An Australian émigré, Peter Carey now lives in New York. The distance probably gives him a sufficient remove to pick and choose from Australian myth or history and base entire stories around them. His Booker Prize-winning True History of the Kelly Gang was based on real-life Aussie legend Ned Kelly. In My Life as a Fake, Carey revisits the Ern Malley hoax of 1944. An established poetry magazine, Angry Penguins, published the work of one Ern Malley submitted to the magazine by his sister subsequent to the poet’s death. The work was recognized as genius material by the editor and published. Eventually two other poets admitted to the hoax, claiming that they had stitched the poems together from various random sources. The hoax became a disgrace for the literary community and served to show up the pretensions of the community that could not distinguish real genius from fake.
In Carey's fictional retelling, Sarah Wode-Douglass (Micks) is an editor of an avant-garde poetry magazine in London, The Modern Review. An established poet and family acquaintance, John Slater, convinces Micks to join him on a visit to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. Amongst the many enticements Slater promises Micks is more insight into the reasons behind Mick’s mother’s suicide years earlier. Hesitantly, Micks comes along, and unknowingly gets pulled into a “maze from which, thirteen years later, I have yet to escape.” Once in Kuala Lumpur, Micks runs into an English exile, poet Christopher Chubbs, now gone native working as a grease monkey in a bicycle shop. Slater warns Micks about Chubbs: he is the perpetrator of a great hoax, he says. Yet Micks is intrigued enough by Chubbs to find out his life story. Soon enough, she is privy to his tortured imaginings and it is from here on that My Life as a Fake takes an enormous leap into fantasy. The novel is haunted by the presence of a seven-foot giant, Bob McCorkle, who it turns out is the fake poet that Chubbs once invented. Unfortunately for Chubb, his art becomes life, and McCorkle haunts him everywhere, even kidnapping his child and destroying his very life. Chubb narrates to Micks how he gets even with McCorkle, gets his daughter back, and the manuscript of “genius” poetry that McCorkle penned a while ago now becomes his. Micks ultimate destination is this manuscript; she is convinced that this collection of poetry will work wonders for her and her magazine.
It is difficult to read Carey’s latest and not form a firm opinion about it either positive or negative. The central thesis of the novel — what really forms a fake, or in this case, who the fake is — is difficult to understand. Is Chubb the fake? How on earth does McCorkle come to life? Is his presence proof of Chubb’s insanity, or is it merely a case of artistic license being carried to the extreme? To digest the novel’s disquieting ending, one needs to believe in the real-life presence of McCorkle. If we believe that he is a product of Chubb’s hoax, then how can he be real? If he is indeed real, is Chubb the hoax? Many questions float around in the reader’s mind, and they are never quite put to rest. This is the biggest (and some might say, only) flaw of My Life as a Fake. A minor annoyance is Chubb’s Malay speech — he liberally peppers his sentences with lah, (presumably the Malay equivalent of the Aussie “mate”) as if to underline how native he has now become: “You would know that if you were familiar with my verse-lah.”
The story of My Life as a Fake is as implausible as it gets: mad Tamil schoolteachers, poisoned melons, Japanese atrocities, and miscellaneous demons. Yet to Carey’s great credit, the novel is tight in its telling and immensely readable. Carey uses his Malay setting to brilliant effect; the story wouldn’t have worked anywhere else.
There is good reason why Carey uses a quote from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in the foreword, "Beware the monster has come to life." Carey’s latest is not scary, but it definitely is dark and oddly riveting. The last line in Fake reads: “John doffed his hat and she, for her part, raised her upper lip to display the lethal edges of her small white crooked teeth.” Read My Life as a Fake to grasp the hidden unsettling import of that seemingly innocuous sentence.