Knowing

Frank Kermode

  • Bliss by Peter Carey
    Faber, 296 pp, £6.50, November 1981, ISBN 0 571 11769 4
  • Exotic Pleasures by Peter Carey
    Picador, 192 pp, £1.95, October 1981, ISBN 0 330 26550 4

When I started reading Bliss I hadn’t read Mr Carey’s first book, The Fat Man in History, though like everybody else I had heard the stories acclaimed in terms which made the prospect of his first novel very attractive. It is therefore both surprising and regrettable that I have to say that Bliss is a bad novel, though by a talented author.

In the ordinary way I don’t approve of using blurbs against authors, but this time there is point in quoting the publisher’s hype, since it represents something the novel itself pretends to deplore when it shows consumers as the victims of the advertisers who ruin our bodies and minds for profit. Among the adjectives employed in a brief blurb are these: ‘astonishing’, ‘fast-moving’, ‘funny’, ‘gripping’, ‘brilliant’, ‘powerful’, ‘important’ and ‘orginal’. These are labels to be stuck on almost any title you want to sell a lot of, and indeed the only original expression is ‘orginal’, an appropriate distortion.

The hero is Harry Joy, a cultured Australian adman, who is brought back to life after nine minutes of death following a heart attack, whereupon he imagines the world he lives in to be Hell, and decides, to revert to the discriminating language of the blurb, that he will ‘notate the true nature of the Underworld’ in a notebook. His wife Bettina, who has fantasies about New York, deceives him with a coarse American, and, messy amorist, visits her husband in hospital while leaking this man’s semen, though she presumably passes within range of a lavatory on her way to the ward: the book has quite a lot of fast-moving, gripping and orginal sex, including a scene in which three women, in various parts of a house, have more or less simultaneous and audible orgasms. There is an adolescent son who induces his 15-year-old sister, a highly politicised girl, to fellate him. Fantasy runs in the male line of the family, and this boy is sooner or later to be shot for gun-running.

Happy family! Or so they should be. They live in a world of frangipanis, blue bushes, casurinas (perhaps the orginal form of ‘casuarinas’) and honey-eaters, drinking Veuve Cliquot and Mouton Rothschild. But comfort they neither give nor receive. Harry comes to loathe his advertising business for the harm it does. He thinks of the world as consisting of Captives, tormented by Actors (like his wife) at the behest of Those in Charge. Things get steadily worse. A circus elephant sits on his Fiat 500. There is what is called ‘a totally believable fusion of ordinary experience with the crazier fantasies of the mind’. The Veuve Cliquot is paid for by the account of Krappe Chemicals; Harry thinks he ought not to sell Krappe. Naturally he is thought to be insane, and by the agency of his son he is tricked into a lunatic asylum. Here we get some vigorous Ken Kesey. But before that happens he has met Honey Barbara. She comes into the carcinogenic city from the tough pure woods where she is an expert on honey. While her associates sell their load of marijuana she turns a trick as a whore (hypnotised so as not to feel anything). She meets Harry in the Hilton, whither he has fled, and then later in the bin. He sees her as having all the right attitudes; she is totally dropped out, thinks that in the city you get radiated with television and catch cancer from Big Macs and frozen chicken.

Bettina buys them out of the asylum, but her price is high; Harry peddles her ads, and even Barbara falls into bad ways, though she justifies drinking Mouton Rothschild by saying it’s probably organic. For a while they all get on together; this is the time for mass simultaneous orgasm. But the relationship has ‘structural flaws’. Bettina dies of cancer from inhaling, long ago, petrol fumes at her father’s filling-station. After many vicissitudes Harry winds up in the woods with Honey Barbara, planting trees. ‘He talked to the lightning, the tree, the fire, gained authority over bees and blossoms, told stories, conducted ceremonies ... ’

The telling of fantastic tales is, as I’ve remarked, a characteristic of the Joy men, and may remind us that Mr Carey also likes to do so. The Fat Man in History is now known, in its paperback version, as Exotic Pleasures, the title of one of the other stories. The fantasy in these tales is bolder and more successful than in the novel. One of them is about a commune of very fat men; one about a woman, very slowly undressed, who turns out to have a skin and limbs that also come off; in another, a father who is keen on the need for love dematerialises in the sitting-room. There’s an element of Science Fiction, and a rather poetic story about a mime, but the most telling is called ‘War Crimes’. It deals with what is clearly a favourite topic, the fascist ravages of big business, a war of extermination against the hordes of unemployed.

It seems usual for those who would praise Carey to reach for the name of Ian McEwan as a comparison, but there isn’t, beyond the element of fantasy, much resemblance: McEwan has much more assurance and resource, and so has Raymond Carver, a writer virtually unknown in this country who superficially resembles Carey but is – up to now, at any rate – working at quite a different level. All the same, Exotic Pleasures is an accomplished book.

So, for that matter, is Bliss, for Carey has narrative energy, and writes dialogue like a man to whom writing is second nature. What seems wrong with it is this: it is knowing. There are things one ought to know about without being knowing about. The novel is in collusion with the world that produced that blurb. Mr Carey has been in advertising, and now lives in mountainous rain-forest country. He knows, is knowing, about advertising. But the intervention of fantasy at the point where we are thinking about the perfectly genuine possibility that people are willing to consign us to a painful death in order to buy more Veuve Cliquot and Mouton Rothschild seems unsatisfactory, if not callous. The fantasy, in other words, is a licence to substitute knowingness for knowing, and the book risks being accused of the same sort of crafted mendacity as the advertisement.

One never feels that this book is in danger of being driven mad by its subject, as Harry Joy is said to have been driven round the bend by a life in advertising. The fantasy allows it to be wild without telling a wild truth of the sort it suggests needs telling. Even the scenes in the mountainous rain-forest country, so knowledgeable about trees and bees, so insistent on the inner purity of Barbara, fail, for all their abundant and energetic and expert detail. They are there as a foil to the cancerous city – the forest’s being there at all is mere evidence of knowingness. For the success of this book, right down to the sex scenes, the effort to put in what has not quite, even at this date, been put in before, is of a kind proper to the filthy city, where the cleanliness of mountainous rain-forests is celebrated in carcinogenic cigarette ads. This the author knows; and his publishers have a just expectation that his novel will be acclaimed where it counts, in the city he knows so well. If they turn out to be right, we shall have to wait and see whether his talent can possibly survive the experience.