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My Life as a Fake Hardcover – October 28, 2003

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Editorial Reviews Review

Peter Carey's My Life as a Fake is a literate mystery of forgeries and doppelgangers with a fictional manuscript at its heart. The mystery--the origin of a brilliant but purportedly faked poem--fuels a whirlwind pursuit through Australia and across the wilds of Malaysia. Grappling with her own childhood demons, Carey's bibliophile sleuth, Sarah Wode-Douglass, sometimes becomes lost in the exotic and bloody chase.

The novel opens as Sarah, the reluctant tourist and editor of The Modern Review, is dragged by a foppish poet-friend, John Slater, to Kuala Lumpur. Sarah is intent on biding her time in her hotel, but a chance encounter with a scabrous reader of Rilke soon transforms Sarah's plans and, ultimately, her life. The reader, the Australian poet Christopher Chubb, is the disgraced initiator of a great literary hoax--the faked poems of the non-existent Bob McCorkle. The McCorkle hoax was Chubb's attempt to bring down a rising poetry editor, David Weiss. When the hoax was exposed, Weiss was believed to have committed suicide. But, living in exile, Chubb has hidden a secret for decades: Bob McCorkle had seemingly materialized in human form, killing Weiss and destroying Chubb's life. Sarah is tantalized by a fragment of supposed McCorkle poetry that Chubb has shared with her. Whether it is a fake or the work of a madman, Sarah believes it is genius. Her obsession, however, drives her and Chubb to the precipice of self-destruction.

The primary story--Chubb's pursuit of McCorkle--lives in the fictional past, and the plot occasionally becomes muddled in the nest of narrators recalling conversations second or third hand. In playing out the McCorkle affair, Carey’s denouement comes too quickly. If Sarah is transformed, Carey doesn't reveal enough of her in the text. He is mesmerized, as is the reader, by Chubb's horrific tale.

With its small shortcomings, the novel offers a sophisticated interrogation of authorship and fakery and the power of art. Carey avoids simplifying the McCorkle mystery, leaving the reader to puzzle out McCorkle's bizarre incarnation. While My Life as a Fake is frequently entertaining, the atmospheric mystery occasionally glimpses the profound. --Patrick O'Kelley

From Publishers Weekly

Carey, who won the Man Booker Prize for his True History of the Kelly Gang, takes another strange but much less well-known episode in Australian history as the basis for this hypnotic novel of personal and artistic obsession. He tells it through the eyes of Lady Sarah Wode-Douglass, editor of a struggling but prestigious London poetry journal, who one day in the early 1970s finds herself accompanying an old family friend, poet and novelist John Slater, out to Malaysia. There they encounter an eccentric Australian expatriate, Christopher Chubb, who concocted, Slater says, a huge literary hoax in Australia just after the war, creating an imaginary genius poet, Bob McCorkle, whose publication by a little magazine led to the suicide of the magazine's editor. Now Chubb offers Lady Sarah a page of poetry that shows undoubted genius and claims it is from a book in his possession. Lady Sarah's every acquisitive instinct is inflamed, but to get her hands on the book she has to listen, as Chubb inflicts on her, Ancient Mariner-like, the amazing story of his own epic struggle with McCorkle. In the end, the vaunted manuscript is revealed to be in the care of Chubb's fierce daughter (long ago kidnapped and raised by McCorkle) and a deranged Chinese woman. To what lengths will Lady Sarah go to get it, and how will the women keep it from her? The tale is a tour de force, with a positively Graham Greene-ish relish in the seamy side of the tropics, a mix of literary detective story and murderous nightmare that is piquantly hair-raising. And just when it seems that Carey's story is his greatest fantastic creation to date, he lets on that the hoax at the heart of it actually took place in Melbourne in 1946. As so often before, this extravagantly gifted writer has created something bewilderingly original and powerful.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; First Edition edition (October 28, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375414983
  • ISBN-13: 978-1740512466
  • Product Dimensions: 5.9 x 1.1 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (54 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #4,579,109 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME on February 2, 2008
Format: Paperback
For a nation with so many fine writers, Australia has an unusual number of "fakes" of one kind or another. Not many years ago, a young British immigrant woman almost passed herself off as a Ukrainian refugee. A white male writer masqueraded as an Aborigine woman. Literary posturing isn't new nor unique to Australia, but writers there seem to be trying to launch a new genre through it. Peter Carey's book isn't an attempt to become a cornerstone of this potential realm. Through a narrative that binds the reader to every page, he re-constructs a fictional account of one of Australia's better known early attempts at literary chicanery.

