Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey (2009) Knopf (2010) 400 pp
Tomorrow the Man Booker Prize longlist will be announced. Last year I didn’t go out and read the books as I did in 2008, though I have collected all of the 2009 shortlisted titles — with the exception of the ultimate winner. While I don’t know how much I’ll get involved in Booker 2010, I did try to read a couple of the contenders before the longlist announcement. David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is on most lists (though I don’t think it would be a worthy winner), Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists isn’t on most lists, but it finds its way on some (I have read and very much enjoyed The Imperfectionists, but the review hasn’t been posted yet). And, now, I have read two-time Booker winner Peter Carey’s well received Parrot and Olivier in America. Will he make the list again?
As much as I enjoyed Oscar and Lucinda, Carey’s picaresque Booker winner of 1988, I haven’t read more Peter Carey, not even True History of the Kelly Gang, his second Booker winner, though I bought both books on the same day. The plot of Oscar and Lucinda was unique and a pleasure to behold, but the book was also exhausting in its intricate detail. It takes me about five years to recuperate from reading a Dickens novel before I’ll read another, though I typically enjoy them (speaking of which, I’m due since the last Dickens I read was Our Mutual Friend in 2004). Perhaps it’ll be similar with Carey. But now, with Booker season on the horizon and a new book partially based on Alexis de Tocqueville and his trip to the nascent United States, it was time. I was just too intrigued to wait three more years.
Alexis de Tocqueville is a fascinating figure for those interested in the history of the United States. His aristocratic upbringing during the French Revolution uniquely combined with his liberal inclinations and led to fascinating insights about purported democracy and equality in the United States. These insights are still relevant today. In fact, Peter Carey said that what de Tocqueville must have really been worried about was Sarah Palin (click here for George Saunders’ piece showing that fear — hilariously).
With such thoughts in mind, the book begins. In this imagining Carey uses all sorts of poetic license. He doesn’t even have de Tocqueville as a character in his own book. Rather, de Tocqueville is played by the apparently more snooty Olivier:
I had no doubt that something cruel and catastrophic had happened before I was even born, yet the comte and the comtess, my parents, would not tell me what it was. As a result my organ of curiosity was made irritable and I grew into the most restless and unhealthy creature imaginable — slight, pale, always climbing, prying into every drain and attic of the Château de Barfleur.
Born in 1805 to French aristocrats, it is understandable, natural, that the young Olivier would sense some nameless fear throughout his youth. In fact, the Terror, he says, had been “the flavor of my mother’s milk.” He’s a nervous yet passionate young boy, a bit sickly, perhaps —
We can ignore nose bleeding for the time being, although to be realistic the blood can be anticipated soon enough — spectacular spurts, splendid gushes — my body being always too thin-walled a container for the passions coursing through its veins, but as we are making up our adventure let us assume there is no blood, no compress, no leeches, no wild gallops to drag the doctor from his breakfast.
— but he’s intelligent enough. He has a fascinating curiosity and a unique perspective already. For instance, one day he spies an invention hanging from some rafters, but the first thoughts he expresses to us aren’t about the invention itself:
Why it should be strapped, I do not know, nor can I imagine why my uncle — for I assume it was he — had used two leather dog collars to do the job. It is my nature to imagine a tragedy — that loyal pets have died for instance — but perhaps the dog collars were simply what my uncle had at hand.
This quote, from the first page, cheered me a great deal. I found the slightly paranoid mind of the young Olivier wonderfully captured as he pondered over the use of dog collars. However, soon such details expanded into paragraphs, pages, and even digressive chapters. I had a rough time for the first 100 pages or so because I kept wondering just how much of this type of admittedly imaginative absurd detail, which is also a feature of his plot structure, Carey could pack in. The writing is exuberant, but it tended to inflate the piece and to the point where I couldn’t sense the emotion anymore — and growing up an aristocrat in Napoleon’s time would be quite emotional. In truth, I got bored, and the slightest distraction was enough to lead me from the page.
During this time we also meet Parrot, who will become Olivier’s servant / companion in America. His boisterous introduction —
You might think, who is this, and I might say, this is God and what are you to do? Or I might say, a bird! Or I could tell you, madame, monsieur, sir, madam, how this name was given to me — I was christened Parrot because my hair was colored carrot, because my skin was burned to feathers, and when I tumbled down into the whaler, the coxswain yelled, Here’s a parrot, captain. So it seems you have your answer, but you don’t.
