Onyx reviews: My Life as a Fake
by Peter Carey
Sarah Wode-Douglass (Micks, to her friends) edits a prestigious but
financially strapped British poetry journal. She allows herself to be swept off
to Malaysia with an old family friend, John Slater, a writer who Sarah blames
for her mother's suicide. She is lured by his promise to discuss what happened
on that long-ago day.
During one of Slater's frequent, unexplained absences, Sarah encounters
Christopher Chubb, a poet who once perpetuated an infamous fraud (based on a
real-life incident) against the editor an Australian literary magazine. Chubb
submitted a batch of pseudo-intellectual verse as the work of a fictitious,
deceased poet named Bob McCorkle. The fraud discredited the editor and
ultimately led to his death after he was charged with publishing the McCorkle
material, which was deemed indecent.
Carey recasts the story of Frankenstein in modern terms, replacing the monster
with a pseudonym come to life. (Stephen King did something similar with The Dark
Half.) McCorkle is Chubb's monster, created from literary carcasses and
apparently taking over the fiction Chubb invented. No one believes Chubb could
have written the McCorkle poems and an enormous, dangerous beast of a man
appears at the editor's trial claiming to be McCorkle. Like Victor Frankenstein,
Chubb spends years tracking his creation. Mere desire to discover the truth
wouldn't have been enough to compel him to follow McCorkle across the South
Pacific. What drives him is the fact that he claims McCorkle kidnapped his
infant daughter and has been raising her as his own.
While Chubb's story unfolds over several days in rainy Kuala Lampur, Slater
whispers in Sarah's ear, telling her that Chubb is mad, not to be trusted. Sarah
is hooked by a single page of poetry that Chubb showed her the day they met, an
excerpt of such genius that it represents salvation for her magazine. She isn't
motivated by greed but by an editor's natural acquisitiveness. Chubb claims to
have an entire book of McCorkle's poetry. Sarah has no way of knowing if
McCorkle is real or a product of Chubb's diseased mind. Chubb's own poetry is
unpublishable by her standards; McCorkle's is literary genius.
Slater finally comes through on his promise to tell her about her parents and
she realizes how little she really knew of them and the false assumptions that
have driven her passions. Much of her life may also have been a fake. Though the
book starts out implying that it will address Sarah's subsequent obsession with
McCorkle's poetry—which mirrors Chubb's—that promise doesn't pay off. Her
years of turmoil after Chubb's story is done are summarized in one page.
The book contains no quotation marks, a literary conceit which makes it hard to
tell whether a sentence is dialog, character thought or narrative, complicated
by the fact that the novel is layered: the reminiscences of a character who is
being told a story that contains its own dialog.
This is a literary novel, so the monster isn't meant to scare but to represent
something and the ending isn't anything so mundane as either the evil is
vanquished or it isn't. Literary novels expect the reader to work, but My Life
as a Fake peters out so quickly after a somewhat confusing climax that this
reader was left feeling that the author should have carried on at least a little
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