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Brilliant surface

John Tranter reviews

«Bliss» by Peter Carey, 1981

This review is 1,100 words or about 4 printed pages long.
First published in The [Melbourne] Age, Saturday 3 October 1981, page 27, Weekend Review Books section, page 7, edited by Jennifer Byrne

Bliss is Peter Carey’s third book, and follows The Fat Man in History and War Crimes, both collections of short stories. The earlier books were rightly praised for the bizarre intensity of Carey’s imagination, although my second reading of each left me vaguely dissatisfied.

The very shortest of his early stories, ‘She Wakes’, impressed me more than most of his other work — it was subtle, sharp, written with perfect economy, and humane without being simplistic. Bliss, his first novel, has few of these virtues, though a mass of vivid and often grotesque incidents keeps the story moving for much of its length.

It begins with a neat trick — the death of the hero, Harry Joy, a successful 39-year-old advertising man. He survives the heart attack that had left him dead for nine minutes (medically unlikely, but never mind, this is fiction) and survives a dangerous heart operation, but emerges from it all convinced that he has really died and is living in a Hell peopled by malevolent beings, who act out the roles of his wife, son, daughter, business partner and friends. Their purpose is to torment him, and he is duly tormented for much of the book’s length. It is an existential fable, or is it paranoia writ large?

It’s an old theme, and for at least the first half of the book Peter Carey makes good use of it to flay various targets — unscrupulous advertising agencies, their clients who manufacture poisons and carcinogens, ambitious women, fascist hospital administrators, sadistic policemen and many others.

It is when Harry meets the beautiful hippy and hooker Honey Barbara that the magic glue of Carey’s imagination runs out of grip and the story falls apart. It is here that the author puts aside the theme of life as a literal Hell and, though brief references are made to it later, it never regains its central thematic importance.

Harry’s son bribes two corrupt doctors to certify Harry insane; he is locked up for a long time but escapes with puzzling ease. His faithless wife Bettina gains a sudden success in the advertising world, learns she has cancer and commits suicide by blowing up a room full of agency clients with three (only three?) bottles of petrol.

Though the hero of ‘Bliss’ is named Joy, there’s little of either emotion in the narrative. Harry Joy’s experiences involve spiritual lethargy, self-doubt, loathing, fear, madness, horror, death and resurrection. At the end of his tale the author bestows on him a mellow old age in a hippy commune and a peaceful death. Perhaps that’s the least he could do, having put Harry through so much in the service of a tangled plot.

To say that the second half of the story strains the reader’s belief is not really the point. After all, it is clearly a fable. But even a fable has to hold the reader with a logic of its own, and Carey seems to have tried on three different systems, only to abandon them one after the other.

The book opens with a type of existential paranoia reminiscent of some of Saul Bellow’s Hertzog, a complex and gripping system based on betrayal and self-hatred. A simpler urban paranoia takes over the motivating energies midway, based on fear of cancer, police and psychiatric brutality. The close of the book attempts to resolve this unhappy conglomeration of phobias with a lengthy and (to me) unconvincing paean to vegetarian food, hippy communalism and tree-worship.

Kurt Vonnegut is an obvious comparison. Like Carey, he started out writing science-fiction-like short stories, and moved on to novels that mixed SF, magic, life after death, communalist religion and a critique of admass society. But this doesn’t help us understand the flaws in Carey’s work — Vonnegut’s are essentially American — nor the virtues. And there are many good things in this novel.

Two gifts stand out clearly — an ability to describe vividly, and a manic energy. Carey can convey the sight, smell and feeling of a landscape, a lamplit interior, a police beating, an expensive restaurant, with power and accuracy. There are few Australian prose-writers with his ability to set up a scene and make you believe you are there.

The dark energy that drives much of the narrative is a more worrying thing. At its best it is like a blast of bad speed — a ruthless power drags the reader along on a boiling current of fear, cancer, perversion, torture and death. For a while you believe that Harry Joy is right, he is living in Hell, and the world is a sick conspiracy of torment and horror. But the energy does flag, allowing the narrative to stumble to a halt and appear to lose direction a number of times.

I see two possible causes for this, and for me they are the two main flaws in the book. One is simply technical, and when I began to read Bliss I hoped I wouldn’t have to end up saying this — but it must be said. I see this novel as a collection of thematically very disparate short stories, yoked together by an inadequate narrative structure. It fairly cries out to be made openly ‘discontinuous’. There’s the story of Harry’s Hell, the story of his son’s adventures gun-running in South America, the one about the woman’s discovery of her cancer and eventual suicide, the mental home story, the hippy commune story, and so on. I can find at least six, and perhaps ten, quite different stories in the book, and their failure to work either in tandem or in sequence is what wrenches the overall narrative out of shape.

A deeper problem — and one I feel hesitant about criticising — is an apparent lack of moral range and depth. I’m not talking about moralising, God forbid, but the sort of profound questioning that lends depth even to a writer as lunatic as Céline or one as cynical as Maugham.

Bliss begins and ends with death, and between them at least a dozen others are reported, but what brand of eschatology sees unethical advertising as its main focus of evil, and vegetarian communalism as its only salvation? At times Carey seems like an aqualung diver without enough weights on his belt, trying to reach the depths, but bobbing back up to the surface again.

But the novel does have a brilliant surface, and tells us terrible and necessary things about the world we have made for ourselves. Whatever its faults (and bad proof-reading is a minor one), it is a brave book throughout, and a rewarding one for much of its length.

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