Like his near-namesake, Tristram Shandy, the unlikely hero of Peter Carey’s new novel begins the story of his life at the very beginning. While he doesn’t go into quite as much detail about the moment of his conception, he appears to have a very clear memory of the minutes leading up to his delivery. As his mother leaves her theatre (where she has been rehearsing the Scottish Play) and sets out for the hospital,
things started happening faster than she had expected. Oxytocin entered her bloodstream like a ten-ton truck and all the pretty soft striped muscles of her womb turned hostile, contracting on me like they planned to crush my bones. I was caught in a rip. I was dumped. I was shoved into the birth canal, head first, my arm still pinned behind my back. My ear got folded like an envelope. My head was held so hard it felt, I swear it, like the end of life and not its glorious beginning.
From then on, there is little that is glorious about Tristan’s life. As with Sterne’s luckless protagonist, sadness is embedded in his name and he is destined to embark upon ‘a set of as pitiful misadventures and cross accidents as ever small HERO sustained’. He is born horribly deformed. The obstetrician takes his mother aside to advise her, quietly, that it might be best to kill him. At birth he is ‘a gruesome little thing ... small, not small like a baby, smaller, more like one of those wrinkled furless dogs they show on television talk shows’. His pale eyes ‘bulge intensely in his face’. He has ‘shrunken twisted legs, bowed under him’ and ‘no lips, but a gap in the skin that sometimes shows his toothless gums’. Revulsion is the initial response of all those who set eyes on him, even the enlightened members of his mother’s small, politically active theatre group. A few years later, he will find himself climbing down the outside wall of a hospital while a crowd looks on, and will realise that these spectators see him as ‘something like snot, like slime, like something dripping down towards them from which they wished to take their eyes and which, the clearer and closer it became, produced in their own eyes and lips such grotesque contortions that I knew – properly, fully, for the first time in my life – I was a monster.’ The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith is not, however, a book about disability. It’s a subtly but intensely political novel about imperialism, cultural hegemony and the ambivalent relationship between small, weak countries and the larger, stronger ones which both oppress and inspire them. Peter Carey currently lives in New York and there is every indication that he is attempting here to resolve his own very contradictory feelings about America, even though that country is not mentioned once in the novel.
Tristan Smith is born and grows up in an invented country called Efica, a diffident chain of ‘18 little islands between the tropic of Capricorn and the 30th parallel’, whose inhabitants are both fiercely nationalistic and ‘abandoned, self-doubting’. The first half of the book is set in Efica, the second in the much more powerful country of Voorstand. These nations have been imagined in some detail: all the dates in the novel are given according to the Efican calendar (making it hard to tell whether the narrative takes place in the present or future); maps are provided; and Carey has devised more than a hundred new dialect words for the languages of each country, listing them in a lengthy glossary at the end of the book. The imaginative world of the novel is both consistent and self-contained. No reference is made to places or events outside Efica and Voorstand; even the publisher’s blurb sustains the pretence that these countries exist and declines to come clean by explicitly puffing the virtues of the book as a parable or allegory.
This is perhaps just as well, because it’s a difficult novel to discuss in such terms without doing violence to the extreme delicacy with which Carey cloaks a whole range of possible political meanings beneath his narrative. It’s not clear, for instance, that Voorstand should be identified directly with America, although the two countries have many things in common, the most obvious being the popular mythologies which they export so ruthlessly. Carey posits a believable dystopia in which sophisticated technology (holograms, gigantic video screens, computer-controlled life-size puppets) co-exists with a whimsical, almost infantile folk culture: the three key figures are a dog, a duck and, most important, a cheerful, wily, lovable mouse known as ‘Bruder Mouse’. Any resemblance to Goofy, Donald and Mickey is no doubt intentional. The image of Bruder Mouse comes to dominate the book, becoming emblematic of everything that is most sinister and at the same time most irresistible about Voorstand. Tristan’s mother, a Voorstander by birth, loathes the mouse and just about everything it stands for, but when her son makes it clear that, despite all his physical shortcomings, he too wants to become an actor, she indulges him by presenting him with a Bruder Mouse mask. This gives rise to some powerful imagery: Tristan refuses to take the mask off and wears it even while watching the television screen on which his mother, embarking on her short-lived political career, makes a strong anti-Voorstand speech, evoking ‘the sharp-toothed blue-coated Mouse as a paranoid – its white-gloved finger hovering above a button which might destroy the planet’.
