Peter Carey - World Literature

World Literature

Peter Carey


BORN: 1943, Victoria, Australia


GENRE: Fiction


Oscar and Lucinda (1987)

True History of the Kelly Gang (2000)



Peter Carey. Carey, Peter, photograph. © Jerry Bauer. Reproduced by permission.



Peter Carey’s novels and short-story collections have won virtually every major literary award in Australia. He also has won two Booker Prizes, in 1988 and 2001—a feat equaled only by the South African writer J. M. Coetzee. Though he has been living in New York since 1989, Carey describes himself as an Australian writer, and his books explore the constraints and possibilities specific to Australian history and culture.


Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Beginnings Without Conclusions. Peter Carey was born in Bacchus Marsh, Victoria, Australia, on May 7, 1943, to Percival Stanley and Helen Jean Carey, automobile dealers. In 1961 he began a science degree at Monash University but abandoned it in 1962 to work as an advertising copywriter. He married Leigh Weetman in 1964; the couple would separate in 1973.

Between 1964 and 1970, Carey wrote three novels that were not published, but was able to publish his first short stories. From 1967 to 1970, Carey lived in London and traveled extensively in Europe. From 1970 to 1973, he worked in advertising in Melbourne, Australia, and wrote in his spare time, completing a fourth novel, which was accepted for publication but was withdrawn by Carey before going to print. These early years were marked for Carey by a series of partial commitments, investments in both his personal and literary life that never quite came to fruition.

Succeeding at Lying. Carey’s first major publication, the short-story collection The Fat Man in History, appeared in 1974. Most of the stories in this collection portray individuals who experience sudden anxieties when they encounter surreal events in ordinary situations. In other stories, Carey satirizes the effects of technology and foreign influences on Australian culture and society. War Crimes (1979), his next short-story collection, attracted favorable critical attention and won Carey his first literary prize; there, Carey responds not to the Australian presence in the war in Vietnam, but rather to some of the worst excesses of capitalist exploitation on ‘‘the home front.’’ Bliss, his first published novel, was released in 1981. It portrays advertising as a dangerously addictive art form that colonizes and usurps the social roles of storytelling and mythmaking. The main character, an advertising executive named Harry Joy, reflects Carey’s many years of experience working in the advertising industry, which included the cocreation of his own advertising agency in 1980.

Carey married Alison Margaret Summers in 1985, the same year his novel Illywhacker (1985) was nominated for the Booker Prize. The central focus of Illywhacker is the art of lying; the main character lies constantly in order to survive and improve his life, and Carey employs lying as a metaphor for writing fiction. Certainly, at this point, Carey had himself achieved an important degree of success in ‘‘the art of lying’’: first as an adman, and now as a novelist.

Negotiating Australia from New York. Carey’s novel Oscar and Lucinda (1987) was awarded the Booker Prize in 1988. The novel portrays the odd romance between Carey’s eccentric title characters, who are drawn together by their passion for gambling. As in Illywhacker, Carey endeavors in Oscar and Lucinda to reimagine Australian history. In particular, he responds to the outrages committed against the Aboriginal peoples inhabiting Australia long before the arrival of English adventurers and ne’er-do-wells.

In 1989, Carey moved to Greenwich Village in New York. The Tax Inspector, begun in Australia and completed in New York, was published in 1991. It sets a grimly detailed account of three generations of incest in the Catchprice family against a broader account of public corruption in Sydney, Australia. Carey’s next novel, The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith (1995), concerns themes of national and cultural identity. The novel’s protagonist is a citizen of Efica, an imaginary island nation that loosely resembles Australia. Efica has been colonized and exploited by Voorstand, a colossal world power based more or less on the United States.

Carey’s novel Jack Maggs (1997) is a rewriting of the story of Abel Magwitch, the convict in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations (1860-1861). Here, Carey renegotiates the cultural dominance of England and its greatest writer over Australia, which was founded as a penal colony for British convicts.

Outlaws and Activists: Recent Perspectives. Despite living in the United States, Carey still taps into the cultural heritage of his native land for many of his works. The author created a fictional autobiography of one of the most celebrated folk heroes of Australia in True History of the Kelly Gang (2000); the novel was a runaway best seller and won Carey his second Booker Prize.

