The last time I tried to review a novel by Peter Carey, I didn’t manage to finish the book – or the review; yet here we are again. His recent run – six books in the last ten years – means he rivals Roth and Auster for late-onset logorrhoea. When I see yet another new novel by Carey, I feel like Dame Edna Everage counselling Melvyn Bragg: “Don’t write any more, darling. Give us a chance to catch up!” So here we are again, again: Carey’s latest book has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize (as Ron Charles put it, “each year, the judges pick five novels, plus one by Peter Carey”). My completist impulse, and the extraordinary claims made for Carey by the Booker chair Andrew Motion, made me want to read it. “It never occurred to Chateaubriand that he had been flattered,” a character observes early in the novel, “but in that he is no worse than every other writer ever born.”
Parrot and Olivier in America gives us Olivier-Jean-Baptiste de Clarel de Barfleur de Garmont, a French nobleman, and John ‘Parrot’ Larrit, a ‘printer’s devil’ and forger’s dogsbody from Devon. Parrot, born in 1781, is 24 years the Frenchman’s senior. Olivier as a child witnesses his parents’ exile in France (“my mother is in mourning for Paris”) as the aristocracy trembles at the rise of the bourgeoisie. Post-Revolution, Olivier finds himself in an unwelcome position. “The liberals see you and have no doubt you are a spy. The monarchists see you and know you for a traitor. You are in danger,” he is told. Such is the device with which Carey fashions a reason for Olivier to travel to America. The McGuffin is the investigation of prisons in the US, with a view to French penal reform. “‘Certainly someone must go there,’ my father said, looking thoughtfully at me.”
By roundabout means, involving his grey-market contacts with Dickensian names like Piggott and Weasel, Parrot ends up on the same ship that Olivier takes across the Atlantic. There follows a not entirely surprising connection between them, which starts off hostile as Parrot works as a scribe for “Lord Migraine”, and ends up in America with fast friendship – “a strange and savage love” – joining them.
The story is a vehicle for several elements. First, discussion of the central theme of the book: democracy in America, and its application as “a model for the future of France”. Olivier arrives to borrow ideas from the country’s penal system and ends up taking much more. He comes with a full luggage of preconceptions and never entirely embraces the idea that all men are created equal; and the tortoise-and-hare ending to the two men’s stories gives him his just deserts. Second, and perhaps more prominently, there is Carey’s love of big characters and ventriloquism: he effectively distinguishes the voices of Olivier and Parrot, who narrate the book in turn.
Parrot and Olivier in America is inspired (we are told, I’d have had no idea otherwise) by Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. It’s not the only old-fashioned thing about the book. Carey, as hinted above, seems to have Dickens as his model (Andrew Motion agrees: “it is like being alive at the time Dickens was writing”), as he did more explicitly with Jack Maggs. I must confess that I have a blind spot for historical narratives which ape the locutions and prose style of the times they are set in. Isn’t literature – art – supposed to renew itself? (For an example of an ‘historical’ novel that breaks this mould, I recommend Jeanette Winterson’s Sexing the Cherry, set in the English Civil War. Further suggestions welcome.)
I might go further and add that a fundamental part of my reading gland thinks that books that don’t try to do something new or different are not really worth bothering with. (I still do bother with them, and frequently enjoy them, as can be seen on this blog, but I wouldn’t miss them as I would miss less straightforward works.) Here we have a book which not only doesn’t try to do something new; it tries to do something old, and succeeds in that. It has the added piquancy of period details which chime with modern times, such as a banker in one scene who crows about the win-win situation of lending on the property market, where he can make money from the rising property prices even if the borrower defaults – a nice precursor to the sub-prime crisis which gave us the credit crunch. Or very near the end, a little neocon-bashing with Olivier’s prediction that democracy will bring “fur traders and woodsmen as your presidents, and they will be as barbarians at the head of armies, ignorant of geography and science, the leaders of a mob daily educated by a perfidious press.” And there is no shortage of handy discussion points such as Olivier, wedded to the notion of the nobility’s superiority, reflecting on “the problem of art in a democracy:”
the taste for ideal beauty – and the pleasure of seeing it depicted – can never be as intense and widespread among a democratic as compared to an aristocratic people.
When Parrot details to Olivier his youthful exploits, including travel to Australia, and his busy life thereafter, Olivier asks him, “What do you want?”, to which Parrot responds, “To be still.” The further I got into Parrot and Olivier in America, the more I felt for him. I longed for Carey to be still for a moment, but he cannot stop, and piles on action and people and diversion and Birds of America and love and comedy so thickly that it begins to look less like a talent than a compulsion. There is even the suggestion of a distracting twist on the very last page. The book lacks silence. The characters, well drawn as they are (though I never did properly distinguish some of the females with whom our heroes were variously in love), seem like the author’s playthings, diverting but not involving. Parrot and Olivier in America ends up like a fully achieved imagining of something that’s hardly worth doing; full of plot and character, signifying nothing.