Peter Carey’s “Parrot and Olivier in America”



There are National Trust properties up and down the country which, in their piecemeal, potted restoration have become something less, something more dislocated, than a single house: there’s a Regency bedroom, there a Renaissance kitchen; look closely, and up the stairs from the rococo balustrades will be the severe Victorian lines of a droll drawing room. Every corner will have a story slightly out of synch with the others – and, inevitably, the visitor will enjoy some rooms better than others, may even find a couple thoroughly divine, but exit to the tea shop feeling if not underwhelmed then certainly confused.

This is the experience which awaits the reader of Peter Carey’s latest, Parrot and Olivier in America. At its heart is the sort of recreation of historical voice that Carey has made his own, and ultimately this is its only unifying project. The novel doesn’t have much in the way of a single plot, nor anything approaching an enforced coherence; its principle pleasure is in the reiteration, in each of its constituent moments, of an historical perspective. This is not to say historical accuracy, of course: Carey riffs too freely on Audobon and de Tocqueville, reprints out of context too many documents from the period, ranges too widely and wildly across continents, to establish a definitive history. Carey’s project is, of course, more of the imaginative variety, and in this he may be the consummate novelist writing today.

This bifurcated novel’s twin, eponymous voices are of the venal and the upper classes. Parrot, an Englishman with a storied and shady past, find himself, as a result of a series of political and probably criminal coincidences Carey never quite unpicks, accompanying Olivier, a French aristocrat whose family has fallen out of favour, to America, where the latter is to inspect American prisons on behalf of the French government. Their relationship constitutes the bouncing off of almost wholly incompatible perspectives: Olivier’s privileged, pie-eyed nostalgia for feudalism, Parrot’s over-awareness of the corruption of elites. In their trip to the United States, of course, they come face to face with the future, in the form of democracy. At one point, Olivier discusses Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People with Peek, an American he initially considers a friend, and in particular the pistol-toting boy at its centre, whom Olivier finds “vile”. Peek tells him:

“He will end up president. […] As Americans we must allow the possibility. He may simply end up rich. My dear Olivier, this is not your ancient France. But if it were, that boy – if he showed similar initiative – might take possession of half the lands along the Loire. If he works hard. There are countless acres of American owened by no one, waiting to be taken. You want our American Avignon, it is empty. It is yours. I give it to you.” [pp 227-228]

This is the world that scares Olivier – one of opportunity and fluidity. But it is also one of which Parrot is sceptical – its promises of emancipation and elevation seem to him hollow and self-serving. Carey’s thesis about democracy never seems to get beyond such sterile extremes of characterisation, although it allows him some humourous scenes: Olivier listening to one American mathematicise society, Parrot providing snide asides about one popinjay or another, power relationships dramatised in the watery rescue of a fine edition of Molière. Other episodes are as diverting but decidedly less relevant: Parrot pretending to be a rabbit, a glorious interrogation scene featuring a poor forger and a bedecked Lord, Olivier in his boyhood learning his Latin. Indeed, Carey seems strongest in these more picaresque moments, and the novel should be seen in this light. It’s hard to see what grand statement, or unified novel, Carey wanted to stitch together between these two characters and their shapeless roamings; Parrot and Olivier in America is rather a sort of modern Humphry Clinker: ribald, itinerant and full of incidental incident.

So where does that leave it in the Booker stakes? Some way behind, I think: though some pages of Parrot and Olivier are more fun, more wryly wrought, than anything else on the shortlist, others pass by in something of a miasma. Carey pitches the twin voices just so, but perversely his novel never seems to find one. This leaves, it seems to me, In A Strange Room and C to duke it out for the prize. The Finkler Question is as fine and spry a novel as any, but though it’s a masterfully turned comic novel it lacks the formal inventiveness of Galgut and McCarthy’s efforts. C may ultimately make the grade, its mixture of sardonic humour and serious intent resulting in a remarkably rich – if intermittently featureless – tapestry, all competing strands and difficult textures. In A Strange Room, by contrast, is simply a perfectly melancholic miniature with nary a word out of place.

Comedy, tragedy, or fractal farce: place your bets, we’ll know tonight.

Damon Galgut’s “In A Strange Room”

In a conversation with Tomcat in the comments of my post about C, I implied that McCarthy’s opus may have a rival in Damon Galgut’s slim travel memoir, In A Strange Room. This isn’t because Galgut matches McCarthy for depth or density – In A Strange Room is a much quieter, more personal, work than C. Nor is it because the travelogue trumps the anti-bildungsroman for relevance or resonance: where C is about a world in which an ever increasing amount of information succeeds only in producing an ever more disassociated society, In A Strange Room is just about a chap with itchy feet. But not one – not a single one – of Galgut’s words is misplaced or misused; every individual sentence is a joy to read, every page pared of all fat and gristle, worked in that invisible way that we noted with Howard Jacobson. Unlike Jacobson, however, Galgut is in his own way asking questions of the modern novel, rather than turning out a perfect example of it.