Throughout his career Carey has fictionalized Australia from a variety of perspectives and historical and allegorical distance. The mirror he holds up to late-twentieth-century Australian society and culture, and its international context, never simply reflects. It distorts, and it is designed to allow Carey’s readers to see the country, its culture, and its myths as if for the first time. Since 2003 Carey has served as director of the graduate program in creative writing at New York City’s Hunter College while continuing to write. His 2008 novel His Illegal Self follows a young boy in search of his radical activist parents, on the now-familiar path from New York to Australia. Incorporated here are ever more urgent questions about the nature of belonging and the imperatives of citizenship, along with a search for something like truth.



Carey's famous contemporaries include:

Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1945-1982): German filmmaker, influential in the New German Cinema movement; many of his films examine the influence of power in human relationships.

Doris Kearns Goodwin (1943- ): American historian, well-known for her biographies of U.S. presidents Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson, as well as the Kennedy political dynasty; awarded the Pulitzer Prize for History in 1995.

Les Murray (1938- ): Australian poet, critic, and translator; openly inspired by Australia, his work gives voice to previously unheard aspects of the culture.

Oodgeroo Noonuccal (1920-1993): Australian Aboriginal poet, writer, and political activist; she was the first Aboriginal Australian to publish a book of poetry.

Patrick White (1912-1990): Australian novelist who used shifting viewpoints and stream of consciousness in his fiction; awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1973.


Works in Literary Context

Beyond Realism. Peter Carey’s early stories were influenced by science fiction, and his early novels by the modernist fiction of William Faulkner and the magic realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Although the short story occupies a distinguished position in Australian literary history, Peter Carey was not writing within that tradition. His introduction to literature came during his training as an advertising writer, and his work responds more to the classics of world literature than to his Australian contemporaries. Like the stories of Franz Kafka, Milan Kundera, and J. G. Ballard, Carey’s parables of imprisonment and change upset traditional constructions of fictional reality. The voice these stories articulate was a new one when Carey first began publishing, unlike anything previously heard in Australian fiction.

De-Mythologizing Australia. Carey’s more recent work has explored real and imagined episodes from Australian history, and mythology from a variety of revisionist perspectives, while maintaining a strong sympathy for, and identification with, the victims rather than the victors of history. His talents for placing extraordinary events in mundane contexts and for exposing the absurd and corrupt aspects of everyday life have drawn extensive praise from critics and comparison to such writers as Marquez, Samuel Beckett, and Jorge Luis Borges. Summarizing Carey’s writing, A. J. Hassall has stated: ‘‘Like Beckett and Kafka... and also like [English satirist Jonathan] Swift, Carey defamiliarizes the stories from which ‘reality’ is constructed, exposing absurdities and corruptions so familiar that they customarily pass unnoticed and unchallenged.’’ While this places him firmly within the tradition of authors trying to achieve what German playwright Bertolt Brecht called the Verfremdungseffekt or “alienation effect,’’ it also puts him on the side of social theorists who have, in recent years, sought to revise or do away with racist mythologies of national origin. That is, in offering new perspectives on Australian history, Carey has pushed readers to see more clearly the tragedies and oppression that began centuries ago and that remain in play in certain ways right up to the present day.



Metafiction is a stylistic technique that involves the author commenting on the story-making process even as he or she tells a story. The author asks questions about fiction and reality— what is the difference? Who determines it? Here are some other works of metafiction:

''Elbow Room'' (1977), a short story by James Alan McPherson. This short story, from the collection of the same title and by the first African American man to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, is about a biracial couple and their struggling relationship, as told by a writer friend of theirs; the friend's editor interrupts his tale with comments and requests for clarification, making the process of storytelling highly visible.

The Eyre Affair (2003), a novel by Jasper Fforde. Jane Eyre is kidnapped out of the book Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte and being held for ransom. Tuesday Next, literary detective, must cross over into the fictional world and rescue her.

The Life of Pi (2003), a novel by Yann Martel. In this award-winning book, an Indian boy named Pi is stranded on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger; the author introduces himself as a character and claims to have actually met the other characters in the novel.

The Matrix (1999), a film directed by Larry and Andy Wachowski. In this science fiction movie, a man discovers that the world as he knows it is nothing but a computer simulation, created by machines that use humans as their energy source.

''Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning'' (1968), a short story by Donald Barthelme. This short story presents twenty-four short images of Robert Kennedy, the American politician and brother of the assassinated president; each short section presents a different version, reflecting the difficulty in truly knowing a public figure. (Robert Kennedy himself was assassinated a few months after this story was first published.)


