Peter Carey: Parrot and Olivier in America

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.


  1. ‘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.’

    Pretty much sums up why I only gave this a cursory flick: nothing allured me further into it and nothing suggested such a venture would be worthwhile. It’s the least enticing of the Booker books, if not the worst. But it’s like Shakespeare in our time or something.

  2. It’s an interesting challenge to name other “mould breaking” historical novels. I guess I’m never too sure how exactly to define the historical novel – anything set a long time away from the present of the writer? How large must the gap be for the novel to be “historical”? Does it have to aim at recreation of the setting above all else? etc.

    Is Libra by deLillo “historical”? Not sure. JG Farrell seems a safer bet, though I don’t think you’d call him a mould-breaker (excellent though his work is). David Peace? Ellroy obviously writes crime – but it’s all set at least 30 or 40 years ago – does that count? Coetzee’s Master of Petersburg?

  3. It’s a good question, leroyhunter. You’re right that distances measured in single decades don’t seem ‘historical’ enough. Few people now, for example, think of Middlemarch as an historical novel, though it was published in the 1870s and describes life in the 1830s. The same may go in the future for something like The Remains of the Day (1980s looking back at the 1940s), though right now it clearly seems a period novel if not quite an historical one.

    Coetzee’s Master of Petersburg is an excellent suggestion, and one which I may take up as I have it at home.

  4. I’ve yet to hear anything about this book that would make me want to read it. I get the distinct impression that Carey was more concerned with propping up his overall concept than creating compelling characters.

  5. I usually pass on historical novels as they more often than not annoy me on some level. Liked that question, though, about what makes something historical. I just finished one of the Celebrated Crimes Essays by Dumas. Written in the 19th C about stuff in the 17th. I tolerated the historicalness of it–no modern sensibilities or PC-ness plonked onto events–or at least not that I noticed, but the details were vague. This I chalked up to the passage of time.

    Anyway, no more blathering on. The first cover reminds me of a Terry Gilliam film.

  6. I’ve only read Carey’s Theft: A Love Story, which was very much a genre-story crime-fiction sort of book, intresting enough while reading, but mostly a book made for a long flight, so I can see why you would pronounce him high on style and lax on depth.

    On an unrelated note, should we start a betting pool on which Vargas Llosa book you’re going to review first, or should we suggest one?

  7. Thanks Gadi. To adopt the language of politicians asked if they want to lead their party, in response to your question about Vargas Llosa: I have no particular ambitions in that direction.

  8. I did manage to finish Theft but it was a struggle. “Full of plot and character, signifying nothing” rather sums up Theft as well.

  9. First let me say I enjoy reading your reviews, even if I don’t leave any comment.

    I’ve never heard of Peter Carey and according to your review and the following comments, he won’t be a priority. The title sounds like a children’s book.

    As far as historical novels are concerned, my definition would be “a novel written by an historian of the period”. The others, like Dumas, are novels which take place in the past and whose historical details may be inacurrate. So, to me, Steven Saylor’s crime fiction books are historical books and this one isn’t. By this definition, good historical novels are rare, because you need to find an historian with a gift for literary fiction.

  10. Thanks for your comment then, Booksaroundthecorner! I think your – quite restricting, if I may say so! – definition for historical fiction probably chimes somewhat with KevinfromCanada’s view that non-fiction should be the preserve of journalists/historians and not novelists. I’m not so sure.

    I don’t think we have any Carey fans declaring their hands so far, but if anyone reading this does get on with Carey’s books, please speak up. I’m keen to know what I’m missing – and given that this is the sixth or seventh novel of his I haven’t enjoyed, I am pretty sure that in the absence of convincing persuasion, it will be my last attempt with him.

    1. I’d consider Peter Carey to be in my top five faves currently writing. Put to press on you a list I’d probably pick DeLillo, Rushdie, Roth, and maybe Cormac McCarthy as his list-mates.

      Always look forward to a new release and I always have the most fun clearing through them. I do not take them as historical novels at all (I don’t generally like that genre) but as just great, often long and huge, and extremely well written stories about fucked-up folks. What’s not to get behind?

      I have my favorite Carey books: The Tax Inspector, which I often reread (I like it for its economy, a rare thing with Carey); Illywhacker (big bag of stuff and never less than funny [same appeal as Midnight’s Children]); and Kelley Gang, for its vernacular language. Have you read any of his short stories? Or Bliss? The early stuff all seems of the same cloth.

      Theft has cool braided structure and My Life as a Fake has some great jungle set pieces. I didn’t know what was going on half the time in His Illegal Self, but I think that’s a personal failing. Will reread that one soonish. Still need to read Olivier and Parrot, but going by the opening page I know exactly what I’ll be getting: Good stuff!

      1. I quite liked Jack Maggs, but he’s never been a writer to get me too enthused. I know how good a writer he is, don’t get me wrong. Although I don’t think he has deserved either of his Booker wins. I believe that two of the judges – what were they drinking during that meeting? – had Parrot and Olivier as their winner this time as well, which, for a panel of supposed experts, is a bit of an indictment.

