Revisiting Peter Carey’s early fiction

In the world of reading, The Latest Thing usually dominates our attention. It’s a natural focus of review pages, bookshop displays, festival programs. But it can become tiresome. None of us manages to keep up with the sheer quantity of publications appearing month after month. ‘What do you think of XX’s new novel?’ ‘Uh…I haven’t read her previous one yet.’  We droop with ennui, which tends to efface our memory of things we read a few years ago – though they may have more lasting value than The Latest Thing.

So in an effort to resist the buzz of mere topicality, I’ll be posting comments occasionally on books (or parts of books) first encountered some while back that now seem worth revisiting. I begin here with two examples of Peter Carey’s early fiction, ‘Crabs’ and Illywhacker. Looked at again after an interval of many years, they’re a reminder that sudden structural changes have always been a feature of his stories. Often these disruptive moments transform not only characters and situations but also the genre of the story itself: we find ourselves reading something quite different in kind from what we’d thought it was.

Although Carey has been regarded for a long time now as a novelist, he made his name as a boldly experimental writer of short stories. Most of the brief pieces in his first book, The Fat Man in History (published 40 years ago), showed an innovative flair that startled their readers. I’ve just revisited the opening story, ‘Crabs.’ Its title’s most obvious initial reference is to the disease that the main character has supposedly acquired – and has even become, in a sense: he’s known as Crabs. But the title suggests also the rapid sidelong movements taken by the narrative structure as it takes us from a seemingly realistic environment into something bizarre.

This is a darkly futuristic tale, semi-allegorical. Crabs finds himself a virtual prisoner in a drive-in cinema when his vehicle’s wheels are stolen by a gang known as the Karboys. There’s a disturbing implication that Australian society generally has become menacing, ruthless, predatory. People can find themselves in a kind of limbo, like a refugee camp.

‘Crabs’ was made into a low-budget movie called Dead-End Drive-In (1986) – an unsatisfactory transposition because the film medium couldn’t reproduce the story’s surreal climax, which comes when the eponymous character escapes (seemingly) by becoming fully mechanised himself through sheer willpower, turning into a tow-truck! That’s not quite all, but I won’t reveal the story’s final gear-change.


In the many narrative experiments that have followed that first one, Carey continues to play textual confidence tricks that lead us as happy dupes up the strangest garden paths. What we find on the way is seldom what the story seemed initially to promise – but it’s more, not less, than we expected.

None of his other books show this as mischievously as Illywhacker (1985), a whopper story that implicates his own crafty fictioneering.

An illywhacker is a trickster or spieler, and this eccentric novel takes one of them as its narrator. Herbert Badgery introduces himself as 139 years old, adding that he’s a terrible liar and always has been. So we’re thrown straight into the classic Cretan paradox: when a liar says he’s lying, how can that be true?

Badgery himself warns us against taking his narration on trust. Now and then, after relating some episode, he will mention casually that it wasn’t like that at all. Such candour can be disarming; it makes him seem almost reliable in his unreliability – someone who wouldn’t mislead us for long. But he admits to mendacity on such a scale that everything is cast into question. By the time he tells us, near the end, that he has pinched a lot of his story from the writings of one of the other characters, we hardly know or care what’s believable. After all, crucial plot developments result from such prodigies as his ability to turn invisible, and his having preserved in a Vegemite jar a finger that keeps grotesquely changing into all sorts of weird things, the very sight of which precipitates disasters for those who see them. Willingly we suspend disbelief.

And yet a large part of Illywhacker obeys ordinary conventions of realism, and registers the contours of a thoroughly recognisable Australian setting and history. Traversing half a century, the novel evokes with affectionate irony many parts of non-metropolitan Victoria before coming to rest in Sydney. Often the scene shifts with the stages of Badgery’s semi-picaresque life as aviator, salesman, showman and roving lover. But beyond that, we sometimes follow separately the trajectories of other characters through further by-ways of Australian society – and in each case we see with their eyes, despite the fact that it’s Badgery who claims to be our source of information. With cheerful audacity this novel is having it both ways – all the intimate advantages of a lively first-person narrator, combined incongruously with omniscience. Badgery never hesitates to recount in detail things he couldn’t possibly have known within the terms of his apparently natural life s a character in a realistic tale.

What impressed me most when I first read Illywhacker at the time of its publication, and remains impressive now, is its unflagging comic inventiveness. It conjures a world where anything can happen and almost everything does. Some episodes are uproariously farcical, others depend for their fun on foibles and quirks of character. The novel abounds in memorable figures, richly idiosyncratic.

The prevailing tone is warm, full of genial regard for those given to perverse and obsessive behavior. But Badgery is no sentimentalist; he exposes in others and himself a compulsion towards shabby betrayals and stupid self-thwartings. He doesn’t linger on emotions; the mood can switch in a moment from pathos to slapstick. Switchability is made easier by subdividing the text into mini-chapters, some as brief as half a page. So Illywhacker has 213 beginnings and 213 endings, each implicitly emphasizing the incompleteness of any narrative act. No story can make itself heard without suppressing some potentially alternative version. In this sense, at least, every soothsaying illywhacker is a master of plausible falsehoods.

That basic truth about fiction is both confessed and celebrated in Carey’s marvellous compound of tall tales, sly lies and fabulous fibs.


4 thoughts on “Revisiting Peter Carey’s early fiction

  1. I’ve tended to struggle with Carey’s novels (the movie of Bliss excepted), but I loved his stories when I was a teenager. I couldn’t have told you back then what avant-garde even meant, let alone that Carey was a particular exponent of it from a particularly experimental phase of Australian short story writing. But I definitely tried to emulate his style in my own fictional scribblings of the time – with quite disastrous results…

  2. Like you, Glen, I’ve found it difficult to get into most of Carey’s later novels (though Jack Maggs held me in its grip because it so audaciously reimagines the world of Great Expectations). That’s party why in this little article I wanted to go back to rediscover what it was about his fiction that made a big impact on me in earlier days. As you suggest, it probably had a lot to do with the heady experimental phase of much Australian writing at that time. In general I wouldn’t regard Carey as a suitable model for other writers now. I’m mindful of Wordsworth’s acerbic dismissal of ‘the quick turns of self-applauding intellect’ – I’m sure he would have viewed PC’s work in those terms.

  3. Great post, Ian. Carey wrote one of my favourite novels, Bliss, and also one of the most terrifying I’ve ever read, The Tax Inspector. I’m think I’m going to have to read ‘Crabs’ now!

  4. Thanks Amanda, I haven’t read The Tax Inspector but next time I want to be terrified I’ll look for it.

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