Book Reviews

My Life as a Fake by Peter Carey

Knopf, New York

“I am an awful tourist,” protests Sarah Wode-Douglass, editor of a prestigious but financially strapped London poetry journal. “I have no intention of slogging through the bloody jungle with binoculars. I am an editor. It’s all I do. I read. I have no other life.”

Thus begins Carey’s wicked and witty novel, My Life as a Fake, and Sarah’s intercontinental pursuit of the mysterious Bob McCorkle, poetic genius (real or imaginary, alive or dead) and his brilliant manuscript (purloined, authentic, or faked). Lured to Kuala Lumpur by a family friend, possibly her mother’s lover and responsible for her suicide, a confused and disoriented Sarah is approached in the Merlin Bar by one Christopher Chubb, who shows her just enough of McCorkle’s oeuvre to whet her appetite. Chubb, however, is none other than the disgraced poet who earned lasting notoriety in Melbourne as the creator of the “McCorkle Hoax” — a manuscript of brilliant poems, Lawrentian in their raw power and sexual frankness, written by a dazzling but wholly invented poet, conveniently dead at 24.

The quest for McCorkle’s magnum opus is only one plot among many in Carey’s mystery tale and baroque anatomy of a literary hoax. In an ingenious tale-within-a-tale, Chubb recounts his own wild pursuit of McCorkle across Australia to the steamy anarchic anti-paradise that is the newly liberated Kuala Lumpur. Has Chubb indeed given birth to a Frankenstein who, like all good works of art, takes on form and substance, only to steal both Chubb’s poetry and his life — a monster who has hunted, haunted, and will finally destroy his creator?

Using as a springboard a famous literary hoax that transfixed Australia in his boyhood, Carey, winner of two Booker and two Commonwealth Writers prizes, has written a dazzling tour de force, a sophisticated interrogation of authorship, artistic fakery, and the seductive power of art. My Life As A Fake is both a hilarious satire and a bitter ode to fakery at its most truthful and to truth at its most fake.

Chubb “preys on the best, most vulnerable quality an editor has to offer,” Sarah notes in her journal, “that hopeful optimistic part which has you reading garbage for half your life just so that you may find, one day before you die, a great and unknown talent.” Carey’s brilliant novel takes us beyond the Babel of the literary marketplace to the paradox at the heart of literature itself. In the end, left with McCorkle’s manuscript and the bloodied corpse of its author, Sarah mourns “the body of truth, dismembered now, and scattered.”

Sic transit gloria, indeed.

Reviewed by Abby Pollak