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Parrot and Olivier in America Paperback – January 11, 2011
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“As big and bold as [America] itself. . . . Carey at his finest. . . . He is a sheer magician with language.” —The Miami Herald
“A brass-band burlesque of literature and history. . . .Provokes a reader’s delighted applause. . . . Matchlessly robust.” –The New York Times Book Review
“Outrageous and witty. . . .Another feat of acrobatic ventriloquism, joining Carey’s masterpieces, Jack Maggs and True History of the Kelly Gang.” –The Washington Post
“Gorgeously entertaining and moving. . . . This is a novel of fierce attachments, charting the proximity of beauty and terror in the human soul.” —O, The Oprah Magazine
“Delicious. . . .A comic historical picaresque. . . .[This] book has an eighteenth-century robustness, a nineteenth-century lexicon, and a modern liberality.” –James Wood, The New Yorker
“Re-imagines Alexis de Tocqueville’s American journey with a verve that is nothing short of captivating. . . . A rollicking debate about America and its opportunities, its society and class distinctions.” —The Denver Post
“Carey is as various, often as brilliant, and always as irreverent as they come.” –The Boston Globe
“An exuberant, entertaining, incisive novel, full of attitude and incident.” —Dallas Morning News
“Amusing and wise and graceful to a degree that we almost don’t deserve.” —Salon
“An energetically intelligent novel. . . . It bristles like a hedgehog with all of Carey’s spiky ideas. . . . There’s enough to snag your imagination on, and to spare.” —The Christian Science Monitor
“Carey braids his story carefully, lovingly. . . .At its heart, Parrot and Olivier in America is a western; the simplest story in history, sculpted down to a twinkle in a philosopher’s eye: Man’s search for freedom.” –Los Angeles Times
“Parrot and Olivier [is]. . . . Peter Carey’s celebration of his marvelous discovery of how to write about—this time around—our own past.” —San Francisco Chronicle
“A dazzling, entertaining novel. . . . The language is vivid, forceful and poetic.” —The Guardian (London)
“Parrot offers Carey an excellent occasion to create swaggering 19th century brogue—and a new vantage to explore the transformative power of America.” —Chicago Tribune
“Peter Carey is one of today’s best writers of literary historical fiction. . . . The novel is full of lush detail, period lingo, and plenty of Dickensian coincidence and excitement.” —The Charlotte Observer
“Extraordinarily allusive and joyously inventive. The numerous themes are spiced with his gutsy carnality. . . . A great deal of pleasure.” —The Daily Telegraph (London)
“Cranks its energy, like Don Quixote, out of the friction between two antipodal characters. . . . Hums with comic adventure.” —New York Magazine
“A comic, well-observed and meticulously crafted narrative. . . . Carey deftly and humorously brings debate into the narrative but seamlessly and organically within an immersive depiction of life 180 years ago.” —Buffalo News
“One assumes it was no simple thing for Peter Carey to give birth to this masterful, sprawling epic. But oh, the reader is so pleased that the effort succeeded.” —Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
“Even fuller than its predecessors of allusion, contrast, and comic contradiction. . . . It demands and repays repeated reading.” —The Times Literary Supplement (London)
“Exquisitely written. . . . It’s a surprising, stimulating, sad, and side-splitting deconstruction of social class, no less ‘real’ because it springs from Carey’s imagination.” —Tulsa World
“Elegant prose conveys the newness of America. . . . As usual with Carey, echoes of Dickens resound.” —Bloomberg News
“Smart, charming and original. . . . [Carey] finds comedy in unexpected places.” —NPR.org
About the Author
Peter Carey is the author of ten previous novels and has twice received the Booker Prize. His other honors include the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and the Miles Franklin Literary Award. Born in Australia, he has lived in New York City for twenty years.
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The journeys and observations of Tocquville are reflected in the fictional character of Olivier, a nobleman from France experiencing the wild and growing American of Andrew Jackson. This was a time of innovation, creativity, and expansion of the American boundaries and development of a true American character. Olivier observes it but his servant Parrot lives it and the contrast is telling.
