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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 further.

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