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November 01st 2010 print

Geoffrey Luck

Peter Carey’s Bootleg Tocqueville

Living in New York for twenty years, it was inevitable that sooner or later, Peter Carey would discover Alexis de Tocqueville. For the twice-crowned Booker Prize winner, and the world’s most adept author at building a novel on the frame of someone else’s work, finding Democracy in America must have lit up his mind like a religious vision. The result was the strange and strangely-titled Parrot and Olivier in America, first published in Australia last year, and short-listed but wisely passed over for the 2010 Man Booker Prize. On his own website, Carey describes the book modestly as “a dazzlingly inventive re-imagining of Alexis de Tocqueville’s famous journey, brilliantly evoking the Old World colliding with the New”.

It is nothing of the sort. It is a garbled, convoluted and unbelievable story stamped with the flourishes of the author’s trademark extravagant turns of phrase. The extent to which Carey has borrowed, adapted, corrupted, distorted—in fact, used and defiled—the original masterwork for his own highly political purposes would not be apparent unless read against De la Démocratie en Amérique. Tocqueville’s work is freely available, online, in the original translation of 170 years ago by the distinguished English journalist Henry Reeve. The prose of that other era is lucid and unpretentious, but riveting, right from its opening sentences:

Amongst the novel objects that attracted my attention during my stay in the United States, nothing struck me more forcibly than the general equality of conditions. I readily discovered the prodigious influence which this primary fact exercises on the whole course of society, by giving a certain direction to public opinion, and a certain tenor to the laws; by imparting new maxims to the governing powers, and peculiar habits to the governed.

Contrast that with the novelist’s exuberant use of jarring adjectives, in this description of his fictional Comtesse de Garmont:

I saw from the crepe skin on her cheek that she was already hearing the thundering clocks of history which she knew were about to strike their awful bells.

or of the Parisian painter-girl Mathilde:

She rose, wineglass in hand, barefooted, her arms open, and all the velvet shadows of the room held inside her gorgeous clavicles.

For most of us, tackling Tocqueville’s two large volumes, first published in 1835 and 1840, may be a daunting task. However, Tocqueville’s Discovery of America by Leo Damrosch, the Ernest Bernbaum Professor of Literature at Harvard, not only brilliantly summarises Tocqueville’s thoughts but also interleaves them with the observations of contemporary travellers—Dickens (“such deadly leaden people”), Fanny Trollope (“They wince if a breeze blows over them, unless it be tempered with adulation”) and Henry Thoreau (“Dull but capable, slow but persevering, severe but just, of little humour but genuine”). Captain Frederick Marryat, Mark Twain, the French economist Michel Chevalier, the Scottish writer Thomas Hamilton and another Scot, the explorer Captain Basil Hall, all get bit parts, and there are more than thirty line drawings of the period and its principal actors. In less than three hundred pages, it enables a perceptive reader to discern what Carey has invented, and what he has stolen. Damrosch gives an excellent index, and copious notes, although unfortunately there is nothing on the page to direct the reader to them.

Today we applaud the exploits of young mountain climbers and round-the-world solo sailors. Beside them the achievement of Alexis Charles Henri Clérel de Tocqueville was absolutely heroic—by both physical and intellectual standards. A young French aristocrat, twenty-five years of age, brought up in the cocoon of his privileged class structure, but in the shadow of the guillotine that had taken off the heads of many members of his family, sets out across the Atlantic to find out if the democracy of the new American republic could offer Europe an alternative model to the rule of the mob. A monarchist by birth and breeding, he knows that the institution of monarchy is finished, but he is apprehensive.

By coach, the new steamboat, on horseback and often on foot, he pursues the answer to the question from the Canadian border to New Orleans, from Philadelphia to the Great Lakes. He is shipwrecked on the Mississippi, trusts an Indian savage who spoke no language that he knew to guide him through the western forests (which then began a mile from Detroit), endures a most bitter winter (which proves to be the last lash of the Dalton Minimum), and spends many mosquito-tormented nights in the log cabins of backwoodsmen. To get to Louisville, he wrote, “we went forward on foot through the woods and mountains of Kentucky, where no loaded wagon had passed since the beginning of the world”. He exults when he discovers, at the limits of the frontier, “a place that the torrent of European civilisation had not yet reached”. Near Memphis, he finds a copy of Shakespeare in a log cabin and sits down to read Henry V, and sees poetry in the young America: “Do you wish to behold the impetuous and irresistible stream of time flowing before your eyes? Seat yourself in the house of an American pioneer and read Shakespeare there, in the shadow of the virgin forest.”

