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Peter Carey: My Life as a Fake

As Carey tells us in the afterword, this book is based on the story of Ern Malley, one of Australia’s most famous poets, who did not actually exist. This novel is narrated by Sarah Wode-Douglass, the editor of a poetry magazine. She comes from a well-to-do family (her father was called Boofy!) but her mother killed herself and her father has now died. At the start of the novel, John Slater, a rogue, womanizer, writer and possible former lover of her mother, offers to take her to Kuala Lumpur for a week and she accepts. There she meets Christopher Chubb, now working in a run down bicycle shop and clearly down on his luck but formerly an Australian poet.

Gradually, during the course of the book, from Chubb, from Slater and from the narrator, we piece together Chubb’s story and we (and Sarah) learn more about Sarah. Chubb had been to school with a Jew called David Weiss. Chubb is serving in the Australian army, while Weiss is back home editing a poetry magazine. Chubb decides to play a hoax on Weiss and submits the poetry of the late Bob McCorkle, complete with biography, supplied by McCorkle’s equally fictitious sister. The poetry is a mish-mash with bits of Eliot and Pound and other bits and pieces. Weiss falls for it and publishes it. But the fake is exposed, subjecting Weiss to ridicule and then he is prosecuted for obscenity for publishing the poetry, though he is prosecuted more for being a Jew. During the trial he kills himself. Chubb, of course, feels incredibly guilty and suffers bitterly and that might have been that, except for one thing. McCorkle turns up.

McCorkle is, indeed, fictitious. He admits that he was created by Chubb and therefore started life as a man. However, he is a giant and strong and bitter at his creator. There follows a series of adventures, involving Chubb, McCorkle and a child, who may or may not be McCorkle’s or Chubb’s. Sarah, at the time of the narration and, Slater, both now and before, are involved as they go after the main prize, McCorkle’s wonderful poetry, which Chubb or McCorkle (or both) had written. It is all great fun and, like any good mystery, gradually unfolds, with both Sarah and the reader frequently heading down the wrong track. But I am not convinced that it is one of Carey’s great novels.

Publishing history

First published 2003 by Random House