Over at her blog, Lizzy wasn’t as struck by the novel. In large part, this is because she’s uncomfortable with its structure, even its classification. In A Strange Room comprises three novellas, each originally published in the Paris Review. Lizzy is not alone in asking whether three novellas strung together can make a novel – for starters, Claire Armistead in the Guardian has written “it would be perverse to allow it to win, if only because any number of fine works of fiction by Alice Munro have been excluded for being short stories.” It’s an acceptable point of view as far as it goes, but it seems to me to underplay the extent to which the three parts of In A Strange Room are in fact linked in one grand story. The viewpoint character, protagonist, and finally narrator of In A Strange Room is one Damon Galgut; in the course of three journeys taken over the period of some twenty years, he considers his relationship with travel, and with other people, and comes to understandings with both – and by extension, with the world. Here is a story of the sort we encounter daily: a fragmentary one, in truth made up by many smaller stories, which are in turn contained within yet further stories: “the past echoes in concentric rings through time.” [pg. 24]

If I have no problem seeing In A Strange Room as a novel, then what sort of a novel is it? It’s certainly an unusual one, a ruminative and yet restless work which changes location constantly without quite shifting its centre of gravity. Not just that – Galgut performs the trick of emobodying the trinity of perspective at the heart of his narrative with a gentle deftness. “History resists imagining,” he insists on only the fifth page of the volume, and by distancing Galgut the Writer from Galgut the Narrated he not just emphasises this dislocation but involves us in it. As the novel progresses, and the remembered Damon approaches the remembering one more closely in time (the novel begins with one walker approaching another and then passing, like each other’s mirror image); the first person is used more, the third less. In between we are drawn into the reminscences with the use of the second person, and we become as confused as Damon – more the past than the present variant – as to the relationship not just between people but between the parts of ourselves.

All this is done, however, lightly and unobtrusively. Galgut’s prose tiptoes past us, sounding like the purest tonic triad as we read, but leaving behind minor sevenths and dischords as it lingers. It is very hard to over-stress just how subtly written this novel is. If it has a weak section,  it is the middle, when Damon travels to central Africa and falls in several travellers, ultimately finding companionship with one group in particular – only to rebuff their overtures of further intimacy. The focus here, perhaps fittingly, is more diffuse, the line of story less clear. Yet it is also the section in which the novel’s core tension – between Damon’s love of travel, and yet the fact that travel is what he does to avoid love – becomes most apparent, and which includes some of its finest evocations of place, and of the conflicted experience of being fortunate enough to have the option of rootlessness:

“On the long hot walk back to his room he sees properly for the first time the ragged clothes on the smiling children, the bare interiors of the smoky huts with their two or three pieces of broken furniture, the skeletal dogs slinking away at his approach, and for the first time he chooses to understand why people who live here, whose country this is, might want to run errands for these foreign visitors passing through, and catch fish and cook for them, and clean after them.” [pg. 78]

In A Strange Room is a sort of journey towards this kind of communal feeling, a hike towards shared experience. In the novel’s first part, the chronicle of Damon’s relationship with Reiner, a German walker he meets by chance and with whom he eventually treks across Lesotho, we learn with Galgut that the initially charismatic and attractive Reiner is a sort of voyaging narcissist: “it feels at times that for Reiner this country is only a concept, some abstract idea that can be subjugated to the will.” [pg. 25] In the third part, Damon travels again, this time with a much older and closer friend, Anna. They go to India, and Damon’s intention is to use travel, as he always has for himself, to distract Anna from her own emotional problems, for which she is heavily medicated and about which those closest to her constantly worry: “the feeling of life passing by might suspend her internal clamour.” [pg. 136] Already, however, we and Damon are becoming aware that this is impossible (“he became aware that he was forming connections with the place” [pg. 130]). Ultimately, Damon “can feel her helplessness from the other aside of the world” [pg. 157] – escape from emotional intimacy has become, has always been, a quixotic dream. If the company of others, of ourselves, is to be stuck in a single strange room, it is in truth the only one we have.

Galgut’s book is tender and beautiful, but also rather ugly and cold – it is a perfectly pitched, properly balanced work of some artistry, which quietly interrogates the bounds of the novel and never once – even when it is finished – loses the attention of its reader. In  a post which takes a title from one of Galgut’s many lovely turns of phrase, William Rycroft writes that the book is “quite a bleak read in places but Galgut’s prose, pared down here to the essentials, manages to find those small moments of promise in human interaction, as rare and precious as a flower in the desert.” In A Strange Room is indeed a melancholic novel on many levels; but it is a rewarding, humane, affecting one nevertheless. C might be a work of flawed genius, but sometimes a novel shouldn’t shout.