Thursday, October 27, 2011

Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey


I remember once writing a story in Boot Camp that I was very pleased with. It resembled a swinging sixties movie – multiple viewpoints, dizzying jumps in perspective and point of view, narratives all over the place, timeframes all but unfathomable. Anyone familiar with the Boot camp environment will readily anticipate the beasting that story got. And rightly, too.

I was put in mind of this by Peter Carey’s Parrot and Olivier in America, which is a rollicking yarn and highly entertaining, finely written and beautifully characterised but, my God, it chooses a convoluted way to present itself. Firstly it’s narrated by two people, the eponymous Parrot and Olivier, the former a nineteenth century jack-the-lad with a distinct skill for engraving and the latter a hilariously haughty remnant of the ancien regime, Olivier de Garmont. Now there’s nothing unusual about this: contrasting narrators have a long and noble history. But, in addition to this, Carey chooses also to switch about his time frames so that, for example, we have been with Parrot for some considerable time in America before we realise that between then and the time we had previously seen him, in England, he had been not only in France but had spent seven years of penal servitude in Australia. Overall, it works, but nonetheless the playing about with timeframes feels a trifle tricksy to me – postmodern experimentation for the hell of it. I don’t think the novel needs it.

However, let’s not quibble. This is great entertainment. Of the two mains, the first to attract is undoubtedly Parrot, the put-upon, lowly English boy who has a talent for engraving and forgery that is greater than even he realises. He is a free spirit and witty and, despite his youth, a bit roguish. In comparison, Olivier de Garmont is a horrendous snob, scion of a family devoted to the French royalty throughout the periods of tyranny, but not a boy or man given much to bravery or thoughts of anyone other than himself. It is to Carey’s credit that, by the end, we have come to like this difficult, arrogant man. So much so, in fact, that it comes as a relief when the increasingly fractious and self-pitying Parrot’s sections of the novel conclude and we can return to the French master and his increasingly complex travails.

The two men, reluctant master and even more reluctant servant, are despatched, for mostly political reasons, from France to America, ostensibly to make a study of the American management of penal institutions. Garmont, born into a life of indolent luxury, is incomprehending of the brash new Americans, with their grand ideas and obsession with making money. He is a man lost, far removed from anything which he can understand or respect or aspire to. And then he meets Amelia Godefroy, an American gal with stunning good looks, a forthright nature and the temperament of a minx. He falls in love. His life changes. That is one of those cliches of romantic fiction, of course, but in this case it is true: Amelia does change Olivier, but not in the way either he or we might expect. It makes him a grander person. Still impossible, of course, still congenitally unable to see anything from another’s perspective, but nonetheless slightly, movingly, humbled.

This is a very funny book. The interplay of the two characters, so different, initially so antipathetic, is wonderfully done. Of course, over time, they come to an accommodation that is almost affectionate. It works very well. Garmont softens, his experience in America instilling in him an unexpected regard for the possibilities of democracy. But only to an extent, of course: a complete transformation in a man so steeped in privilege and class would be impossible. Accordingly, near the novel’s end, this is brilliantly and hilariously drawn out when what otherwise could have been a mawkish reconciliation scene is rendered both funny and poignant by onrushes of Garmont’s overweening sense of entitlement, much to the indignation of the newly landed Parrot.

At times Carey uses the novel to make cheap pot-shots at American culture, using the benefit of anachronism to plant prophetic statements into the mouths of his protagonists. But he’s an Australian living in New York, so I guess he’s allowed. And some of those comments are telling. Democracy is a wonderful thing, but it contains inherent dangers. And, since the novel is intended to be an improvised account of the life of Alexis de Tocqueville, that seems a worthy avenue to explore.

I just wonder whether it needed such a tortuous narrative form?

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