Like his 2006 novel, Theft: A Love Story, Parrot & Olivier in America finds Peter Carey engaged in a dual narrative, on the one side Olivier (an apparently thinly-veiled rendering of Alexis de Tocqueville, author of Democracy in America) and on the other, a man known as Parrot (or Perroquet or eventually John Larrit, a man with no obvious historical precursor although there are thinly veiled studies of other celebrated historical figures such as famous ornithological painter Audobon in the character of Watkins, so historical precedence can’t exactly be discounted in the character of Parrot). Parrot is in many ways like Theft‘s Butcher Bones, in that he has an artistic bone or two in his body and moves among artistic types and offers Carey the opportunity to wax lyrical on all manner of art – but whereas Butcher Bones was the hub around which much of Theft revolved, Parrot’s movements are largely subject to the whims of others – first of all, his printerly father, then a one-armed Frenchman by the name of Tilbot and then, finally, by Olivier himself (or, to give him his full name, Olivier-Jean-Baptiste de Clarel de Barfleur de Garmont). Olivier, a sheltered son of pragmatic survivors of the French revolution, is sent to America ostensibly to report upon the new and apparently remarkable American penal system in the company of Parrot, who has been given tight hold of the purse strings as well as requested to spy on young Olivier for Tilbot and his mother. Like characters out of Sterne or Fielding, the two men engage in all manner of adventures, first as ribald opponents (each doing their utmost to wind each other up aboard the decks of their ship, par example) but then later, ever so gradually, as foil, compatriots of sorts, as they travel about the country. All of which, if truth be told, is something of a grind.
Imagine, if you will, Sir Percy Blakeney, the idiotic fop at the heart of the Baroness Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel, relating a Quixotic tale of American travels a la Dickens American Notes. Frequently the character of Olivier grates on you like fingernails down a blackboard. Of course, Olivier allows Carey to make slim social satire at the expense of America:
‘In America, everyone is in a state of agitation: some to attain power, others to grab wealth, and then they cannot move they rock. They dig canals, they tear along the rivers in a rage of machinery, the engines pumping like sawyers in a pit, the shores denuded of their ancient trees.’
This satire reaches its apotheosis at the end of the book when Olivier stamps out of America declaring that democracy will lead to no good, will lead, in fact, to America having an idiot as its president one day – a claim that Parrot (who we have always slyly liked) poo-poo’s which leaves us wondering whether or not we were ever supposed to like Parrot or whether he was in fact some dupe. Perhaps he is a dupe of one kind or another. Perhaps all of the characters are dupes. About two thirds of the way through the book, Parrot’s painterly wife is tricked into buying a house which gives Carey the opportunity to make slim social satire about the property market.
More problematic (at least for this reader) was the humour itself. Frequently those things that you gather are to be read as being funny feel like the kind of jokes an unfunny person makes in a room of people all of whom are busy dying inside, waiting for the night to be over. At one point, Parrot finds he ‘had no idea what was being said’. Frequently the same could be said for the perplexed reader. (Such is the nature of the most literary of literary novels – events occur but are related in such convoluted, tongue in cheek language, you are actually hard pressed to describe what has just gone on. Read the scene in which Parrot & Olivier become firm friends to see what I mean. There are ruffians, there is a gun, one person is arrested, one person flees the scene – but what happens? I couldn’t tell you.) Both Parrot and Olivier (for each, read Peter Carey) enjoy the twists and turns of their punning minds to the nth degree, eloquent expressions of elegant expressions curling in on themselves like wispy smoke. By the end of the novel, a romance between Olivier and a young American girl runs in virtual parallel to discussions regarding the soul of America, democracy:
‘Le systeme democratique, naturellement. It is as without plans as it is without energy, as incapable of harm as it is incapable of good. It is powerless and passive, It lets society marcher tout seul without trying to direct it.’
Much of this could read like a description of the novel itself. What we have here, in amongst this most ‘impossible of friendships’, is a rambling picaresque. If you are one of the ‘scholars’ Carey refers to in the Acknowledgements (who may or may not find what Carey has done inappropriate), with a firm knowledge of the life of de Tocqueville, it may be that there is much here to tickle your funny bone. If you are not a scholar of de Tocqueville, I wonder at how much amusement there is to wring out of these pages. But then I thought the same thing about Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang too (that if you didn’t know much about the Kelly Gang there was much in the novel that was incomprehensible). Which could also imply of course that I am an enormous stupidhead (it’s been said before and will no doubt be said again); but I can’t help thinking that a novel that sets out to be appreciated by scholars of de Tocqueville is setting the bar quite high.
Any Cop?: Firmly in the ‘not for me’ camp, if you are a fan of Carey, and particularly if you are a fan of either Theft or True History of the Kelly Gang, there may be much here that you’ll more than likely get a kick out of.