“Le mot juste” is a phrase you don’t hear too often in connection to fiction anymore. It translates roughly to “the right word.” We don’t hear this in lit criticism because, as it happens, not many novelists seem to care if they use the right word or not, and by the right word, I mean the word that perfectly fits the situation, that sums up the author’s thought nicely, the word that clicks into place. With Peter Carey, you can tell he cares about the words he uses, and his novel My Life As A Fake is rife with the right words.
For instance, at one point in the novel, the narrator is informed that one of her most important childhood memories was not correctly remembered by her. This was a memory of something she witnessed as a child, and, as children tend to do, largely repressed it. When she hears the full story of what she saw that fateful day long ago, she remarks she felt as if her life were “misconstructed.” That is what I would call the perfect word for the emotion. A more obvious choice would be to say she was “misconceived” or “misled,” but misconstructed is more descriptive and more accurate. After all, a painful memory is what people often build their personality on–it’s the object from which they acquire grudges, internal scars, and inscrutable phobias. So to learn such a memory was false–what better word than “misconstructed” for it?
My Life As A Fake is full of such moments of perfect writing. The misfortune of the reader though is that the novel itself isn’t perfect. As is often the case of truly gifted prose stylists, the plot of the novel is hard to follow. I occasionally find myself lost when reading the novels of masterful writers like Vladimir Nabokov and John Banville, and Peter Carey shares a decent amount in common with them. The difference is, with Vladimir Nabokov and John Banville, the story takes the backseat to the telling of it, that is, the descriptions are the story. If I don’t understand exactly what’s going on in Ada or Ardor or Eclipse, I can read on happily, constantly enthralled by the writing itself. With My Life As A Fake, I don’t have such an option because the book is, for all its artfulness, a thriller. With thrillers, I want clarity. I can’t giddily rush through the pages when I keep tripping over stylish inventions (Elmore Leonard and Patricia Highsmith create such exciting thrillers because you can always tell what’s going on in their books).
There’s one stylish invention that continually tripped me up: a framed narrative made up of unreliable narrators. The story concerns a woman who has spent her life enthralled in poetry ever since reading T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland. She becomes the editor of a poetry periodical, but despairs of her life when someone off-handedly tells her she’s never published a good poem. When strange circumstances carry her to Kuala Lampur, she finds, largely by coincidence, a good poem. Not only that, but the possibility that there are more like it. The problem she faces is this: to procure the poems, she has to deal with the poet himself.
This is where the narrative becomes tricky. When she meets the poet, he agrees to give her the poems, but only if she listens to his story. In most novels, the original narrator would be fazed out at this point and replaced by the new character. Instead, when the poet begins to tell his story, the poetry editor remains present. Much of his story is elaborated through dialogue with the original narrator, thus giving us two narrators. While this is nifty at first, it turns cumbersome later, especially when it becomes hard to remember which narrator is telling the story.
Such a clever device could be used wonderfully well in a short story or in a novella, but when used throughout an entire novel it slows the action and at times makes the story seem willfully obscure. Looking back, I believe My Life As A Fake is the type of novel that would have benefited from circular reading (that is, starting it, reading a chunk, then restarting it, knowing in a greater sense what it’s about, a method I had to use to understand Gravity’s Rainbow, Catch-22, and Anna Karenina). At times, I reached what seemed like important plot points, but didn’t understand them, as if I were caught in a fog wondering if I missed the road I was looking for.
The flaws I’ve mentioned may not be flaws at all to some people: every reader is different. I’ve met people who perfectly followed the plot of a book but missed out entirely on the theme, and vice versa. As a minor novelist myself, I am often so wrapped up in observing a writer’s technique that I overlook the plot itself. So, by all means, if My Life As A Fake sounds interesting to you, go ahead and read it. I would recommend it. I would also recommend you pay greater attention to the plot than I did. When I said the writing was often perfect, my enthusiam wasn’t faked.
——If you’re looking for something else to read, please check out my book A Rapturous Occasion, available on Amazon in paperback and as an ebook.
Read my other book reviews.
My Life As A Fake is the first novel by Peter Carey I have read, and I would definitely like to read more by him–any suggestions?