Take a 1940s literary hoax, Frankenstein, Rilke, Ezra Pound, literary journal editorship and the memsahib culture of Malaysia in the middle of last century and whip it all up with ulcerated legs and modish, society-shocking femmes fatales and you’ve pretty much got this entry in Carey’s oeuvre. My Life as a Fake is shorter than a lot of his other work – I think it’s probably on par with something like The Tax Inspector for length – but it packs a pretty hefty punch.
From the outset, we’re told the story – relayed in the first person by literature journal editor Sarah Wode-Douglass – is a recounting in 1985 events occurring in 1972 which related to events thirty years earlier. The idea of a game of Chinese Whispers, of unreliable narration is explicitly set up in the interwoven tales of two other main characters – the louche John Slater and the pitiful Christopher Chubb – who each, rather obviously have their own interests in directing the narrative. The discussions take place in the sweltering heat and torrential rains of Kuala Lumpur, a perfect place for half-remembered visions and fever-dreamed histories.
History plays an important role in the work. The examination of the strictures of colonialism, of Tamil uprisings, of responsibilities dodged is important. Carey’s recreation of the past is, as ever, flawless, and yet not completely reliable. There’s a thoroughly believable tract of southeast Asia here, just as there’s a wonderfully recreated Chatswood house, or Kings Cross dive. You can walk right in.
As in other works, he’s taken reality and bent it to fit, in this case as a meditation on the act of creation, on the magical thinking that broadly describes the generation of the written word. Wode-Douglass is attempting to uncover the truth of a literary hoax that has borne terrible fruit – Christopher Chubb had, in younger times, created a faux poet, Bob McCorkle, to ensnare a contemporary. Which had been fine until McCorkle turned up and demanded some kind of recompense for being so rudely born.
This is where the novel’s opening quote – from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein – begins to make sense. Except it’s not bodysnatching that’s brought this creature to life; it’s poetry. Here’s where the history becomes most important: Carey has borrowed most of the backstory from one of Australia’s most famous literary hoaxes, the Ern Malley affair. McCorkle is the embodiment of Malley – words in a trial and in letters from relatives are borrowed from the original affair, and his poetry is Malley’s. (Well, that of his creators – one of whom Carey quotes at the conclusion of the work.)
The story ropes in real figures (such as Wystan Auden or Lord Antrim) to examine the truth of its title: that the main characters have all lived part of their life as fakes. As hoaxers, as dilettantes, or as creators of personal fictions, more comfortable than the truth. The mix of artificial with actual is considered, and the story manages to escape bogging on its personal and philosophical aspects.
My Life as a Fake is a great tale. Everyone lies. Everyone creates. Intentions count for a lot, and for nothing at all. The question is this: how far would you go to ensure your truth was the truth?