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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


My Life As a Fake

Peter Carey

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To purchase My Life As a Fake

Title: My Life As a Fake
Author: Peter Carey
Genre: Novel
Written: 2003
Length: 266 pages
Availability: My Life As a Fake - US
My Life As a Fake - UK
My Life As a Fake - Canada
My Life As a Fake - India
Ma vie d'imposteur - France
Mein Leben als Fälschung - Deutschland
Mi vida de farsante - España

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Our Assessment:

B+ : fine pieces, but oddly put together

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Age . 9/8/2003 James Bradley
The Atlantic Monthly A 11/2003 Michael Gorra
Chicago Review . 9/2003 Georgie Greig
Christian Science Monitor . 23/10/2003 Ron Charles
Daily Telegraph C 15/9/2003 Anthony Thwaite
FAZ . 28/8/2004 Felicitas von Lovenberg
The Guardian B- 13/9/2003 Blake Morrison
The Independent A+ 13/9/2003 Nick Groom
Neue Zürcher Zeitung A 22/2/2005 Georg Sütterlin
New Statesman B- 22/9/2003 Hugo Barnacle
The NY Rev. of Books . 15/1/2004 John Lanchester
The NY Times B+ 6/11/2003 Janet Maslin
The NY Times Book Rev. . 9/11/2003 Terence Rafferty
The New Yorker A+ 24/11/2003 John Updike
The Observer . 14/9/2003 Hephzibah Anderson
The Observer . 23/5/2004 Tom Templeton
Rev. of Contemp. Fiction . Spring/2004 Irving Malin
The Spectator . 27/9/2003 Peter Porter
Sunday Telegraph A- 7/9/2003 Helen Brown
Sydney Morning Herald B 9/8/2003 Peter Craven
The Times A+ 20/9/2003 Philip Hensher
TLS . 12/9/2003 Robert Macfarlane
The Village Voice . 3/11/2003 Joy Press
The Washington Post . 7/12/2003 Thomas Mallon
Weekly Standard . 29/9/2003 Sam Munson

  Review Consensus:

  No consensus -- some think it's brilliant, others are disappointed

  From the Reviews:
  • "There is something deeply unsettling about My Life as a Fake. Not just in its implications or the games it plays with questions of authenticity, but written deep into its being. It is an angry, uncomfortable book, as well as a curiously claustrophobic one, hemmed in by its echoing of Frankenstein's structure" - James Bradley, The Age

  • "This hall of mirrors reads like the impossible offspring of a fictional ménage à trois involving Pale Fire, Lord Jim, and Our Man in Havana. (...) Carey never lets anything fall, and he pitches us into an entirely implausible and yet compelling tale (.....) This is a fabulous book in the original sense of the term -- and in the other one, too." - Michael Gorra, The Atlantic Monthly

  • "This is a great octopus of a novel, every tentacle stretched out and fixed round the dark, inky centre of the hoax and the monstrous phantom born of it. There is a great deal of violence in the novel, with scalpings and beatings, and masterly descriptions of a man reduced to little more than pathetic beggary. The language is simple and faultless; the complexity of thought is deep and moving. Twice a Booker Prize winner, Carey is without a doubt in the running for a third." - Georgie Greig, Chicago Review

  • "In typical Carey style, all this races along in a dazzling narrative that binds us to Sarah's plight, swinging between certainty and doubt, tearing through the tissue that separates what we know from what is true. One can't help running through this labyrinth of deceit in a kind of panic, searching for the end, hoping it won't come." - Ron Charles, Christian Science Monitor

  • "Carey has burdened Chubb with the tiresome device of littering his speech with bits of Malay (...) Carey further complicates things by making his woman editor believe that McCorkle has indeed written great poems which she wants to get hold of for her magazine. But by now Carey has lost his plot, which rides off in several directions with an uneasy mixture of melodrama, comedy and magical realism. The further he gets away from his Ern Malley transpositions, the more arbitrary it all becomes." - Anthony Thwaite, Daily Telegraph

  • "Auch mit Carey scheint die Phantasie durchgegangen zu sein; nicht immer wahrt er das Gleichgewicht zwischen den vermeintlich realen und abstrusen Elementen seiner ausgeklügelten Romanhandlung. Er will keine Antworten geben, sondern Fragen aufwerfen -- wobei seine Geschichte in ihrer betont originellen Konstruiertheit am Ende zu konventionell bleibt, um diese Überlegungen dringlich erscheinen zu lassen." - Felicitas von Lovenberg, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "Like the Dickensian pastiche Jack Maggs, it's fast, furious and fantastical stuff; and Carey has fun with the slang of Malaysian English. But as incident takes over from insight, you start to wonder why he has gone off in this direction. What's added by the exotic location ? (...) The coincidences and Keystone cops farcicality begin to seem like a loss of nerve -- as though he worried the Malley hoax was too narrow or banal to sustain a book ("Who cares about poetry ? Fifty people in Australia ? Ten with minds you might respect") and thought it needed spicing up. (...) (B)y his high standards this is a slight book, and some of the writing looks strained." - Blake Morrison, The Guardian