Early chapters on the lives of both Parrot and Olivier and moving, much like the early chapters in David Copperfield and Great Expectations. Carey obviously has a love for the human condition in all its foolishness and potential and the observations of Olivier probably also reflect Carey's wry observations.
I would recommend The True History of the Kelly Gang to anyone interested in Carey's writing, for it is his masterpiece, but this book is a fully amusing and thoughtful read.
Olivier is interesting in a sort of academic way, but Carey's masterstroke is to pair him with an English traveling companion several decades his senior, known as Parrot. The son of an itinerant printer in Devon, Parrot's life takes a new turn when he meets "Monsieur," a one-armed renegade French aristocrat who crops up throughout the novel as a diabolus ex machina, and is ultimately responsible for bringing Parrot and Olivier together. Transported to Australia (though not as a convict) the teenage lad learns to fend for himself, building some skill as an artist. Eventually, he is brought back to France by Monsieur, and used by him in a variety of shady dealings. He also falls for a fiery female painter named Mathilde, tossing like a towed dinghy in the wake of her genius. Whenever Parrot is the narrator, the language comes violently to life. Here is Mathilde's mother on her arrival in America "...wrestling with the rolled-up canvas, clanking and clattering with those beaten blackened pans she had carried like gold napoleons across the sea. With a nod and nudge she made it clear my only job was to hold her sobbing daughter and my heart was brimming, one part rage, one cockalorum, all sloshing and gurgling and spurting through my chambers." Those who have read TRUE HISTORY OF THE KELLY GANG know well what Carey can do in this vein.
Olivier has known only one life before coming to America; Parrot has lived through several lifetimes, and looks only to stop travelling, settle down, and discover what he really is. America provides that for him, as it so often does. As a European immigrant myself, I find it uncanny how well Carey has captured one's love/hate relationship with this country -- including the incredulity of most Americans that this could be anything other than total love. I am also struck by the way in which, by setting the genteel breeding of Olivier against the rough practicality of Parrot, he once more touches upon a central duality in Australian literature (it is the theme, for example, of Patrick White's VOSS), though translating it to America, where the problem of maintaining culture in a pioneer world found its own meaning and vibrant solutions.
It took me a long time to warm to this book. In fact, I read it twice, several months apart, before I could decide that I actually liked it. Part of the problem came from my expectations that it *would* be a humorous novel, and I felt let down by the fact that it wasn't funny the first time through. Carey, however, is a complex novelist, and it took that second reading for me to see the deeper intricacies of what he was trying to do. If you've read some of Carey's other recent books, such as My Life as a Fake or His Illegal Self, you'll notice a recurring interest in two overlapping themes: the constructed nature of the self, and the possibilities for inauthenticity that arise from this condition. As such, Parrot and Olivier in America repeatedly deploys the intertwining notions of copying and the counterfeit, from the fake money manufactured by Parrot's father to the carbon paper that Parrot uses to duplicate Olivier's letters. Underneath this repeated symbolism is a political critique grounded in the thesis that the origins of democracy have themselves been counterfeited, allowing the political apparatus to be delivered into the hands of a new ruling class that uses a rhetoric of freedom and equality to cover up its own inherent injustices.
Although Carey delivers this message with deft subtlety, it is not hard to see why, for most readers, such a conclusion is going to touch a sore spot. It is a view that implicitly challenges some of the most basic assumptions about not only who we are as a society, but also certain cherished enlightenment ideas, particularly the notion that human beings naturally and instinctively desire freedom, one of the key foundations of democracy. Still, Carey's assessment is not grounded in a blind anti-Americanism: like his characters, like Tocqueville, he has seen America for himself (Carey teaches creative writing at New York's Hunter College), and this meticulously researched novel challenges the reader to reject the evasions and deceptions of democracy's birth from an empirical position rather than from mere cultural prejudice.
Parrot and Olivier in America is perhaps not Carey's best book, but it is a fine political novel of ideas that rewards patience and close attention.