Saturday, February 10, 2007

Expectations unfulfilled

On Tuesday the reading group met at Clare's house to discuss Jack Maggs by Peter Carey. Carey's True History of the Kelly Gang is the only book ever which has had a universal thumbs-down from the group – no one had been able to engage with it - and when Clare (who had not been a member then) suggested this book everyone groaned. In the end, however, we decided not to be so prejudiced and to give Peter Carey another chance.
It was a freezing night, and the fire in Clare's Victorian terrace was roaring: a fitting setting for discussing this novel set in Victorian London and featuring an eponymous protagonist not a million miles removed from the character Magwitch in Dickens’ Great Expectations and antagonists with parallels in its hero Pip and in Dickens himself. Like Magwitch in Dickens’ novel, Jack Maggs, a convict deported to Australia, has made good there and now returns to find the young man (in this case Henry Phipps) who once as a boy took pity on him, and whose secret benefactor he has been all along. Unaware like Pip of his true relationship to Maggs, Phipps absconds on receiving news of Maggs’ imminent arrival, and Maggs becomes involved as a ‘patient’ with the Dickens-like novelist and mesmerist Tobias Oates.
Clare introduced the book briefly by saying she had really liked it because it was a ripping good yarn. The recreation of the Dickensian story-telling mode and atmosphere had really pleased her, she said, and Doug, who – The Kelly Gang apart – is a big admirer of Carey, agreed. Jenny then scowled and said she liked a good yarn as much as anyone, but she didn’t think this was one: she thought the story was far too convoluted and meandering, with lots of extraneous elements and ends which she failed to tie up. Trevor agreed with her wholeheartedly about these faults and said that if Maggs and Oates hadn’t gone on that wild-goose chase to Gloucester, spending 20 pages on the coach journey, he might have finished the book in time, which he didn’t, and anyway there was nothing in the book beside story, which actually wasn’t enough for him. Doug and Clare countered, But that’s Dickens!
I then said that I did think it stood up as a pretty good ripping yarn, but that like Trevor I find story alone unsatisfying in novels, and agreed that if you read the book on that level it’s unsatisfying. I said I would wonder what the point is of simply writing a pastiche of a Dickens novel in this day and age, if I had not read the book as a postcolonial ‘writing-back’, and Ann, who is studying postcolonial theory for her PhD strongly agreed.
Most of the others looked at us pretty suspiciously, and feeling therefore somewhat like the school swots Ann and I talked about how Carey switches the narrative/focal places of the Magwitch/Maggs and Pip/Phipps characters, taking Magwitch from the periphery of Dickens’ Victorian-colonial narrative to the centre of his own, and exiling Dickens’ hero to the periphery. Australia in this novel, which in the Dickens novel is the ‘other’, is here ultimately anything but. By placing into the narrative a Dickens-type novelist who mesmerises Maggs in order to obtain his secrets and thus material for a novel (Maggs feels that Oates has stolen his soul), Carey explores in a dramatic way the process of colonial-novelistic cannibalisation. In the Dickens novel, Pip, who at first, like Phipps, tries to avoid the convict and is dismayed to discover he is his benefactor, comes to care for him, but Carey allows no such colonial false-heroic sentimentality. Neither does Carey give Maggs the narrative punishment of death which Dickens metes out (in the Victorian-colonial universe the only fate for an exile trying to return must be punishment). Instead, in Carey’s narrative Maggs learns to divest himself of his own colonial yearnings – his wish to ‘father’ the unpleasant Phipps - and to value the life he has built elsewhere.
Everyone else said that none of this had occurred to them in the reading of the book, and that they hadn’t even thought of the parallels with the Dickens characters – and certainly not with Dickens himself – even though they had read Dickens as children and even though the Magwitch/Maggs parallel had been mentioned when the book was suggested.
Ann then suggested that this novel is really nothing much unless read through the filter of Great Expectations, though of course those who had enjoyed it without doing so did not agree. I said that I had never been very happy with ‘writing-back’ fiction, as it seemed to me secondary rather than primary literature. I had often felt the same about a lot of feminist literature in which supposedly male texts were ‘recast’. Jenny eagerly agreed: she said that that sort of feminist fiction ‘re-gendered’ texts but ultimately retained their structures. At which point I got quite excited, as I have always maintained that it is only in structure and form and language that literature can be truly radical.
And then Mark arrived on his bike, true to form and too late to take part in the discussion, bringing in a blast of bitter night air, and Clare shut the door quickly and got out the boxes of chocolates she’d had for her recent birthday, and the room disintegrated into several conversations which were nothing whatever to do with the novel.
Our archived discussions can be found here, and a list of all the books we have discussed here.

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