Review: The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith

The Unusual Life of Tristan SmithThe Unusual Life of Tristan Smith by Peter Carey
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Reading Peter Carey is always a gamble. The bower-bird nature of his source material, where his current obsessions – often an aspect of the creative life – is unpicked to the point of immersion, sometimes comes off and sometimes doesn’t. His books are quilts – glass and gambling, painting and forgery, ern malley and the botany of Malaysia. Does that last one jar a little?

You bet it did. My Life as a Fake was the worst Carey book I’ve suffered, a hopeless melange of Frankenstein, Carey’s nostalgia for a good nonya curry, and the fascinating tale of the Malley hoax. With child stealing and post-colonial jungle riffing on the side. It just did not work as a whole book. TOO MUCH. Even Carey can fail to convince us with his incredible ear for jerked dialogue, gumbo politics and grotesque mise en scene.

But this one – Tristan Smith is a pearler. I’d heard absolutely naught about it, and now I know why. It’s tough, in the same way Sterne’s book, one of its obvious echoes, is tough. 150 page diversions on the narrator’s birth aren’t for everybody. As usual, Carey bites off way too much and chews like crazy.

Obsessions, catalogued within:
The theatre, the real experience of acting on stage, and receiving that action – right up close, in the footlights. Raw theatre, Pram Factory Theatre. Sometimes terrible, because it’s risky, alchemical, apt to blow up.
Congenital deformity. How would it work if the protagonist was saddled with serious handicaps to his speech, movement, digestion? Unable to walk? Unable to be looked at?
Politics. Imagine Australia and the US and the deep contradictions of their relationship. BUT – they are not Australia and the US – in this world Australia was a colony of France, the US a colony of Holland. OK.
Linguistics. The above shift means that the cultural referents, the slang, the religion, everything – has evolved differently. And you’d better keep up ’cause he ain’t explaining it.
Circus. The history of danger and mimetics, Hermes-trickery and human sacrifice – it’s Cirque de Soleil without nets, with the possibility of death. Circus as actual religion, as addiction.

It’s mad and magnificent. I read it in total silence and concentration away from everything, and was convinced and transported to those places without question. It’s hard work. I bet it wasn’t popular. But read it; The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith is shit hot.

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