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Peter Carey, Parrot and Olivier in America

December 3, 2010
Alexis de Tocqueville.

Alexis de Tocqueville (Presumed Public Domain, via Wikipedia)

It’s not surprising, really, that after living in America for two decades Peter Carey should turn his pen to it. Having lived in the US twice myself, I well understand the fascination of trying to understand that large and paradoxical country. In Parrot and Olivier in America, then, Carey sets out to explore America through the eyes of two men from early nineteenth century Europe: Olivier Jean-Baptiste de Clarel de Barfleur de Garmont, a French aristocrat whose parents had barely survived the French Revolution, and John ‘Parrot’ Larrit, a poor Englishman who had been brought to France as a boy by another French aristocrat.

Olivier was born in 1805, the same year that French writer and historian Alexis de Tocqueville was born. This is not a coincidence as the novel is Carey’s loose re-imagining of Tocqueville’s trip to America, with a friend, to study American prisons. Like Tocqueville, Olivier undertakes his trip with the support of the July monarchy, but Oliver’s companion is not an equal. Rather it is Parrot, servant-class and twice Olivier’s age. An unlikely pair, really, but perfect for Carey’s purposes …

… which are to pry into, poke at, and peer under that great American experiment, Democracy. Through having two protagonists of such diverse backgrounds and perspectives, Carey is able to explore the issues from different angles, that of master and servant. And through choosing the picaresque as his form (or style), he is able to do so without being ponderous. In other words, the tone is comic, as befits a picaresque novel, and the narrative comprises a series of adventures in which our “heroes”, Parrot and Olivier, meet a range of characters along the way who test them and their ideas. The novel is told in alternating, and well-differentiated, first person voices – starting with Olivier and ending, very even-handedly, with Parrot. It is basically chronological, but there are flashbacks to fill in gaps and frequent overlaps caused by one telling a story followed by the other giving his version.

That’s the nuts and bolts of it, but how does it come across? Well, in a word, exuberantly. That’s not to say it doesn’t have its serious side, but just that it’s rather fun to read. At least, it was for me, though that could be because of my personal history with America. Here, for example, are some of the observations which caught my attention:

On not needing government (Parrot talking with a tradesman):

‘When there is enough for all,’ the nail-maker said, ‘there is no need for government.’
‘But what of the poor.’
‘No man who will work can be poor.’

A little myopic methinks – but an idea that seems to be still entrenched in America?

On the focus on money and trade (Olivier):

No matter how strong their religious sentiments, or their passion about the reform of criminals, the Americans quickly revealed themselves to be obsessed with trade and money … They had got their hands on a mighty continent from which the least of them could, by dint of some effort, extract unlimited wealth. There being so much to be extracted it scarcely mattered how they were governed, because there is no need to argue when there is plenty for all.

For all, that is, if you are able to work, are not black and not indigenous! Even aristocratic Olivier noticed some of these contradictions.

On the ability to be self-made (Peek, the banker, to Olivier):

‘Experiment,’ he cried, laughing too violently for my taste. ‘There is no experiment. We make this transformation every day. It is called rags-to-riches …’

And on the possibility of art and culture in a democracy (Olivier):

… They [paintings in Philadelphia] made me think that the taste for ideal beauty – and the pleasure of seeing it depicted – can never be as intense or widespread among a democratic as an aristocratic people.

Hmm…Peter Carey is on record as expressing concern for the survival of culture. He said in his closing address at this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival that ‘We have yet to grasp the fact that consuming cultural junk … is completely destructive of democracy’. In other words, Olivier/Carey question whether “high” art and “total” democracy are mutually exclusive? Somewhat related to this is Carey’s ongoing interest (see My life as a fake, and Theft: a love story) in authenticity in art. He explores it here through Olivier’s love of art, and the artistic endeavours of several characters, including Parrot and his mistress.

As for the story itself, there is a lot to enjoy. Olivier and Parrot have a complex relationship that develops from mutual disdain to a cautious friendship as the novel progresses. For all his attempts to be open-minded, Olivier never totally accepts the notion of equality between “men”, but Parrot, from both his early training and a generous nature, manages to tolerate and even accommodate this. Besides these two, there are characters from all strata of society: aristocrats, printers, bankers, land-owners, artists, actors, and so on. And, of course, there are romances, with Olivier’s playing out to a rather ironic conclusion.

One little demur, though. The book did not really engage me emotionally – something I tend to expect in longer novels – and I wonder whether this is partly due to the picaresque genre whose episodic and comic nature can have a distancing effect. Is this a failing? I think not, but it was noticeable, and means that the writing and ideas have to be powerful enough to carry the reader along. And mostly they do here, largely due to the novel’s pacing.

