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Carey, Peter

Entry updated 20 May 2024. Tagged: Author.

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(1943-    ) Australian screenwriter and author, once in advertising, an experience that pervades his work; he is generally thought to be the most important living Australia writer, a reckoning which has been received locally with some of the same prickliness that was earlier in evidence when Patrick White (1912-1990) was similarly praised. Carey's screenplays – mostly adaptations of his own books – include a co-credit with Wim Wenders (1945-    ) for Until the End of the World (1991; full version 2015), partly set in a Near Future Australian outback. His reputation is mainly as an author of novels which, however orthodox, can – though with increasing difficulty – be appreciated by conventional or mainstream critics, notably titles like Oscar and Lucinda (1988), which won the Booker Prize. However, his work has from the beginning been best understood as irreducibly combining elements of Fabulation, Fantasy and sf; in recent years, it has become easier for his regular critics to understand this. Bliss (1981) and Illywhacker (1985) can both be regarded as fantasies (if you believe their unreliable narrators: but their unreliability applies a problematic to all registers of these, and other, Carey texts). The first is about a man who dies and goes to Hell (much like Earth), a pilgrimage which is taken literally in Bliss: The Film (1986) with Ray Lawrence, an annotated screenplay for Bliss (1985) directed by Lawrence. The second is a funny and touching picaresque which, although it is told by a liar, may in part be true; he practises Invisibility and claims to span a century of Australian history, bits of which he recounts. And both The Tax Inspector (1991) and The Unusual Life of Tristran Smith (1994) – the latter being set in two large imaginary countries, incorporating hints of Inventions – are Fabulations. My Life as a Fake (2003) explicitly associates Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818) with the tale of the creation of a fake poet whose fake poems become famous (it is based on the famous 1943 Ern Malley hoax which rocked the Australian literary world); when the fake poet appears in its/his creator's life, the story ramifies into one of Carey's examinations of art and/versus Identity, of storytelling and/versus the world. Parrot and Olivier in America (2009) recounts a Fantastic Voyage through an early nineteenth-century America that may be only marginally fabulated from the original. The nineteenth-century clockwork swan re-created in The Chemistry of Tears (2012) by a twenty-first century horologist (see Automata) was originally crafted under the indirect Utopian influence of a figure who closely resembles Charles Babbage, and stands as a model for the dream of order in a universe of chaos, though its message is ambivalent:

... this swan was never, not for a moment, familiar, but uncanny, sinuous, lithe, supple, winding, graceful.... It had no sense of touch. It had no brain. It was as glorious as God.

The tale as a whole reflects an aspiration/fear commonly voiced in contemporary Fantastika – in works as otherwise dissimilar as David Herter's First Republic Trilogy and Nick Harkaway's Angelmaker (2012) – that the dream of order is two-edged. En passant it is suggested that the design for an internal combustion engine by the young Karl Benz (1844-1929) existed some years before 1879.

Carey's sf fabulations in short forms, droll, morbid and scarifying by turns, are contained in two early collections, The Fat Man in History (coll 1974) and War Crimes (coll 1979); a selection from both was published, confusingly, as The Fat Man in History (coll 1980; vt Exotic Pleasures 1981); Collected Stories (coll 1994) includes the contents of both books, plus some additional stories. Among them, "Crabs" (in The Fat Man in History, coll 1974) portrays a Near Future community in bondage to stripped-down cars, a scenario wryly evocative of J G Ballard; "Do You Love Me?" (in War Crimes, coll 1979) has a world subject to reality leakages; "Report on the Shadow Industry" (in The Fat Man in History, coll 1974) examines the illusion that ghosts can be laid by manufacturing simulacra "shadows" of the lost past; "The Chance" (in War Crimes, coll 1979) features a "Genetic Lottery" in which humans can get new bodies while keeping their memories; and "Exotic Pleasures" (in War Crimes, coll 1979) has Alien birdlife which transmits pleasure when touched and may destroy us all. [PN/JC]

see also: Ditmar Award.

Peter Philip Carey

born Bacchus Marsh, Victoria: 7 May 1943

works (selected)

  • Bliss (St Lucia, Queensland: University of Queensland Press, 1981) [hb/Coe Uttinger]
    • Bliss: The Film (London: Faber and Faber, 1986) with Ray Lawrence [script of 1985 film based on the above: pb/uncredited]
  • Illywhacker (St Lucia, Queensland: University of Queensland Press, 1985) [hb/Christopher McVinish]
  • Oscar and Lucinda (St Lucia, Queensland: University of Queensland Press, 1988) [hb/Gregory Rogers and Pierre Le Tan]
  • The Tax Inspector (St Lucia, Queensland: University of Queensland Press, 1991) [hb/Susan Kinealy Ward]
  • The Unusual Life of Tristran Smith (St Lucia, Queensland: University of Queensland Press, 1994) [hb/Michael Ward]
  • My Life as a Fake (Milson Point, New South Wales: Alfred A Knopf, 2003) [hb/Jenny Grigg]
  • Parrot and Olivier in America (Melbourne, Victoria: Hamish Hamilton, 2009) [hb/from Edward Lear]
  • The Chemistry of Tears (Lane Cove, New South Wales: Doubleday, 2012) [hb/]
  • Amnesia (Melbourne, Victoria: Hamish Hamilton, 2014) [hb/]

collections and stories

  • The Fat Man in History (St Lucia, Queensland: University of Queensland Press, 1974) [coll: hb/Jeffrey Smart]
  • War Crimes (St Lucia, Queensland: University of Queensland Press, 1979) [coll: hb/Brian Morris]
    • The Fat Man in History (London: Faber and Faber, 1980) [coll: assembles the above two with some titles omitted: hb/Roger Zinnerman]
    • Collected Stories (St Lucia, Queensland: University of Queensland Press, 1994) [omni of the above two complete: with additional material: pb/]
      • Collected Stories (London: Faber and Faber, 1995) [with at least one story added to the above: hb/Huntley Muir]
  • The Big Bazoohley (St Lucia, Queensland: University of Queensland Press, 1995) [chap: children's story: pb/David Mackintosh]


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