In Australia, the "Ern Malley" affair remains notorious - poems supposedly penned by an unknown genius of the 1940s. Carey bases his tale on this scandal, bringing a fresh sense of life and place to his characters. He introduces Sarah Wode-Douglass, London literary magazine editor, and the man she's long considered her family's nemesis, John Slater. Sarah - known to Slater as "Micks" is lured to Kuala Lumpur, leading her to a disheveled old Australian, Christopher Chubb. Chubb has a secret, which he dangles enticingly before the editor. It's a collection of poetry by a Bob McCorkle, who Chubb invented. The invention was to have highlighted the failure of the Australian literary elite to understand real poetry. In doing so, it would provide a comeuppance to Chubb's former classmate and editor of "Personae", David Weiss.

The situation gets out of hand when Weiss issues the work and is charged with "publishing obscenity" by an over-zealous Melbourne policeman. Worse for Chubb, Bob McCorkle emerges as a "real" figure pursuing Chubb and demanding recognition as the "poetic genius" he's been depicted.
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful By A. Ross HALL OF FAMETOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on August 20, 2005
Format: Paperback
I am generally very suspicious of novels whose plotlines revolve around writers and the world of letters, doubly so in this case, as it involves poetry, which I tend to dislike. However... this is Peter Carey at work, and by the end of this book I'm convinced he could rework an appliance manual into a penetrating and thoughtful story. What he's done here is take a real-life Australian literary hoax from the 1940s, fictionalized it, grafted the gothic Frankenstein story to it, and then superimposed a running theme on the construction of identity by the self. It's the kind of fictional razzle-dazzle that might have seemed arch or pretentious or self-congratulatory in the wrong hands, but Carey pulls it off with style.

The story is narrated on its outer layer (there are numerous stories within stories and narrators within these) by Sarah, the editor of a prestigious, if perpetually bankrupt, English poetry magazine. She writes in the early 1980s, some ten years after the main events of the story, which take place in Kuala Lumpur in 1972. She was taken there by a friend of her deceased parents (and, she suspects, her mother's lover), and seeks to use the trip as a way to talk to him about the suicide of her mother when she was a child. However, one day while strolling the streets of KL, she sees a decrepit white man sitting in a hovel of a bike-repair shop reading Rilke. This piques her interest and she is soon drawn into the strange tale of Christopher Chubb, a man who thirty years previously perpetuated a hoax on a modernist literary review.

Chubb found trendy modernist poetry to be vapid stuff and so submitted some nonsense material from a fictitious blue-collar mechanic poet to an editor he used to go to school with.
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Eric Anderson on November 2, 2003
Format: Hardcover
Following from Carey's hugely successful True History of the Kelly Gang, the author plucks another charismatic figure from history to reform in his fiction. This time he has taken the Ern Malley hoax and rewritten it using a bounty of sumptuous detail. In the 1940s a couple of writers sought to play a joke on the surrealist movement of the time. Their hoax got out of hand. They composed poetry using a mixture of their own original work, Shakespeare, a rhyming dictionary and a US army report. However, it was taken seriously, published and then caused a scandal because the content of the work was considered indecent. In many ways the editor who first received the work considered that the fake poet really did come to life. Stemming from this thought, Carey creates the story of Christopher Chubb who similarly sets up a literary hoax. This time, the fictional poet really does come to life.
The narrator of My Life is a Fake is the English poetry editor Sarah Wode-Douglass. She travels to Kuala Lumpur on the invitation of her acquaintance, the poet John Slater, with whom she has a long and complicated past. By accident she meets Chubb who is working in a bicycle repair shop. He gives her a glimpse of a poem by the poet he created named McCorkle. Sarah is desperate to retrieve this poet's work to make her own claim to fame. However, first she must hear the whole gruesome story behind it. It is a complicated affair leading Sarah and the reader to wonder what is real and what is fake. McCorkle comes to life and discredits Chubb's own life. Not only is Chubb's past revealed, but through conversations Slater Sarah's own past is examined. Another fake is revealed.
Carey does a magnificent job at evoking the environment of Kuala Lumpur in this time period.
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