates – are stand-ins for Abel Magwitch, Pip, and Dickens himself.
Hang about, Dickens?
Yep, Dickens. Oates appears in the story to enable Carey to examine the process of writing and to provide a thumbnail sketch of a Dickens figure in the extremity before real success strikes. For all the ostensible Great Expectations moments – the novel tells the story of a convict’s return from the destination of his transportation in order to meet the object of his largesse – this book is really about the process of bringing text to the page.
Writing is difficult work, and Carey makes no bones about it. Oates drives himself hard, yet is ruthless about his own weaknesses, whether moral or financial. But he’s also possessed of a sort of unshakeable faith in his ability, that the big fish is swimming his way. He just wonders whether he’ll be up to catching it. We know Oates is successful in the future – Carey says that much plainly – but the interest is in the struggles of believing the good fortune will be attained.
Oates also provides a window into the world of memory. Magnetism (ie: hypnotism) is a big part of the character, and it allows the book to explore the unconscious mind, and the pain of terrible memory. Maggs himself is wracked with pained memories, and it’s not until the story of his youth unfurls that we understand or share it.
As Oscar and Lucinda readers would expect, there’s a wealth of period detail here. It’s not as larded with grotesque figures as the original, but Carey creates some memorable coves – the asthmatic lawyer, the shyster doctor – to go along with the spirit of things. Maggs is fearsomely well constructed, though – there’s just enough of the bloody terror of the Colonies in him, and the imposing nature of Dickens original is fully present.
I don’t want to say too much more about the book. If you’re a fan of Dickens it’s good to just dive in without too much prior information, just to see how many references you can pick up. The ending isn’t completely satisfactory – it all seems to zip up in a chapter or two – but I suppose there is a little element of that in the original. The portraiture within and the feeling of tension pushing toward a single point make this work well worth your time, though.