My Life As A Fake by Peter Carey is a strange, multi-layered journey through a man’s past, his artistic inspiration and his products, both illusory and real. Christopher Chubb is Australian and a budding poet. He resents the privilege of a certain litterateur and so he decides to nail him. An apparently genuine but actually bogus set of poems is supplied and adjudged significantly more than competent. The agent publishes. The material is fake. Chubb is accused and stands trial for his sins against artistic identity and integrity.
Some years later John Slater and Sarah Elizabeth Jane Wode-Douglas visit Kuala Lumpur. Slater is an accomplished poet who has hobnobbed with anyone worth hobnobbing with, Eliot, Pound, Auden, etc. He is also something of a lady’s man on the side. Sarah is an upper crust girl who developed a liking for other girls at school. Aspects of her origins are a matter of some conjecture, however. Slater seems to have played a role. Her present is clear. She is the editor in chief of a miniscule literary journal devoted mainly to new poetry. In Kuala Lumpur she discovers the story of Bob McCorkle's fabled poetry, the fake created by Christopher Chubb.
Chubb is resident in KL and has been so for several years. He has a bicycle repair shop, but still writes his own doggerel. Sarah meets him and dismisses his work as dire, derivative at best. McCorkle's poems, however, are blissful and she tries everything possible to get her hands on the material so that she can publish it. The problem for her is the fact that McCorkle is apparently an invention of Chubb, so the only way that she can get near to the material is through him. The Australian is now a poor artisan with ragged clothes and tropical ulcers. He speaks English strongly peppered with bits of Malay and plays hard to get. The only way that Sarah can access the McCorkle poems is to suffer Chubb’s life story, its fantasies, inventions and questionable realities.
And it’s a story that comes and goes to and from Australia. It progresses through Indonesia and peninsular Malaya. We visit Penang, sup tea in the E and O as Chubb pursues McCorkle, his own now demonic invention, across south east Asia. His alter ego becomes something real, something apart from himself.
The book is packed with literary references, but is in no way academic. There is a strong sense of place, with the sights, sounds and smells of Kuala Lumpur oozing from the page. The only aspect missing is the taste, and in Malaysia food is much more pervasive an influence in the culture than we encounter via Chubb’s adoption of it. It’s a minor point.
Eventual reconciliation of the Chubb-McCorkle conflict, Sarah’s pursuit of the poems and Slater’s apparent management of the process is truly surprising and it is for the reader to discover this empirically.
Overall the pace of the book is varied and, here and there, one feels that Peter Carey has over-complicated things and thus detracted from the directness that could have achieved increased impact. But then poetry is like that, isn’t it? If it was linear, uncomplicated, What Katy Did, then it would not have the richness that makes it poetry. It would lack the diversion, the invention. My Life As A Fake has all these things and probably stands alone, eventually, as an examination of the nature of creativity and invention. When viewed in retrospect, Chubb’s life, his haunting by the accomplished poet he has ostensibly created and his pursuit of the same to reclaim a daughter he believes is his own at times beggars belief. But just try predicting tomorrow’s news, or even, especially, your own emotions or reactions. We all become inventors, with neither a past nor a future solid in our present. Eliot again.