I had been named Parrot as a child, when my skin was still pale and tender as a maiden’s breast, and I was still Parrot in 1793, when Olivier de Bah-bah Garmont was not even a twinkle in his father’s eye.
To belabor the point, sir, I was and am distinctly senior to that unborn child.
— is a breath of fresh air, and we know that our misgivings about Olivier are okay since Parrot calls him Olivier de Bah-bah Garmont (he also callse him Lord Migraine, among other fun appelations). But Parrot’s narrative also lapses into digressions intricately woven into the narrative. I was tempted several times to quit the book, but I just had to see what would happen when they got to America, that being my main attraction to the novel in the first place.
But I don’t mind digressive books (some I love). It isn’t that the childhood of Parrot and Olivier (separated by a gulf of years) isn’t interesting. And it isn’t that the writing on the sentence level isn’t exceptional, because it is — take this example from when Parrot learns he can draw:
I knew Adam Smith before I reached fractions. Then I was put to Latin which my father liked no more than I did, and this caused us considerable upset, both with ourselves and with each other. It was due to Latin that my father got in a state and clipped my lughole and I grabbed a half-burned bit of kindling and set to drawing on the floor. I had never seen a drawing in my life, and when I saw what I was doing, dear God, I thought I had invented it. And what rage, what fury, what a delicious humming wickedness I felt. All of the floor and who will clean it? I had seen my daddy’s hand reach for his belt buckle and I was, ipso facto, ready for the slap. Yet at this moment I entered a foreign jungle of the soul. I drew a man with a dirty long nose. A leaping trout. A donkey falling upside down.
But my daddy’s belt stayed in his trousers.
I love that, years later, Parrot still experiences the emotion of his childhood self as he tells the story. I guess for me it’s that such high-strung, detailed prose is exhausting. But also, it can only sustain me for so long. Give me a paragraph or two, and I love it. Give me page after page and it’s starts to sound like a long-winded uncle whose not trying to reveal anything about himself but rather is just trying to be witty.
Thankfully, Parrot and Olivier come together on a boat sailing to America. It was rough for them but so much better for me. Carey’s writing remained fun, but it also served to reveal more than I felt it did in the first 100 pages. Here I was thrilled to see Olivier and Parrot interact, Olivier thinking he is so high above his servant that it is not improper to dictate his dissatisfaction with Parrot for letters written by Parrot himself. Here is the man coming to report on democracy in America. There’s also a wonderful scene, also one where Olivier is dictating to Parrot, when Oliver seems to be considering his servant a bit more, albeit by insulting him by dictating to him a lascivious (yet delightful) report on Olivier’s sexual escapades with Parrot’s lover.
When they do get to America, I began reading the book I’d hoped for. Olivier’s experiences lead bafflement at a people who seemed to want their leaders as uneducated as possible, where a farmer could be a banker, and where everything seems to revolve around money, with no interest — at least, certainly no skill — in the arts.
I had not known America would look like this. In my innocence I had hoped to find here a model for the future of France, or at least some sign as to how, if democracy was unstoppable, we might at least safeguard our future with certain principles or institutions.
Yet all I had learned was that when the mob was allowed to rule, a second mob sprang up beneath them, and the difference between the Americans and the French is that the Americans do not need to steal from their fellows when they can roam the countryside in bands, cutting trees and taking wealth. Anyone can claim a site for his château, whether he be a night soil man or a portraitist.
Furthermore, the prose slows down at times to allow the reader to dwell in the somber and often conflicting emotions, particularly the conflict of love and disdain. We see things that really bother both Olivier and Parrot, things they cannot cover up with wit. There are still digressions, including some lengthy backwards glances at Parrot’s time in Australia, but they felt more natural — or perhaps I was merely growing accustomed to the book, learning from it how to read it rather than wishing it were something different.
In the end, I enjoyed the book quite a bit. I still felt it was a bit unbalanced, even in what themes it was chasing down — it’s not a masterpiece — but it was a delightful excursion into an unreal past that says a lot about our precarious present.