Saturday, February 21, 2015

Hewers of wood, drawers of water, and inspectors of prisons

I have a long relationship with the cover of this book (Parrot and Olivier in America, by Peter Carey).

Gosh, I love that cover art. The red ink, the handwritten title! Every time I went into a Waterstones I would end up picking it up and considering it, but it's a chunky book to have to fit in your suitcase, not to mention the price of hardcovers; and then the description just didn't seem all that interesting. "An irrepressibly funny portrait of the impossible friendship between a master and a servant." The heart wants what it wants, and the heart likes the cover art way better than that description. But sometimes fate intervenes: I found a copy of the UK hardcover at the Newberry book sale over the summer priced at only $2 ("...that must be a mistake!" said the checkout volunteer as I mentally willed her to just finish the transaction) and obviously.

This was a very enjoyable book in the end, although it gets off to a slow start. The story is told from the perspective of Olivier, the French aristocrat, and Parrot, his multi-talented servant/secretary, in alternating chapters. Parrot is pretty clearly the "main" character here in terms of development/mystery/conflict/interest, although, fittingly for the society they're living in, Olivier's chapters provide the real start-to-finish timeline for the novel as well as the engine for the plot in the novel's present. The book starts out with each character narrating his childhood; you then get Olivier narrating up to the "present"; then Parrot comes into the story, and we find out about his intervening years as we go along.

Parrot's life in particular is shaped by a whole slew of historical forces, and I recognized a lot of the things Carey was playing with in terms of the movement of people and ideas. I feel like there's a more sophisticated reference to make here than Forrest Gump, but let's don't stand on ceremony; Parrot's life story at times feels a bit Gumpian, not because he crosses paths with famous people and events but just because of the sheer number of settings he goes through. He's also blessed by his author with intelligence and skills that make him an equal with Olivier. It's not just "a master and his servant" in other words, but rather more a story of how this guy ends up as a servant as one odd episode in a life full of odd episodes; odd episodes that are nevertheless all firmly within the experience of the working class at this time. I felt aware of all this as I read, but I was still moved by the pathos of his situation.

The inside flap of my copy describes the book as "an improvisation on the life of Alexis de Tocqueville" and although that description made me skeptical at first, in the end I was totally on board. Somehow Carey manages to strike the right tone of being historically inspired but not quite claiming to be historical fiction, if you follow. Describing it as an "improvisation" is actually perfect: it's pulling out the really fascinating aspects of Tocqueville's life and world and blowing them up so you can get inside and really look at them. As you know(?), I often approach historical fiction with a heavy dose of skepticism, but this book seems like a good example of how fiction can be a means of interpreting and commenting on a particular time and place. Plus it's just plain fun to read (once you get past the childhood chapters, those are slightly rough going although key to the character development).

Now: a final note; an extremely mild observation. This book seems like an example of something else, the diversity problem in publishing, as it was apparently shortlisted for the 2010 Man Booker Prize. Now, I don't know how those awards work and I have even less clue what else was eligible in 2010, but while I enjoyed this book and thought it was really masterfully written I have a hard time seeing it as major-award-worthy. This isn't to take anything away from the book or its author whatsoever, and I've already noted that it succeeds at something I don't often see books succeeding at; but just, when I think about the whole world of UK publishing and English-language writing... it just strikes me as a data point that would, on its own, support the notion that the publishing industry favors established white guys writing about white guys. I will leave the strong criticism to people who actually have a clue about the real world. If I'd read this in 2010 it might have made it onto my shortlist of best books published in that year, but as we all know I only ever read two books a year that were actually published in that year so that's not a particularly high honor.

If there are awards for cover art though, I'm behind it all the way.

1 comment:

  1. "("...that must be a mistake!" said the checkout volunteer as I mentally willed her to just finish the transaction)"