An essay I did for uni.
My life as a fake
Australian author Peter Carey’s novel My life as a fake was first published in Australia in 2003 by Random House (Carey 2003). It is a take on the fake literary identity theme, with an author deliberately creating an identity for the purposes of fooling either the reading public or the literati. At its heart, it is a pastiche of the Ern Malley controversy which was a literary imposture from the 1940s; a case of two men wishing to debunk modernist poetry by proving that gibberish was not only publishable but widely admired (Nolan & Dawson 2004, p. x) and according to Nolan and Dawson, this controversy has remained the touchstone literary hoax in Australia (ibid), despite intervening hoaxes such as the Demidenko case.
Not only is it a creative comment upon literary hoaxes, but it is a work of intertextuality. My life as a fake references and pays homage to not only the Ern Malley hoax, but Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; Or, the Modern Prometheus (Shelley 1969) by having the invented character of Bob McCorkle take on a life of its own. As Kampmark states, the character Chubb did not expect his creation to come to life (Kampmark 2015) instead and like Ern Malley, McCorkle was devised to ridicule an object of torment. McCorkle, like Frankenstein’s monster, takes out its ire on its creator. At one point in the book, he kidnaps Chubb and takes him “quite far north” (Carey 2003 p. 76) and Chubb, understandably, fears for his safety. As an aside, the realisation of Bob McCorkle where he becomes an embodiment of Chubb’s innermost urges and desires pays homage to the Tibetan Buddhist concept of tulpa or “thoughtform” (David-Neel 1929) where through dint of extraordinary faith and belief, an independent emanation can arise from an individual and live their own life. Like McCorkle, the tulpa can also prove challenging to be rid of.
According to Ashcroft, Peter Carey has been fascinated by the concepts of “the narrative function of truth and the ambivalence of lies” his entire writing career (Ashcroft 2004, p28). My life as a fake is a prime exemplification of what is truth or lie. Throughout the work, much is made of whether the characters are living in the real world, or if they are figments. Even the embodied McCorkle may or may not have any real truthful presence. This takes the hoax of Ern Malley to a literary, logical conclusion – that McCorkle is as real as Ern Malley if the reader is willing to believe it., but subjectively real in Australian way. This, according to Ashcroft, is what binds both the Ern Malley experience and My life as a fake together. Right down to the almost shared characters of Vogelsang and Vogelesang, which was the spelling used in Carey’s book (Carey 2005, p56). Vogelsang was the name of the South Australian police officer involved in the prosecution for indecency of the two men behind the Ern Malley hoax (Ashcroft 2004, p. 30). There is something quintessentially Australian about poking fun at authority figures in strange or off-handed ways, especially when the lines between truth and lie become blurred or obfuscated. Ashcroft further states that while the oeuvre of Ern Malley has engaged critics and literary analysts, “his” work remains purely textual, and “demonstrates the textuality of all lives” (Ashcroft 2004, p31). This is a salient endorsement of intertextuality, and shows that no work of fiction can be readily digested in isolation. Later in his paper, Ashcroft suggests that Ern Malley has become as tangible in “his” own way as the character of Bob McCorkle from My life as a fake (Ashcroft 2004, p.32).
So, to summarise My life as a fake, it is both a work of intertextuality and the perception of truths. Using unconventional narrative techniques such as time jumping and pastiche, it is a knotty and thought-provoking take on one of Australia’s signal literary hoaxes. It certainly fits into the postmodernist canon, as it makes no attempt to conform to realism or employs linear narrative of any kind, and in fact, appears to utterly reject such forms. Also, it is a work of Australianness without ever resorting to jingoism, cultural cringes or being self-referential. To be sure, as one reads the novel, there is the sensation that it could not have been anything other than Australian.