The first half of the book, then, offers a series of different and constantly surprising takes on the theme of cultural imperialism, the notion of art as a political weapon whether in the hands of the oppressor or the oppressed. A realistic, highly detailed depiction of the workings of a small theatre group jostles with our sense of disorientation on finding ourselves in the midst of Efica’s unfamiliar landscape, and this somehow creates a space in which the weightlessly symbolic is able to flourish. The Eficans function as a metaphor for every downtrodden nation, with ‘their small population, their geographic isolation, their lack of natural riches, their tiny GNP’ and Tristan himself becomes the underdog’s underdog: and it’s no surprise that to someone so appalled by his own physical appearance, and so undernourished by the small-scale, low-budget theatrical entertainments he has grown used to, his first sight of authentic Voorstand popular culture should come as a revelation. The Voorstand Sirkus which tours Efica is a high-octane, high-risk entertainment featuring jugglers, acrobats and astonishing technological effects, and Tristan’s first glimpse of it provides the descriptive highlight of Book One:
There was no slow build-up in this show. The pace, from the first drum beat, was extraordinary. It was like being accelerated into the stratosphere. The jokes and the tricks followed each other at a dizzying speed. It was like being tickled. You could not bear the thought that what you were laughing at would be intensified, although it surely would be, and would be again, as tumbling High-Hogs flew across the stage chasing tumbling panicking holographic Bruders.
Tristan’s exhilaration, or something like it, must have been felt by many young people when watching a big-budget, feelgood American movie after years of exposure to their own downbeat national cinema or television. Even the hardened ‘Voorphobe’ who escorts Tristan to the Sirkus is moved to tears, and comes out declaring: ‘They’re a great people ... That’s what a show like this teaches you. Theirs was a country that was founded on a principle.’
From here on, however, the thrust of the novel is to expose the more threatening side of the Voorstanders’ triumphalism. Tristan’s mother, on the verge of an election victory which would involve the renegotiation of Efica’s treaty with Voorstand, is assassinated. Years later, Tristan himself travels to Voorstand, along with his guardian and his nurse, to try to locate his father, who has long ago abandoned the smallscale Efican theatre and made a name for himself as a performer in the Voorstand Sirkus. Pursued by operatives of the Voorstand Intelligence Agency (the VIA – one of the novel’s more obvious political signposts), they make their way to Saarlim, the capital city, infiltrate the upper echelons of Voorstand society and find that the infantilism and regressive puritanism of the culture is here well advanced, as they learn of a plan to turn the whole city into a gigantic heritage theme park or ‘Ghostdorp’.
From even this cursory attempt to summarise aspects of its plot, you will gather that The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith is a pretty extraordinary book. On two previous occasions – in Illywhacker and Oscar and Lucinda – Carey has shown himself capable of using the novel as a basis for the investigation of national character, an enterprise normally fraught with hubris and presumption. This novel is even riskier, being very specific in its treatment of individual characters while at the same time asking the reader to take a good deal on trust. That we buy into it at all is a tribute less, perhaps, to the discipline of Carey’s imagination than to the unanswerable plainness of his prose, which, like the Efican landscape – and the Australian, for that matter – is characterised above all by ‘an emptiness, a refusal to charm’.
No doubt this plainness is the result of endless paring down and re-drafting; without it, we would probably think of Carey as a very difficult writer indeed. Certainly it’s rare for anyone to have sustained such a wide international readership while making, in his last two books, such minor concessions to the conventional novelistic pleasures. In Illywhacker, where the fake, the fabulous and the bizarre were at the heart of the book both thematically and technically, and in Oscar and Lucinda, where a terrific pastiche of 19th-century writing gave us a good substitute for solidity of character, it was possible to ignore some facts which The Tax Inspector and The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith have since brought to the light. There’s an almost terminal bleakness in Carey’s presentation of human relations, for instance – a bleakness which can sometimes combine with his disinclination for stylistic adornment to make the process of entering his fictional worlds (both real and invented) a positively spartan experience. There’s the question, too, of his pronounced taste for the grotesque, which in this novel is taken to new extremes. Carey’s image of a glass church sailing down the river in Oscar and Lucinda was not only a powerful one, but it was also rigorously argued for in the preceding narrative; here, on the other hand, there’s very little to prepare us for the freakish peculiarity of the closing scenes, where the folksy, childlike mythology of Bruder Mouse collides with Tristan’s emerging sexuality. I was reminded at this point of William Wharton’s Franky Furbo – the only other novel I can think of where a writer has so daringly appropriated the language and imagery of children’s literature and deployed it to adult ends. To say that Carey’s is the harder-edged book is not necessarily to offer it unqualified praise. Finally, in fact, The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith left me hoping that next time around his ‘refusal to charm’ would not be quite so adamant.