Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi The Wicked Art

By Steven Robert Allen

MARCH 30, 1998: 

Peter Carey's Jack Maggs

In this loose retelling of Charles Dickens' masterpiece Great Expectations, Peter Carey succeeds in incorporating every basic element of the Dickensian world. Here you'll find orphans, thieves, unknown benefactors and secrets that reveal themselves with all the aching slowness of a late-night strip tease. You'll find class stratification, the pathos of the poor and hints of that familiar call to social reform. Every detail of this replication shimmers, from the slang of the street urchins to the stamps on the pilfered silverware. And, of course, even Dickens himself couldn't have created a more perfectly Dickensian name than that of Jack Maggs, the protagonist of this tale, a reflection through a slightly warped mirror of Abel Magwitch from Great Expectations.

Yet as if it weren't enough to successfully refashion what many consider to be the greatest book by the most respected novelist in the English language, Carey has exercised his considerable talents to create something even more significant. He has used Dickens' world as a clever setting for the playing out of several intricate and ingenious themes. In doing so, he has sculpted an utterly original, freestanding creature from the bones of its ancestor.

One of the most appealing aspects of Jack Maggs is its criticism of the art of fiction writing itself. Carey's vehicle for accomplishing this criticism comes in the form of Tobias Oates, a young writer who has achieved fame by writing farcical novels. It is no coincidence that Oates shares several biographical notes with Dickens himself. He, like Dickens, was raised in poverty, maintains a deathly fear of losing his precarious wealth, attempts to confront his fears by writing obsessively about the poor and cheats like a dog on his wife.

Oates meets Jack Maggs while he is working as a footman at the home of an admirer. Using a hypnotic technique called Magnetism, the writer provides Maggs with the temporary relief from an intolerable psychosomatic ailment. Once Maggs regains consciousness, however, he begins to worry that the writer has discovered secrets from his past which he would prefer to remain hidden. He visits the writer at his home, but despite Maggs' fears, Oates convinces him to undergo additional Magnetic experiments in exchange for helping Maggs find someone he seeks.

The writer's professed intention to help Jack Maggs is, of course, entirely self-serving. Using these techniques, Oates sketches the colorful, jagged pieces of Maggs' damaged psyche. The slow baring of the tortured man's story supplies the narrative thrust of the novel. It is Oates' character, however, that transforms Jack Maggs from merely compelling to something approaching greatness. Oates, you see, is a soul stealer who commits larceny every time he executes a few derisive wiggles of his pen. He sees Maggs as the foundation of a great work not yet written, a tight psychological knot that only a brilliant writer like himself could ever successfully undo. His sin, simply stated, is to treat those around him as characters rather than human beings. While Oates is neglecting his wife, child and lover, falling into massive debt and slowly sinking back down into poverty, Oates consistently proves himself incapable of shaking off the shackles of his own self-absorption, a shortcoming that prevents him from ever coming to terms with his myriad problems.

This novel is quite different from Carey's 1988 Booker Prize-winning work Oscar & Lucinda. In that book, Carey's prose was lush and fluid, possessed of a grace and tenderness that conveyed the sincerity of the love story more than any specific events in the actual narrative. Conversely, the language of Jack Maggs appears stripped and barren on the page--it is simpler, more direct, sometimes almost icy. Those familiar with Carey via Oscar & Lucinda may initially find that Jack Maggs appears emotionally barren as well. It becomes apparent, however, as you penetrate deeper into the novel, gradually adjusting to the difficult truth that Peter Carey no longer reads like Peter Carey, you will realize that this is far from the case. The stripped language makes the critical emotional moments in the book leap out with an intensity that astonishes.

Peter Carey writes the kind of novels you'd like to lug around with you everywhere so you can force them on your friends against their will. Jack Maggs feels around the awkward, beautiful, complex, infuriating relationship between life and literature in a way that disturbs and touches. Ironically, in a book that advances such a scathing criticism of the art of fiction writing, Carey has offered up the very elements of literature that make it so damnably essential to the human experience. (Knopf, cloth, $24)

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