  • "The writing is precise and beautifully intense, blending impressions of Malaysia with the ebb and flow of Micks's mental state, recalled, sometimes mistily, after many years -- and perhaps unreliable. (...) This is ultimately a novel about Australian cultural identity, but one which mythologises and embraces the fear of being fake, rather than shying from it. In a beautifully-crafted piece of storytelling, Peter Carey has produced an immensely powerful work that will resonate for generations." - Nick Groom, The Independent

  • "Äusserst geschickt und ebenso vergnüglich spinnt Carey eine vielbödige Intrige, bei welcher der rote Faden leicht verloren gehen kann. Rasant reisst er den Leser mit durch eine Abfolge haarsträubender, verwirrender, unglaublicher Geschichten." - Georg Sütterlin, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "But the novel, though stylish, vivid and distinctive, does not say as much about the strange roots of literary inspiration as it purports to, and in the end the storyline comes to a not very satisfactory crash-stop. Sarah's caveat about mysteries left unresolved proves a bit too well founded." - Hugo Barnacle, New Statesman

  • "My Life as a Fake is a novel which sounds great in short summary -- and indeed is pretty great, if you ask me (.....) My Life as a Fake never fails to be full of life, which is not the same thing as full of incident, though as it happens it is full of incident too. " - John Lanchester, The New York Review of Books

  • "Ingenious as it is about art, ambition, hubris and the power of the imagination, this vigorous, sprightly book is ultimately constricted by the narrow idea from which it evolved." - Janet Maslin, The New York Times

  • "Mary Shelley subtitled her famous cautionary tale "The Modern Prometheus"; it's tempting to think of My Life as a Fake as "The Postmodern Prometheus", because the horror here is that of irony run amok. (...) This is an extremely unusual novel, even by Carey's lofty standards of unusualness. (...) The wonderful, perverse joke of My Life as a Fake is that it is a fake novel of ideas: not a parody, just a fancy, near impenetrable disguise for the deeply peculiar thing that this novel really is" - Terence Rafferty, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Peter Carey’s new novel, My Life as a Fake, is so confidently brilliant, so economical yet lively in its writing, so tightly fitted and continuously startling in its plot that something, we feel, must be wrong with it." - John Updike, The New Yorker

  • "This novel cajoles each and every one of its characters into becoming fakes, and while Carey casts doubt on Chubb's sanity and on Slater's motives (the pair turn out to share a feud-ridden and incestuous history), he has Sarah transcribe page after page of Chubb's crazed story in order to ferret out his cache of poems. (...) Could Chubb really have brought McCorkle to life or is he just a figment of his guilty imagination? In the context of Carey's thrilling fiction, it seems perfectly possible." - Hephzibah Anderson, The Observer

  • "Carey’s astonishing novel is more than an epistemological thriller, a dream romance; it is an inquiry into the sources of true art." - Irving Malin, Review of Contemporary Fiction

  • "But Carey is a master of storytelling and, even as you struggle to get a grip on the twists of his several skeins of plot, you relish the descriptions of local places and persons, and the ingenuity of the adventures he puts his characters through. As so often in Carey’s fiction, there are plentiful frames to mount the action in." - Peter Porter, The Spectator

  • "It is also true that Carey's bright narrative sparks leap and twist in too many directions at once and, while ideas of art and colonialism ignite, the ending is dampened by the persistent humidity of the Malaysian jungle. But Carey has still breathed strange life into an addictively gnarled tale which reminds us that all creations stagger uncertain from their clinging creators, to burn on in the brains of strangers." - Helen Brown, Sunday Telegraph

  • "It is a fabulous idea for a novel and it might have made an extraordinary fire rocket of a story or novella. (...) Malaysia, alas, proves a problem for My Life as a Fake because it becomes the occasion for one of Carey's tropical diseases of narrative invention. (...) My Life as a Fake is one of those books that seeks to conjure up a mystery but gets caught in the muddle of its own shadowings and twists and turns." - Peter Craven, Sydney Morning Herald

  • "It's a wonderful extravaganza, something in the manner of Robert Louis Stevenson, where startling revelations and bold excursions keep exploding across the deadly serious landscape of debate and ideas. It asks bigger questions than literary ones: whether any of us ever do what we mean to, not just whether a writer's intentions are in control of his achievement. But it is never abstract, and the novel leaves an electric trace of imagery across the mind as the monstrous howling figure of McCorkle comes loping towards his terrified creator." - Philip Hensher, The Times

  • "My Life as a Fake is an unmistakably accomplished piece of writing. (...) The deep problem with the book is not an excess of story, or a failure of technique, but an insufficiency of humanity. For this is a novel which, like many recent novels, is all about itself. Specifically, it is about the issue of authenticity in literature." - Robert Macfarlane, Times Literary Supplement

  • "A confused fictional sprawl, My Life as a Fake dazzles the reader with heady ideas and literary reference points (à la Frankenstein and Pale Fire), then catapults us into madcap action. (...) Unfortunately, Chubb's tale lies embedded in multiple framing devices that dissipate the novel's narrative thrust." - Joy Press, The Village Voice

