In a previous life Peter Carey was probably a forger. What else could explain the interest in falsification that pops up repeatedly in his novels? The titles of his most recent three – His Illegal Self, Theft: A Love Story and My Life as a Fake – announce a liking for duplicity and sidling past the law. It may be hereditary: Carey is Australian and, although he has lived in New York for 20 years, his books all deal in some way with the former penal colony that is his homeland.
His latest, Parrot and Olivier in America, fictionalises the trip that French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville (here called Olivier de Garmont) made to the fledgling republic in the early 19th century, to examine and write about its prisons. The result, Democracy in America, dealt with much more than the penal system, and Carey says it was the writer’s prescience, rather than the convict theme, that got him interested. ‘I’ve always been thrilled by reading that lets you see that the present is burningly alive in the past,’ he says. ‘So, when you read De Tocqueville worrying about what we would call the dumbing-down of culture, it’s pretty amazing. He worries that a moron would come to rule the United States. Well, we are living in the age of Sarah Palin… Then there’s President Andrew Jackson, battling with the banks. I’d finished writing the book by the time the crash came, but all these things work.’
Olivier’s low-born travelling companion, Parrot, is also a forger. What’s with the fixation? ‘I don’t really want to know,’ says Carey firmly. ‘One wants to feel one has done something original and exciting.’ Which, of course, becomes fraught when you take history as your starting point – when we applaud a description of the rocking-chair as ‘that awful monument to democratic restlessness’, Carey is quick to point out that it is his, not De Tocqueville’s.
Clearly, the forgery obsessive doesn’t want to be mistaken for a forger himself: repetition worries him. Well, copying is the flipside of creativity. ‘According to Olivier’s [elitist] argument, Parrot should never be an artist, and I can’t exist as a writer [because Carey isn’t an aristocrat either] and Parrot can’t exist and this book can’t exist, if indeed Parrot wrote the book,’ he says gleefully. ‘You couldn’t produce art in this sort of democracy.’
The notion of democracy worried De Tocqueville; 200 years later, it’s still worrying Carey. ‘You need to have an educated and well-informed populace. You do not feed them s*** and misinformation day after day in the hope that you’re going to have a functioning democracy in the end… particularly as it applies to the arts. ‘Should you be raising the people up or should you sell them the sugar they want to eat?’ he continues. ‘Lots of people may think Olivier and De Tocqueville are wrong about art and capitalist culture, but I think they’re right. We are swimming in a sea of cultural crap.’ That’s probably true, but there are lifeboats: he makes some of them, and they’re originals, every one. • Parrot and Olivier in America is published by Faber
Memorable quotes to have come out of Peter Carey’s mouth
‘You rarely lose marks in Australia for outwitting the police.’
‘I had always been interested in Australia’s convict history. I think it has shaped us to an extraordinary degree – and in all sorts of good ways.’
‘We invaded another person’s country and took it from them, and then pretended we didn’t.’
‘Fiction is certainly distrusted. Yet we have a society where the basis of everything, the political basis of our lives, is a complete f***ing lie. And the media have no interest in telling any truth at all.’
‘Oh, America does make me very nervous. America scares me s***less.’
Alexis de Tocqueville – who?
Peter Carey’s new novel is a fictional account of the famous trip made by French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville in the early 19th century. Don’t know what we’re on about? Here’s a quick history lesson
• Alexis de Tocqueville wrote Democracy in America, a study of the beginning of democracy in the US. It is considered an early work of sociology and political science.
• In the book, de Tocqueville makes an early reference to what we now know as the ‘American Dream’. In trying to understand why America was different to Europe (which was in the last throes of aristocracy), he observed that the US was a society where hard work and money-making was the dominant ethic, and the common man could rise to a higher level in society because of this hard work.
• However, de Tocqueville did not support this. He wrote: ‘[W]hen citizens are all almost equal, it becomes difficult for them to defend their independence against the aggressions of power. As none of them is strong enough to fight alone with advantage, the only guarantee of liberty is for everyone to combine forces. But such a combination is not always in evidence.’
• He concluded that ordinary Americans enjoyed too much power, and that as a result the society promoted middling mediocrity.