Works in Critical Context

Commentators have often described Carey’s works as metafictional—that is, fiction that deals with creating fiction. Two of his novels, Bliss and Illywhacker, for instance, deal explicitly with telling stories and the relationship between truth and fiction. Scholars have noted that Carey typically attacks the reader’s sense of narrative coherence, order, time, and sequence by providing conflicting versions of his narratives. Arguing that Carey views history as an act of selection, Graeme Turner has stated that Carey’s ‘‘fantastic, alternative worlds ... can always be seen as alternative perspectives on an historical world, questioning it and exposing its constructed, arbitrary nature.’’ This line of thought also influences the direction Carey takes in his exploration of individual characters. Turner argues that Carey’s novels and stories ‘‘do not examine what lives mean as much as they examine how lives are constructed in order to produce their meanings.’’

Carey’s fiction is about much more than simply its own creation, however. As Robert Towers has noted, ‘‘Carey’s prose can hold the ugly, the frightening, and the beautiful in uncanny suspension. It is this gift, among others, that makes him such a strong and remarkable writer.’’ That is, his talent lies in the ability to sustain true conflict, to understand and to communicate that a number of contradictory narratives—lies, even—can all be true at once.

True History of the Kelly Gang. Although Carey had enjoyed a certain amount of critical success prior to the publication of True History of the Kelly Gang in 2000, it was this novel that brought his greatest renown and made him an internationally best-selling author. Critical response was overwhelmingly positive, with much attention focusing on Carey’s attempt at an authentic voice for his narrator, the infamous Australian criminal Ned Kelly, based on a letter the man wrote a year before he was executed in 1880. Douglas Ivison, in a review for the Journal of Australian Studies, calls Carey’s narrative voice ‘‘a remarkable achievement’’ that is “simultaneously poetic and authentic; vernacular and idiomatic without being condescending or sentimental; ungrammatical and randomly punctuated but yet highly readable.’’ Ivison does note, however, that the book paints Kelly as more of a romantic hero than a criminal, and he states, ‘‘The contradictions in Kelly’s character, and in the socio-political role played by the Kelly gang, go largely unexamined.’’ Robert Ross, in a review for World and I, observes that the novel treads the same territory as much of Carey’s previous work—a search for a national Australian identity—but concludes, ‘‘If he is indeed writing the same novel again and again, he has done so with flair and infinite variety.’’


Responses to Literature

1. Peter Carey has said that lying is a metaphor for fiction. What does this mean? Explain your understanding with reference to Carey’s own work. To what extent do you agree with him? How does this fit or contrast with the popular idea that fiction can serve as a route to the truth?

2. Former British prime minister Winston Churchill once said, ‘‘History is written by the victors.’’ How does Carey’s work serve to support or refute this statement?

3. In True History of the Kelly Gang, Carey based his writing style on the Jerilderie Letter, an actual letter written by the real Ned Kelly. Using your library or the Internet, find and read a copy of this letter and compare it to Carey’s writing style in the novel. What characteristics can you find that Carey borrowed from the letter? In your opinion, did Carey create an authentic version of Ned Kelly’s writing style? Is that the same as creating an ‘‘authentic version’’ of Ned Kelly himself? Why or why not?

4. Australia was settled by Europeans in the late eighteenth and nineteenth century, with many of the colonists being convicts or outsiders who had difficulty succeeding in Great Britain. How is this ‘‘outsider identity’’ expressed and challenged in Carey’s writing? Provide examples from at least one of his novels.




Baker, Candida. Yacker: Australian Writers Talk about Their Work. Sydney: Pan, 1986.

Hassall, Anthony J. Dancing on Hot Macadam: Peter Carey’s Fiction. 3rd ed. St. Lucia, Australia: University of Queensland Press, 1998.

Huggan, Graham. Peter Carey. Melbourne, Australia: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Lamb, Karen. Peter Carey: The Genesis of Fame. Pymble, Australia: Angus & Robertson, 1992.

Woodcock, Bruce. Peter Carey. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1996.


Ivison, Douglas. Review of True History of the Kelly Gang. Journal of Australian Studies 71 (December 15, 2001): 144-145.

Munro, Craig. ‘‘Building the Fabulist Extensions.’’ Makar 12 (June 1976): 3-12.

Ross, Robert. ‘‘Heroic Underdog Down Under (review of True History of the Kelly Gang).’’ World and 116, no. 6 (June 2001): 251.

Web sites

Carey, Peter. Peter Carey. Retrieved April 19, 2008, from