Parrot and Olivier in America

Peter Carey can write. This may be his best book

“But now Poole shrieked. He pointed and who – even Lord Devon – could not follow his gaze? A fiery angel had appeared upon the roof, its hair ablaze and streaming upwards, fire right down its spine. It ran along the ridge and flew into the air, smashing into an old oak through whose ancient branches it crashed noisily before passing out of sight. Three others followed, forgers rising like hatchlings in the night, their cries beyond the edge of nightmare.

‘Run,’ my father cried, ‘Parrot, run.’”

Peter Carey can write. His Parrot and Olivier may be his best book. It may even be the best book of the twenty-first century so far. Ridiculous, of course – who can possibly make such claims? The Booker Panel didn’t even give P & O top spot in 2010, reserving that accolade for The Finkler Question – which shows what they know.

P & O has a plot of sorts – I’ll come to that – but what drives the reader is not the desire to find out what happens next, but the much greater pleasure of what is happening now. The writing is such imaginative, virtuoso stuff, most of it, that it pins you to the page. ‘I’m happy where I am,’ says the little voice upstairs as you see the end of the page approaching, ‘please don’t make me turn over.’ Turning back is what you want to do, time and time again, just for the pleasure of the words.

The passage above where Parrot and his father are smoked out of their remote forgery on Dartmoor is just a moment, more or less self-standing and not particularly part of any greater design such as might answer to the name of ‘plot.’ So, here’s a proposition: no book can be called great if it relies primarily for its interest on what happens next.

I was mulling this over when a friend, Andy Duff  – author of a wonderful, about-to-be-published book on Sikkim – sent me an excerpt from ‘Pamuk’, (who I assume is Orhan Pamuk the writer). I hadn’t discussed the unimportance of plot with Andy, but there was his email in my inbox just entirely to the point. Strange. Possibly even wonderful. Here is what Pamuk has to say:

“What we call plot, the sequence of events in the story, is nothing but a line that connects the points we want to relate and pass through. This line does not represent the material or the content of the novel–that is the novel itself. Rather, it indicates the distribution throughout the text of the many thousands of small points that compose the novel. Narrative units, subjects, patterns, subplots, mini-stories, poetic moments, personal experiences, bits of information–whatever you choose to call such points, these are the large and small spheres of energy that urge and encourage me to write a novel.”

Quite so. These large and small spheres of energy, not the plot, are the novel itself. And if plot is the reason why you turn the pages, the novel may be readable and good for distraction; it can never be great. I’m currently reading ‘The Luminaries,’ by Eleanor Catton, the novel which won this year’s Booker. It is terrific, no doubt about it, the first chapter especially, but sometimes the warp and weft of the plot – it’s a murder/mystery – are pulled so tight that they strangle the pleasure of the words themselves. Great writing needs air. It needs to take its ease in the open not be rounded up for the purpose of furthering this ending or that. Who cares who dunnit?

Of course, there have to be some threads to hold a book together. So, P & O:, when, who, what? It’s the early 19th century, post French revolution. The characters are the young, sickly, libidinous French aristo, Olivier (loosely modelled on de Tocqueville) and Parrot, the lowly but artistic English engraver, forger, convict and scribe. They pass their childhoods in France and England respectively, they come together as master and servant on the ship to America, and they end up friends.

It’s all nice enough stuff. France, England and America back in the day, with old Europe divided up and every inch accounted for, while America was up for grabs. And how! If you had a shovel and rifle, you could head off into the virgin (give or take a few native Americans) lands west of Illinois and be as rich as you wanted to be. NorthWestern University (founded 1851) is not, as you might expect, in Seattle but in Chicago!

The fact that Olivier is loosely modelled on De Tocqueville matters not a bit for the purposes of the novel, but it’s an invitation from the writer to the reader, should he wish to pursue it. As I discovered after my second reading, De T’s book, Democracy in America is up there with the best of them, lauded by both left and right as “the greatest book ever written by anyone about America.” Who knew? That the wheezing, leech-ridden Olivier should engender such a thing, well well.

© Michael Tobert