So, what is Carey’s conclusion? Well, it’s pretty even-handed, with both the aristocrat and the servant summing up their experience of America. But, in a twist on Tocqueville, the last words are Parrot’s. As a reader who always looks to see if structure informs the meaning, I wonder if this tells us something. Then again, there could be an element of irony in it. However you read it, there is no real answer to the question in the epigraph:

Can it be believed that the democracy which had overthrown the feudal system and vanquished kings will retreat before tradesmen and capitalists? (Alexis de Tocqueville)

Prophetic words, eh.

Peter Carey
Parrot and Olivier in America
London: Faber and Faber, 2010
578pp
ISBN: 9780571253319

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16 Comments leave one →
  1. December 4, 2010 3:54 am

    Thansk for reviewing this! It is on my list of books I’d like to read but seeing as how that list is so very long. Anyway, it shall remain on the list. I’ve always found Tocqueville fascinating and views of America from the outside.

    • December 4, 2010 10:06 am

      Thanks Stefanie. I’m not sure that I really captured the experience of reading the book – but hope I’ve given some sense of the flavour. I keep coming across Tocqueville but have never done a proper study of him. However, the more I read the more I’d like too. That whole early 19th century period is a fascinating one isn’t it.

  2. December 4, 2010 12:11 pm

    A great review Sue. Very much a return to form for Carey. I enjoyed quite a lot too. It’s interesting that his first book on America is written from the point of view of two outsiders. But de Tocqueville is the perfect vehicle of the outsider pondering what this new world is all about.

    • December 4, 2010 12:49 pm

      Yes, good point, re the outsider, which can represent him too and having two outsiders enables him to represent his own dichotomous views. I also liked the fact that by having an Englishman and Frenchman go to America he managed to cover three of the major early 19th century players.

      (I think his last book was set in New York – I haven’t read it – but isn’t really the grand sweep view that this represents).

      Glad you liked it too — I think a few of the blogs I’ve seen, haven’t.

  3. December 4, 2010 5:05 pm

    Hmm… I love the idea of an exuberant novel, but I definitely want to be emotionally engaged with the characters and story too. Think I might leave this one in your bookshelf, seeing as I don’t have the drive to finish it as quickly as you did! ;)

    • December 4, 2010 6:31 pm

      Fair enough. It’s not as though there isn’t a wide range of books for you to choose from. Short stories I think we agreed next? Or perhaps a Toni Jordan.

  4. December 5, 2010 4:24 pm

    I’m not a fan of Carey, but ANZLL has chosen this one as for our 2011 schedule so I may have to overcome my reluctance. Or go away on holidays for the relevant month LOL.

    • December 5, 2010 5:27 pm

      Yes, I knew you weren’t a fan. Why not? I haven’t read all his works by any means but I usually find something of interest to think about in his work. BUT, if you really hate him, a holiday wouldn’t be a bad option!

  5. December 6, 2010 12:48 am

    I really must read this one, as I admire Carey greatly.

    I am intrigued by your statement – “As a reader who always looks to see if structure informs the meaning” and wonder what it means. I suppose I think that the if the structure is right, the meaning is intuitive and you don’t really have to think about the structure. Perhaps I am not as critical a reader as you!

    • December 6, 2010 1:01 am

      Oh good, I’d love to hear what you think. What is your favourite Carey to date. I’ve read a few, but by no means all.

      Re structure. You are right to a degree – it should be and usually is – but, when I’m analysing a book and thinking about how the writer got me to that meaning, one of the things I look at is structure. Does that makes sense? Funny really. I have no plan to write a novel myself but I often like to look at how writers do it.

      • December 6, 2010 7:53 am

        Thanks for the clarification.

        My favourite Carey? Why, Oscar and Lucinda! Ive also read My Life as a Fake and a volume of short stories.

        • December 6, 2010 10:52 am

          Oh yes, I think that’s probably my favourite. It’s been a long time though and every now and then I have an itch to reacquaint myself. I haven’t read Illywhacker though which a lot of people like. I’ve read a few others, including My life as a fake which I enjoyed too. Is the short story collection the one titled The fat man in history? I have that here but haven’t read it yet.

  6. December 19, 2010 8:26 am

    Great review Sue. I’ve always enjoyed Peter Carey’s writing, although I haven’t read any of his early work, and have always thought that I should. I’d like to read this one too one day.

    • December 19, 2010 8:34 pm

      Thanks Louise … I haven’t read all of Carey by any means but I do find him interesting. He’s a bit like Margaret Atwood for me in the sense that you never quite know what he’s going to do next (though I don’t think he’s actually ventured into sci fi/speculative fiction like she has!)

  7. January 12, 2011 11:48 pm

    A wonderful book!
    And it provides a witty literary explanation for the US housing bubble and credit crisis: http://andreasmoser.wordpress.com/2011/01/11/a-literary-explanation-of-the-us-housing-bubble/

    • January 26, 2011 11:28 pm

      Oh thanks for commenting Andreas — and I’m so sorry about my late reply. Your comment when into my SPAM folder which I hadn’t checked for a couple of weeks. I will pop over to your blog and comment there. I did enjoy the wit of this novel.

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