My Life as a Fake
by Peter Carey
Knopf, 288 pp, $24.00
reviewed by Teddy Goff
My Life as a Fake culls its epigraph and much of its structure from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and like its inspiration it begs to be read as a parable of the risks of creation. Sarah Wode-Douglass is a London editor who becomes entangled in a mystery that will bring her eventually to Malaysia, Australia, Indonesia, and a host of other destinations she character never imagined she would visit. The impetus of all this is John Slater, somewhat renowned as a writer but more so as a socialite, who brings her largely against her will to Kuala Lumpur. There she encounters Christopher Chubb, an expatriate Australian with a history into which Slater begs her not to inquire.
Sarah, of course, does inquire, and discovers that Chubb, in younger years, penned a volume of poetry under the pseudonym Bob McCorkle. Apparently unfulfilled by this meager falsification, he creates an entire identity for the fictional McCorkle, complete with a lifetime’s worth of paperwork, documentation and letters. When the poems’ eventual publisher is prosecuted for indecency—the result of a gross misreading of an innocuous, if effete, literary allusion within McCorkle’s work—a seven-foot-tall man, remarkably similar to Frankenstein’s monster, claims to be Bob McCorkle and thus to have written the poetry.
Here, as in the corresponding moment in Frankenstein, the monster appropriates the narrative and begins to tell of his past. And, as in Frankenstein, the monster’s history is persuasive. Carey, however, is not content simply to restate Shelley’s moral; in fact, he adjusts it quite interestingly. Creation itself, he suggests, is never destructive, not even when what is created adopts a life of its own. Only when it forgets that it is, alas, a creature, imagining itself to be in control of its own existence, does turmoil ensue.
But Carey’s evident interest here is in the tale, not in those who people it or whatever bits of philosophy might spring from them. The most obvious example of this apparent unconcern for the people in his novel is Wode-Douglass herself. She has almost no personality beyond her curiosity in the story that unfolds; as if to excuse her readerly remove from the circumstances of her own life and those of the people who forcibly surround her, she says, “I read. I have no other life.” This is a momentarily compelling confession, but its potential significance is undermined by her own narration: My Life as a Fake is not the story of one woman’s destructive compulsion to read, and Carey seems to use her admission as justification for his failure to endow her with a coherent, or even noticeable, personality.
It’s a sleek, unself-conscious production, replete with portent and tension but lacking in characterization or development. My Life as a Fake might have been a fascinating response to Frankenstein and a discourse on the nature of literary creation. However, My Life as a Fake lacks humanity; to the end, it feels derivative of Shelley’s less finely wrought but more sympathetic work.