      2. Nicknick, I’m delighted that someone else has now declared themselves a full-on Carey lover! I think The Tax Inspector is the only other Carey (apart from Oscar and Lucinda and now Parrot and Olivier) that I’ve finished. I’m grateful for your enthusiasm shown though I still doubt I will be picking up his next one, or returning to try again any of his backlist…

  11. Maybe a less restrictive definition would consider as historical a novel whose purpose is less to tell a story than relate historical facts. In this case, the characters are there to give rythm to the book and show events at a man’s scale. They’re a pretext to attract a larger public than the one who reads historical essays. The writer’s effort is more on historical accuracy than on the depth of the characters or the quality of the plot.
    In the end, the book is more historical than fictionnal and if it’s not written by an historian, you’re not even sure the historical part is relevant. So the historian-reader may be irritated by inaccurate details and the fan of literary fiction will find the fictional part unsatisfactory.

    Sorry, I’m struggling to express this in English.

  12. While I very much wanted to cry “misrepresentation”, I will settle for clarification. My objection to novelists who write “non-fiction” accounts of events is restricted to those who need to add what I would call fictional elements to make their “non-fiction” work (cf. Capote, Mailer, Eggers just for starters — it is a fertile field). By all means write a fictional account — don’t present an “enhanced” account (which any journalist or historian would be crucified for) as “non-fiction”.

    As for the book under discussion, my feeling was that Carey in this book was trying to link some of the current elements of America with its history (and I don’t think he succeeded). The Dickensian characters are somewhat interesting until they get to America — then we get a bit of a screed that unrolls like those old Movietone newsreels.

    I too am inclined to use the century mark as the dividing line in “historical” fiction. I think Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy is brilliant — but I don’t regard it as historical fiction. While Mantel’s Wolf Hall was not to my taste, I would say that it meets the criterion of a new look extending well back through time. I like Levy’s The Long Song more than most people do — I think it also qualifies as a “historical” novel which explores a different perspective on a known event. And I salute her for not presenting it as “non-fiction”. 🙂

  13. Really? Wow, that’s great, Batc! I had never heard of him but today I was sent a new biography, Romain Gary: A Tall Story by David Bellos. I was just a little surprised that I didn’t know an author who has earned such a lavish treatment (a beautiful and pricey – £30 – hardback from Harvill Secker). I don’t even know if any of his books are in print in the UK. What titles of his would you recommend?

    (Edit: I’ve just read the blog post Max linked to and I see you answer that question there!)

  14. I don’t know your tastes but here are good ones for a start:
    – Promise at Dawn (autobiography)
    – The Roots of Heaven (Prix Goncourt)
    – Lady L
    – White Dog : this one is about his life in L.A. with Jean Seberg.
    – The Life before Us (under the pseudo Emile Ajar. Second Prix Goncourt)

    I also like Gros Câlin (“Deep Hug”, but I’m not sure this one has been translated), “Clair de Femme” and “The Ski Bum” (He wrote this one in English and then translated it in French)

    He was married to the British writer Lesley Blanch. He had an incredible life, his biography is worth reading, I think.

    My first post was about him

      1. I have the biography to hand, Bookaroundthecorner, but it doesn’t give an original French title for Hocus Bogus for some reason. All I can tell you from the bibliography at the back of the biography is that it was an Émile Ajar book and first published in 1976 (though first published in English in 2010, by Yale University Press, along with Life and Death of Émile Ajar).

        EDIT: Oh but wait a minute! The Complete Review tells us that the French title was Pseudo. Why couldn’t the biography tell us that?

  15. I gave up on this book after approximately 200 pages. I came back to it when it made the shortlist but just couldn’t bear it and got no further.

    Carey’s last one, His Illegal Self, I thought was excellent. It didn’t even make the Booker longlist though.

    Those are my only two Careys so far.

    1. John, I had guessed it by looking for what Hocus Bogus could mean and by seeing the cover on Amazon. Thanks for the help. It happens sometimes, I have difficulties to match book titles.

      Lee, it’s a bad idea to start by this one. It’s about the literary mystification Gary set up by creating Emile Ajar. Avoid Hocus Bogus for beginners, only fans can like it, I think.

      John, I would advise you to read Promise at Dawn before reading the biography if you can. It will ruin everything if you know biographical details before and it would be a shame, as it is really a good book.

  16. Recently I listened to Justice Stephen Breyer quote a memorized section from Democracy in America in such a manner that made it seem irresistible. Thus, I find the premise of Parrot and Olivier in America enormously appealing at the moment.

    I also loved The True History of the Kelly Gang more than I can say. The fictional Ned is a character I’ve never forgotten in the 8 or so years since reading True History. His poverty, his struggle to be understood and its terrible manifestation, the pitiful attempt to defend himself with the metal suit. I think it was written perfectly, the use of the dialect took a bit to get used to, but I missed it the moment I finished the novel.

  17. I’ll defer to your vastly superior knowledge here and grab one from the list you provide above first. Thanks.

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