Fiendishly devious and addictively readable, Peter Carey’s My Life as a Fake is a moral labyrinth constructed around the uneasy relationship between literature and lying. In steamy, fetid Kuala Lumpur in 1972, Sarah Wode-Douglass, the editor of a London poetry journal, meets a mysterious Australian named Christopher Chubb. Chubb is a despised literary hoaxer, carting around a manuscript likely filled with deceit. But in this dubious manuscript Sarah recognizes a work of real genius. But whose genius? As Sarah tries to secure the manuscript, Chubb draws her into a fantastic story of imposture, murder, kidnapping, and exile–a story that couldn’t be true unless its teller were mad. My Life as a Fake is Carey at his most audacious and entertaining.
Customer ReviewsSee All
Impressively layered literary feat
Peter Carey based My Life as a Fake on a real incident in Australia where a writer perpetrated a hoax by publishing the poems of an individual he claimed was dead, but never really existed. While the actual incident would be interesting enough, Carey takes this further by have the supposedly imagined poet show up in the life of the individual who created the hoax.
The story is told by Sarah - the editor of a London Lit journal who has followed another writer, Slater to Malaysia. Slater, knew Sarah's mother and part of her reason to go there is because she wanted to know what really happened between Slater and her mother. That subplot is a perfect subtle way of getting the reader to question the narrator's reliability. Added to that, a layering of stories told to the narrator that sometimes include another told to them. The reader receives conflicting stories through this technique and one finds oneself wonder which is true.
Sarah, while in Malaysia, she runs into Christopher Chubb, the man who created the poetry hoax. He shows her a poem he insists is the work of Bob McCorkle, the supposedly made up poet. She realizes it is a brilliant piece of writing, but Chubb says he must tell her his story. His story is also told by Slater, giving the reader two different sides. As the story continues, Chubb tells his story, and the story of the hoax, of Bob McCorkle come to life, of his daughter, his lover, and the stories of others who help or hinder him along the way, as well as telling the stories they have told to him. We also hear directly from the daughter through the narrator and Slater tells Sarah versions of some events he participated in, heard, or witnessed that differ to the point that the are sometimes in direct conflict with what we learn before or after. The narrator herself begins to question things, but her own desires color what she chooses to believe. Slater also tells her what really happened to her own mother, even though she remembers it differently.
In the end, the narratives weave in and out, closer and further from the narrator and the reader is left to question what did or didn't happen - and is left to the reality that none of the characters are all that likable. Does a character's likability make it more like we believe their version? Sarah starts as likable, but as the story progresses I found her less and less so. Her obsession reflects that of Chubb and at least one version of McCorkle, and while the end is of course in question, one imagines she end up similarly.
It is rare to find a book where the characters aren't especially likable, yet My Life as a Fake is wonderfully engrossing. Carey does an excellent job at recreating post-war Australia, and 1950's and 70's Malaysia for the readers, and in creating engaging characters that are fully drawn if not particularly sympathetic. I found that even though the story was being told to the narrator, each of the characters in any given story had their own voice. He also has created a sort of literary Frankenstein in Bob McCorkle that keeps the plot moving and building to the shocking end. The story is action packed and full of vivid details — an impressive feat when you realize that during the course of the narration, only a short time passes in opposition to the decades the stories told to her take, and, other than moving from place to place where characters meet and the story is revealed, there is little real-time action.
Carey's characters are epically flawed - they are greedy, selfish, amoral, and vengeful (often for slights perceived as far worse than most of us would see them) and more often than not under the sway of one of those flaws, although they cannot see it, even when reflected in others they accuse of the same. While the end is shocking, it feels inevitable and unavoidable, and the sadness is not for the consequences, but rather for the fact that they couldn't see it coming.