Tuesday 28 January 2020

Review: Parrot and Olivier In America by Peter Carey

(Faber and Faber £18.99)

Funny ha-ha: Peter Carey kids around in his new rambling picaresque novel.
Funny ha-ha: Peter Carey kids around in his new rambling picaresque novel.

Brian Lynch

'Ye little curd o'moon spit,' cried the Irishman. Long before I came upon this delightfully stage-Irish image halfway through Peter Carey's new novel I realised I was having my Paddy leg pulled.

But before I get to making a guess at the why of the general jokiness, here's an outline of the extremely convoluted plot.

Parrot Larrit is a printer's devil, a convict, an architect, a cartographer, a botanist, and a spy. Olivier-Jean-Baptiste de Clarel de Barfleur de Garmont is French, an aristocrat, a lawyer, a migraine sufferer, and a precocious genius. Parrot's pop has been involved in the forgery of banknotes. Olivier's old man has retreated to Normandy to escape Napoleon. Parrot has radical leanings. Olivier is terrified of the guillotine.

After separate adventures in France and England, this odd couple set out together for America in the late-1830s. Olivier is supposed to be doing a report on the US prison system. Parrot is, maybe, spying on him. They wander up and down New York and the east coast visiting prisons and meeting notables. Eventually both men find true love and end up friends, sort of.

On the way to friendship there are plenty of diversions, including an interesting one about an early map of Australia (reproduced in the text) which shows an inland sea reaching almost to Alice Springs. There is also curious information about wooden bicycles, geology (a rock called Manhattan schitz), printing, paper-making, painting and much else besides.

In relation to painting, for instance, Parrot's sexy lover Mathilde is based on the fascinating Elizabeth Vigée-Le Brun, who painted Marie-Antoinette. But, fascination apart, what she or any of the rest of the curious stuff has to do with the story is not apparent.

Also, Olivier is supposed to be modelled on Alexis de Tocqueville, but anything further from that brilliantly rational prose stylist (a kind of 19th century Conor Cruise O'Brien) than the frankly silly Olivier it is hard to imagine.

Some attempt is made to suggest that the character of American democracy is such that it was bound to produce George Bush and Sarah Palin, but the logic is circular -- after all, if we've got them we were bound to have them.

Such criticisms, though, are beside the point. This is a picaresque novel, a bit like Tobias Smollet's The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle, in which the story is as long as a piece of string and what counts is the quality of the episodes out of which it is woven. In this case there are loose ends all over the shop. And there are many non-sequiturs to fray the reader's patience.

So, too, do anachronisms such as 'nutter' and 'floozy'. There is, as well, an amount of what one hopes is mock-bad writing: Parrot, for instance, describes what he calls 'my cold and lonely nipples'.

But Carey is a master craftsman, a comedian of the first order, an artist with an uncanny gift for the invention of situations that are bizarre yet believable. And as a double Booker Prize winner he doesn't have to prove anything to anyone -- he has a licence to enjoy himself, and he does.

Self-indulgence can be self-revealing. An observant reader will often wonder at what is going on beneath the apparent light-heartedness. There is, for example, a running joke about a sinister one-armed man called Monsieur -- he reminds us of The Fugitive on TV.

After a vividly described burial at sea, Monsieur takes Parrot "into the ward" (whatever that is) and points down at the water "where there was a large dark fish clearly following behind. I held his neck and kissed his vile cheek. That's the Parrot for you. I wish he was another way".

Also, amongst the other wonderful set pieces there is an extended description of a printer living and working in a room hidden up a chimney. Parrot's job is emptying the printer's chamber pot.

Without being too Freudian about it, Carey seems to be reverting to a childish state, delighting in playing with his own poo. It is, one hopes, only a phase he's going through.

Brian Lynch is a novelist, screenwriter and poet.

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