The deadman dance
That deadman dance is the third novel by Perth-based writer, Kim Scott, a man who has Noongar heritage, one of the Indigenous peoples who inhabit the south-western corner of Western Australia (Scott 2010). Although as with My life as a fake this novel uses pastiche and time-jumping, the emphasis with That deadman dance is the personal, not abstract humour and homage. It is a work of idealism destroyed, of dreams and visions ruined by colonial rapacity. It reinvents in its own way, the European concept of “settlement” and redresses this word by presenting it from the critical eyes of those being settled. The title itself bespeaks Noongar belief – the white men are “dead men”, returned from the other world, where pale people are their ghosts or revenants. The character Bobby witnesses the white soldiers drill, giving rise to the “dead men dance” (Brewster 2011, p61), something that Scott himself stated in an interview was intentional (Brewster 2012, p.231)
Identity is one of the key concepts in That Deadman Dance. The initial us and them, colonial and native, becomes increasingly blurred as characters began to slide into and out of each other’s culture and lives, but in the finish it is clear an unequal power relationship occurs, a state that exists down to the present day. At the end of the novel, Bobby thinks he has won over the white man with his dance; the dance he thinks could go “around a spear and make a song to calm any man (Scott 2010, p394) but it bespeaks failure. Despite the best intentions of those who came before, the new relationship between white man and Indigenous Australian will be asymmetric, favouring the former heavily and this too has carried into the present day. As the band Goanna sang in their song Solid Rock in 1982:
Well they were standin’ on the shore one day
Saw the white sails in the sun
Wasn’t long before they felt the sting
White man, white law, white gun (Howard 1982)
That deadman dance does not present this conquest is such overly stark terms, though the net result is tragically the same. Instead, the novel is couched in a poetical postmodernist fashion that reads as a dream sequence in many places. The Noongar concept of family is distinguished from the British by the character of Bobby, who explains that the Noongar have a relationship not only with their fellow humans, familial or not, but with the land and the life that lives upon it. Thus, according to Brewster, there is deep sense of betrayal and melancholy when the Noongar divest themselves of their white man clothes, putting an end to cordial relations with the colonisers (Brewster 2011, p.67). Although key characters like Dr Cross made efforts to empathise and understand the Noongar, others like Geordie Chaine saw them as nothing other than savages. Chaine, for all his bluff amiability with Bobby, can never have friendships based upon parity, despite Bobby thinking of him as a babin, an “uncle-friend” (Scott 2010, p. 157).
The character of Dr Cross is cast as the idealist, according to Hughes-d’Aeth. With Bobby’s parents dead presumably from the tuberculosis or smallpox the British have brought with them, Cross stays on and plays the intermediary, making reparation for the British presence (Hughes-d’Aeth 2014). He is the mirror of Bobby, another idealist, and perhaps through the actions of both men, there could have been conciliation between the two cultures. Cross’s death effectively nullifies this early on into the novel though Bobby’s idealism persists.
To close, That deadman dance and My life as a fake are both works of Australian origin that concern Australia in markedly different ways. The latter is a novel of playful pastiche, contorting and rearranging narrative forms and truth perceptions into something definitely postmodernist; an abnegation of realism. That deadman dance is equally as postmodernist but engages in realism almost paradoxically. There is no doubt that characters within are real and not fallacious figments, and they are also living entities and not embodiments. It is writing back, a rejoinder to European history and tale-telling, and a redressing of misapplied conceptions and cherished European beliefs.
Ashcroft, B 2004, ‘Reading Carey Reading Malley’, Australian Literary Studies, 21(4), pp. 28-39
Brewster, A 2011, ‘Whiteness and Indigenous Sovereignty in Kim Scott’s That Deadman Dance’, Journal of the European Association of Studies on Australia, 2(2), pp. 60-71
Brewster, A 2012, ‘Can You Anchor a Shimmering Nation State via Regional Indigenous Roots?’, Cultural Studies Review, 18(1), pp. 228-246
Carey, P 2003, ‘My life as a fake’, Random House, Sydney
David-Neel, A 1929, ‘Magic and Mystery in Tibet’, Dover, New York
Howard, S 1982, ‘Solid Rock’, audio recording, WEA Australia
Hughes-d’Aeth, T 2014, ‘For a long time nothing happened: Settler colonialism, deferred action and the scene of colonization in Kim Scott’s That Deadman Dance’, The Journal of Commonwealth Literature, 2014, pp. 1-13
Kampmark, N 2015, ‘Monstrous (in)authenticity: Text and identity in Peter Carey’s My life as a fake’, Književnost i Kultura, (5)2
Nolan, M & Dawson, C 2004, ‘Who’s who?; hoaxes, imposture and identity crises in Australian literature’, University of Queensland Press, Brisbane, pp v-xx
Scott, K 2010, ‘That deadman dance’, Picador, Sydney
Shelley, M 1969, ‘Frankenstein; Or, The Modern Prometheus’, Oxford University Press, Oxford