But in the cities he is feted as the French Commissioner, come to inspect prisons, the shrewd pretext under which he escaped a risky political situation at home. He interviews more than two hundred people, from presidents, politicians and bankers to slave owners, frontiersmen, riverboatmen and prisoners.

Tocqueville was accompanied by his best friend, Gustave de Beaumont; the two young Frenchmen, both lawyers and magistrates, complemented each other in the project. Beaumont was the cheerful extrovert, able to charm any group of strangers with his style, or his flute. Tocqueville, Damrosch explains, “was easily excited by ideas that interested him and a compelling conversationalist with intelligent companions of any social class”. In that pre-electric world, our term “switch off” had not been invented, but Alexis could shut down: “Whenever someone fails to strike me with something unusual in mind or feelings, I so to speak do not see him.”

The mountain of scrupulously compiled notes, in a scrawl (crottes de lapin—rabbit turds) that his translators found so difficult, enabled him to summarise in his notebook the two great principles he saw as underlying American democracy:

1st. The majority may be mistaken on some points, but finally it is always right and there is no moral power above it.

2nd. Every individual, private person, society, community or nation, is the only lawful judge of its own interest, and, provided it does not harm the interests of others, nobody has the right to interfere.

What fascinated and perplexed Tocqueville was “the spectacle of a society going forward all by itself, without guide or support, by the single fact of the concurrence of individual wills”. He found the explanation in his term interet bien entendu—interest properly understood—writing: “The principle of this republic is to make individual interest merge with the common interest. A sort of refined and intelligent egotism is apparently the pivot on which the whole machine turns.” He continued:

The doctrine … does not produce great sacrifices, but day by day it prompts little ones. By itself, it cannot make a man virtuous, but it shapes a multitude of citizens who are orderly, temperate, moderate, foresighted and masters of themselves … if morality were strong enough by itself, I wouldn’t regard it as so important to rely on utility. If the idea of what is just were more powerful, I wouldn’t say so much about utility … it’s because I see that morality is weak that I want to place it under the protection of interest.

Damrosch describes this as an incredible insight of political philosophy from a twenty-six-year-old, anywhere.

But of course, there is more. Because Tocqueville came as a nobleman, he inherently distrusted democracy. “I have an intellectual attraction to democratic institutions,” he wrote, “but by instinct I am aristocratic, which is to say I despise and fear the crowd. I passionately love liberty, legality, and respect for rights, but not democracy.” Throughout his trip, and for the three years after that it took to complete volume one, he wrestled with its deficiencies. For France, he found what he was looking for when he decided, seemingly reluctantly:

the middle classes can govern a state. I don’t know whether they could do it creditably in truly difficult political situations, but they’re adequate for the ordinary pace of society. Notwithstanding their petty passions, incomplete education and vulgar manners, they do definitely supply practical intelligence and that turns out to be enough.

Tocqueville was intensely interested not merely to describe the structure of the society he was observing, but also to discern what it might become. A phrase from a Boston editor, Jared Sparks, who was writing a biography of George Washington, set him thinking: “The political dogma of this country is that the majority is always right.” Damrosch observes that the Frenchman had the perspicacity to see in that remark the potential for a stultifying tyranny of the majority; only in hindsight could Americans appreciate its real force. “Once an idea has taken hold of the American people’s minds”, Tocqueville wrote, “whether it’s a just one or an unreasonable one, nothing is more difficult than to uproot it.” There followed what Damrosch described as one of the most profound and melancholy passages in Democracy in America:

In America the majority erects a formidable barrier around thought. Within its limits a writer is free, but woe to him who dares to go beyond … In democratic republics, tyranny leaves the body alone and goes straight for the soul. The master no longer says, “You will think like me or die”; he says, “You are free not to think like me, and you will keep your life and your goods and everything else, but from this day forward you are a stranger among us … You will remain among men, but you will lose your rights to humanity. When you approach your fellows, they will shun you as an impure being, and even those who believe in your innocence will abandon you for fear the others will shun them as well. Go in peace, I leave you your life, but the life I leave you is worse than death.”

