Monday, October 01, 2012

Carey's voice and POV

I’ve mentioned before Peter Carey’s fascination with voice and, in particular, how he likes to set himself challenges in his novels: Hugh “Slow Bones”, the brother with learning difficulties in Theft; the baffled and isolated Che and his fragile guardian in His Illegal Self; and Olivier, the pompous, self-important aristocratic in Parrot and Olivier in America. In The Chemistry of Tears, he does it again, and in fact he sets himself a double challenge with the characters of Catherine and Henry Brandling.

The first protagonist, Catherine is a not-especially likeable woman in her forties, shown at a time of maximum disruption to her life because of the death of her lover. Since she is mostly distraught, drunk, or both, it is hard to care for her. This is not a fault, of course, but it does mean that the narrative strand must be strong enough to withstand the lack of empathy engendered in the readers. That this narrative strand succeeds – indeed is the more interesting of the two strands in the novel – is testament to Carey’s skill. How does he do it? By making Catherine, for all her faults and reasons to dislike her – real. Her work, intricate, specialised, impressive – is described with great skill, demonstrating powerful research but also writerly restraint. We can believe in Catherine and her predicament, and this alone makes us interested.

The second protagonist, Henry Brandling, is a prickly Victorian gentleman with all the insecurities and lack of self-awareness you might expect from such a person. In Germany to procure the automaton for his ill son, and embarrassingly out of his depth, he is literally an innocent abroad. This is extremely challenging for a writer to pull off: how to invest emotion and drama in a story narrated by a man with an upper lip so stiff you could whet a knife on it; and how to suggest drama and emotion through a man who is oblivious of either?

It seems that even Carey, the master character-builder may have met his match this time. Some of Brandling’s latter notebook entries are relayed to us second-hand by Catherine, allowing Carey to filter his words through Catherine’s sensibilities and thereby invest more emotion in proceedings than the sober Mr Brandling alone could have provided. It’s a cop-out, I suppose, but it’s a very well-written cop-out, and one can excuse anything that’s well-written.

2 comments:

bridgetwhelan.com said...

And in The True History of The Kelly Gang Carey convinces with the diary of someone who must have been functionally illiterate. the only other way of conveying Ned's voice would have been the more conventional first person narrative. I have no way of knowing if Carey has given us an authentic 19the century Australian Irish sound but I think its probably as authentic as a modern reader could bear and I found it entirely believable. As you say, a great writer can do almost anything (and we can allow them their mistakes). I haven't checked back but I seem to remember in Beloved Toni Morrison changing pov mid sentence - seamlessly, brilliantly....of course.

Tom Conoboy said...

thanks for dropping by Bridget.

I haven't read the Kelly Gang yet - it's on my list, but I know others have made the same observation about how Carey brings the character to life through the voice. He is a genius at it, surely one of the best around.

I also think his Collected Short Stories are well worth studying, for the variety of voice within them. You read them and you're amazed they're by the same writer. When I teach creative writing I like to point this out and ask students to consider their own work: how similar do the stories sound? Could you cut and paste paragraphs from different stories and not notice a difference? Very often, that is the case.

thanks again

Tom