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.