  • "The result is an intermittently entertaining book, but one whose bells and whistles end up being bigger and louder than its engine. By the end, the novel barely manages to chuff across the finish line." - Thomas Mallon, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       My Life As a Fake is a novel full of obsessions. It begins in 1985, but the story the narrator, Sarah Wode-Douglass, has to tell is of events that happened in 1972 -- and there, again, it is the telling of stories from earlier times that dominate the narrative, making My Life As a Fake a tale-within-a-tale-within-a-tale sort novel. The framing devices aren't half bad. There are connexions, making (most of the time) a bit more out of them than just accounts of storytellers telling their stories, but repeatedly the point is delayed, the narrators insisting the foundation must be known in order for the awful truths that will come to be understood, each layer recounted strictly chronologically but awkwardly anticipating the denouements with repeated warnings that there are things to come which will turn everything upside down. In fact, Carey's (and his narrators') insistence that only by telling it this way can the full measure of what happened be understood undermines the stories and saps their strength -- the major flaw in an otherwise gripping novel.
       Sarah is the editor of The Modern Review, a small London poetry magazine. In 1972 she was invited, pretty much on the spur of the moment, to Malaysia by the successful author John Slater, a family friend twenty years her senior. Sarah never liked Slater, hating him from the time when her mother died when she was a young child (believing that he played a significant role in her death), but since they both moved in literary circles they did run in to each other frequently. The adventure of jet-setting to Kuala Lumpur sounds tempting enough, and the idea is practically a done deed before she can think too much about it.
       In Kuala Lumpur they chance upon an old -- and, to him, unwelcome -- Australian acquaintance of Slater's, Christopher Chubb. Now living in what looks like considerable squalor and misery, Chubb had once been fairly well-known -- and notorious. He was the man behind the so-called McCorkle Hoax, back in 1946.
       The summary version of the McCorkle Hoax is: Chubb invented a poet, named Bob McCorkle, and managed to get some of the poems he wrote in his name published in a leading literary journal in Australia, edited by a David Weiss. There was a scandal, a trial, and David Weiss ended up dead. But there was more to it than that, and Chubb eventually recounts this sordid, fantastical story to Sarah.
       The most disturbing aspect of Chubb's convoluted tale is that McCorkle appears to be more than invention: to his own surprise (and considerable dismay) Chubb literally gave birth to a monster. McCorkle's fate, and Chubb's, remain intertwined: the McCorkle-being taking the one thing that Chubb values over all else and eventually leading him into the very odd situation that Sarah and Slater find him in, years later.
       Chubb only slowly reveals what his situation is; that, and how he got there, is a doozy of a story. There's more, too: there's poetry -- and that's what grabbed and holds Sarah's attention (as Chubb knew it would). There's wonderful poetry here, in this Malaysian cess-pit -- McCorkle's, ostensibly. Chubb shows her a sample and it is her mad desire to get hold of it all and to release it to the world that keeps her there, and keeps her listening to and taking down all of Chubb's horror-filled account.
       All the stories within the stories go dreadfully wrong, from the wonderfully ridiculous trial around the McCorkle hoax to Weiss' death to McCorkle's and Chubb's fates. But obsessions -- with poetry, above all else (blinding editors Weiss and Sarah), but also love and lust and revenge -- lead so many of these characters close to and often into the abyss. The unlikely Slater is all that saves Sarah, but the rest aren't so lucky.
       Carey's many-layered tale is full of incredible invention. Much is truly, vividly ugly: the smells and filth, the tortures (physical and mental). Many of the figures and smaller episodes are striking, from a one-eyed Tamil poisoner to some of the women that play such an important role. The story occasionally does meander uneasily, particularly in the person of Sarah and the difficult to get a handle on Slater (whose role in her parents' life turns out to have been a bit different from what she believed); their coming-to-terms with things is not ideally integrated into the far more exotic stories around Chubb. Sarah's framing story, told in 1985, is the outermost one, and doesn't entirely successfully tie it all together, leaving too much about her still uncertain, a strange contrast to the vivid situation around Chubb in Kuala Lumpur.
       Carey has many good ideas here, and some of the strands are wonderful (including a book called My Life As a Fake ...). Parts could have been fleshed out more: it's a fast and occasionally too hurried read. But the greatest flaw is the Scheherezade-like putting off of endings, which Carey doesn't handle well: it's an irritant, rather than helping build any suspense or hold the reader's attention.
       My Life As a Fake is a clever and often very entertaining bit of work, with some brilliant pieces, but it doesn't quite -- only just -- come off as a whole.

       (Note that Carey used actual material from the Ern Malley hoax in the book -- including drawing on the transcripts of the "bizarre trial" of Max Harris (the David Weiss figure in the novel). See also Michael Heyward's fascinating account of The Ern Malley Affair.)

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My Life As a Fake: Reviews: The Ern Malley hoax: Peter Carey: Other books by Peter Carey under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Australian author Peter Carey was born in 1943. He has won the Booker Prize, the Miles Franklin Award, and the Commonwealth Prize.

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© 2003-2012 the complete review

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