Peter Carey

Australian writer Peter Carey (born 1943) won over twelve awards and received two major award nominations for his works of fiction (short stories, novels, and film adaptations) between 1981-1994. Carey was one of the first Australian writers to create a world of absurd realities by blending fantasy and dark humor; this style is now emulated by many other authors.

Australian writer Peter Carey, born in the small town of Bacchus Marsh, Victoria, in 1943, has won twelve awards in thirteen years (1981-94) for his short stories, novels, and film adaptations.

Carey found work in Melbourne as an advertising copywriter after graduating from Monasch University in 1961. Close contact with writers Barry Oakley and Morris Lurie provided the inspiration he needed to seriously start writing fiction. According to Oakley, who critiqued Carey's initial work, Carey's ability was obvious from the beginning but Carey himself had no idea of the magnitude of his own talent.

Carey lived in London for a brief time in the late 1960s, then returned to Australia in 1973. He married theater director Alison Summers in 1985.

Carey first made his mark on the Australian literary scene with a series of short stories that blended fantasy and dark humor, two characteristics which have since become trademarks of modern Australian fiction. Proclaimed an Australian landmark at the time of its publication, the short stories assembled in The Fat Man in History (1974) move through macabre fantasy worlds that reduce reality to the level of absurdity.

Carey's second collection, War Crimes, solidified his reputation as a remarkable, new, fabulistic author. (Original stories from both works can also be found in an expanded collection of Carey's short stories, Collected Stories, 1994.)

Carey's first award-winning novel, Bliss (1981) is the story of advertising man Harry Joy's three drastically opposing experiences with death and resurrection. According to critics, Carey's storytelling created a world that hovered between fantasy and reality, a world that dismantled a reader's assumptions about time, reality, history, and character. One reviewer claimed, "Carey is arguing the necessity of constructing stories to live by, stories which emerge from and are given value by the community itself, rather than from the importation of American dreams." Carey's book Bliss has won the Miles Franklin Award (1981), the New South Wales Premier's Literary Award (1982), the National Book Council Award (1982), and the A.W.G.I.E. Award (1985).

Demonstrating some of the flexibility and inventiveness learned during his advertising days, Carey adapted quickly to the demands of other writing styles. He collaborated with film director Ray Lawrence to create a film adaptation of Bliss. The film achieved a moderate commercial success despite Carey's much-publicized conflict with the director and won three Australian Film Industry awards including best feature film (1985).

Carey later wrote a second screenplay, Until the End of the World (1992), for director Wim Wender.

The paradoxical nature of Carey's novels, the merging of lies with truth, fantasy with reality, is strongly reflected in his novel Illywhacker (1985) which sold 60,000 copies, 20 times the normal print run of an Australian novel. (The term "illywhacker" refers to a con-man or trickster.)

In Illywhacker, Carey draws upon the multiple strands of Australia's own culture and mythology. The story of 139-year-old illywhacker Herbert Badgery is the story of Australia itself. In an epigraph, Carey draws upon a line from Mark Twain, saying "[Illywhacker] does not read like history, but like the most beautiful lies." This popular novel was nominated for both the Booker Prize (1985) and the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel (1986) and was winner of the Ditmar Award for Best Australian Science Fiction (1986).

Carey's most critically-acclaimed novel Oscar and Lucinda (1988) also has a sense of historical allegory. As Carey develops the relationship between the story's two main characters, Rev. Oscar Hopkins and Lucinda Leplastrier, he creates an unsettling view of 19th-century Australia. Despite a bleak ending, Carey has called the novel a "celebration of the human spirit." Oscar and Lucinda won both the Booker Prize and the Miles Franklin Award in 1988.

Although Carey's stories have been compared to the works of Jorge Luis Borges and Donald Barthelme, the stories more strongly reflect that peculiar blend of "real through fantastic" noticeable in the writings of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Similarities in style can also be found between Carey's books and the works of writers like James Joyce, Jack Kerouac, William Faulkner, Robbe-Grillet, Bob Dylan, and Graham Greene.

Throughout Carey's writings there is a sense of the absurd, of a paradox that reflects the contradictions in contemporary life. His writing is outstanding in its breadth of scope and its cultural significance as well as its offer of a new vision, a magical reality, a vision through which the author becomes the ultimate illywhacker.

Other works by Carey not mentioned above include {novels} The Tax Inspector (1991) and The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith (1994), winner of the Miles Franklin Award (1994) and Age Book of the Year Award (1994); {children's book} The Big Bazoohley (1995); {short stories and short story collections} "Room No. 5, Escribo," "Report on the Shadow Industry," and Exotic Pleasures (1990); {non-fiction} A Letter to Our Son (1994). Carey is currently working on the 1997 release of his sixth novel, Mags, a story based on the character Magwitch in Charles Dicken's Great Expectations. There are also indications that his novel Oscar and Lucinda will be produced as a film within the near future.

Further Reading on Peter Carey

Beautiful Lies: a Film about Peter Carey (1985) is a biographical film about Carey. He has also been a popular subject for interviews in the Australian weekly press. A more substantial interview may be found in Candida Baker's Yacker: Australian Writers Talk About Their Work (Woollahra, N.S.W.: 1986). Van Ikin's interview, "Answers to Seventeen Questions," in Science Fiction (Sydney) (1977), explores aspects of speculative fiction in Carey's work.

John Maddock's interview with Carey (published in "Bizarre Realities: an Interview with Peter Carey" (Southerly, 1981) provides one of the most useful insights into the influences and literary antecedents which have influenced Carey. Other discussions of Carey's work include Graeme Turner's "American Dreaming: The Fictions of Peter Carey" in Australian Literary Studies (October 1986) and Teresa Dovey's "An infinite Onion Narrative Structure in Peter Carey's Fiction" in Australian Literary Studies (October 1983). A study of Carey's techniques and precedents may be found in C.K. Stead's "Careyland" in Scripsi (1989), while a view of Carey's 'metafiction' and post-modernism can be found in Wenche Ommundsen's "Narrative Navel-Grazing, Or How to Recognise a Metafiction When You See One" (Southern Review, 1989).

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