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Peter Carey: Bliss

Bliss was Carey’s first novel and a very fine start it was too. Harry Joy is a “Good Man”. He is fairly contented with his lovely wife, his job running an advertising agency, his two fine children and the fact he is well liked in the community. One day he dies – he has a coronary and, before he is resuscitated, has an out-of-body experience – and realises that he is actually living in hell. While pretending to be away on a business trip, he hides in a tree and watches, upstairs, his daughter giving his son a blow job (it’s actually in exchange for drugs, but Harry does not know that), while his business partner is putting his hand up his wife’s dress downstairs. He fires his best client because he makes carcinogenic products (saccharin), maps out his vision of hell and abandons his job to live in a $200 a day hotel room in the Hilton, where he meets Honey Barbara, a back-to-the-earth woman who supplements her living with prostitution while her boyfriend sells drugs.

Harry’s family and business associates do not take kindly to his behaviour and have him committed to an asylum that compares unfavourably to the asylum in Ken Kesey‘s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Alice Dalton being not unlike Nurse Ratched. Honey is also committed (for trying to burn the money he used to paid her – her reason is not because of insanity but to destroy evidence) but they manage to buy their way out, where they set up a strange household with Harry’s wife, his partner/her lover (Joel), Harry’s children and his daughter’s new boyfriend. But it all starts to fall apart. Honey Barbara turns up, Bettina, Harry’s wife, and her boyfriend take over the advertising agency but when Bettina realizes she has cancer, she blows up the agency. Honey Barbara leaves. David, Harry’s son, will also leave and be executed by a firing squad in Latin America. Joel kills himself. Harry heads out to the country and sets up home in the outback with Honey Barbara. In short, they live happily ever after in what, in the hands of a lesser writer, might seem like a naïve hippie paradise.

Yes, this novel is clearly a not very subtle attack on the “system”, with all the bad things that go with it – advertising, pollution, junk food, conventional families – and with the alternative – living in the country, close to nature, eating well – giving you a happy life and pretty girls. But Carey does not fall into the trap of either being blatantly satirical (the bad guys rarely become stereotypes except, inevitably, for the police) or being blatantly sentimental. He focuses his point of view on Harry and, while Harry sees the world he lives in as Hell, he does not mock this Hell but takes it very seriously. He is an innocent in a world gone bad and mad. Only through the saving hands of Honey is he redeemed. A fine first novel.

Publishing history

First published 1981 by Faber and Faber