In what was perhaps the most brilliantly perceptive view of the future of the United States (and, we might say, by extension, Australia) Tocqueville foresaw that despite the primacy of individuality in a democracy, everyone would turn to the government to help attain their goals:

The scope of the central power expands imperceptibly in all directions, even though everyone wants it restrained. A democratic government, therefore, increases its power by the mere fact that it continues to exist. Time is on its side. Every chance event works to its advantage. The passions of individuals assist it without their own knowledge, and one may say that the older a democratic society is, the more centralised it becomes … it is easy to see that most of the ambitious and able citizens in a democratic country will work relentlessly to expand the social power, because they hope to control it themselves one day. It is a waste of time to try to prove to them that too much centralisation can be harmful to the state, because it’s for themselves that they are centralising it.

Tocqueville’s great humanity and lack of prejudice were troubled by America’s two deprived races: “The Negro is placed at the furthest boundary of servitude, the Indian at the extreme limit of liberty.” By the time he arrived, fifty years after the Declaration of Independence, not many Indians were left. In his notebook he wrote: “The Indian races are melting in the presence of European civilisation like snow beneath the rays of the sun.” And, more acidly: “It would be impossible to destroy men with greater respect for the laws of humanity.” All the Indian tribes that once lived in New England—the Narragansett, the Mohican, the Pequot—were only a memory. He met the last of the Iroquois; they were begging for money. And he understood why the Indian could not adapt: “He smiles bitterly as he sees us torment our lives to acquire useless wealth. What we call industriousness, he calls shameful servitude, and he compares the worker to an ox laboriously ploughing its furrow.”

As for slavery, John Quincy Adams, the former President, impressed the travellers with his analysis:

Every white man in the south is an equally privileged being, in that his lot is to make the Negroes work, without working himself. You cannot conceive to what a degree the idea that it is dishonourable to work has entered into the Southern spirit.

Tocqueville was uncompromising about the immorality of slavery; his only concession was that “those who accepted this dreadful principle in the past are not equally free to abandon it today”. As to where it would all lead (and did so in less than thirty years) he had no doubt: “The threat of conflict, more or less distant but inevitable between blacks and southern whites, haunts the American imagination continually, like a bad dream.”

Leo Damrosch skilfully selects from the vast range of Tocqueville’s observations of American life and social character to reflect the rawness, energy, prideful defensiveness, commercial obsession and religious fervour in the young nation. He was astonished by many of them: it’s intriguing to test how many of the traits apply today.

An American doesn’t know how to converse; he debates. He doesn’t discourse, he holds forth …

The Americans are a nation of merchants, devoured by a hunger for wealth, which brings many far from honourable passions along with it, such as greed, fraud and bad faith …

The entire society seems to have merged into the middle class …

There were no masters and servants:

By nature neither one is inferior to the other; they only become so temporarily as a consequence of the contract …

An American girl never ceases to be her own master. She enjoys all of the permissible pleasures without abandoning herself to any of them …

(An observation Carey appropriates, almost verbatim.) Tocqueville could not understand how they could be coquettes and puritanical too. Nor how they changed:

After marriage the fun was decisively over … She lives in her husband’s home as if in a cloister.

Of work:

Each day the worker becomes more skilful and less industrious, and one may say the man in him is degraded as the worker improves … nothing tends so much to materialise man and to eliminate every trace of soul from his work than great division of labour.

This, seventy years before Frederick Taylor’s time-and-motion studies led to his landmark Principles of Scientific Management which triggered modern industrial turmoil over work and motivation.

And finally, regional characteristics:

The Southern is wittier, more spontaneous, more open and generous, more intellectual and more brilliant. The Northern temperament: coldly burning spirit, serious, tenacious, egoistic, cold, frozen imagination, respectful of money, industrious, proud, a reasoner.

Closing Leo Damrosch’s book is to be jerked back to the present from an almost mythical time when nations were young, and the young could have the adventure of a lifetime exploring them. Reading a novel about it is as poor a substitute as watching the movie Ben Hur in order to understand the Roman empire.

Peter Carey comes to the Tocqueville drama with a reputation of using other authors’ works as crutches for his novels. They are not historical novels in the traditional sense, but stories with an historical setting; Carey’s flair is in his usually scrupulous and detailed research of the habits, the industries, the social culture of the period, applied to embellish a theme he seems unable to invent for himself. In a reversion of Dickens’s Great Expectations, Jack Maggs, a convict in New South Wales returns to London to find the “son” whom he made wealthy. The True History of the Kelly Gang is artful and elegant, but merely an imaginative fleshing-out of a well-known story. In My Life as a Fake, Peter Carey borrowed from the Ern Malley literary hoax of sixty years earlier, even to the details—the letter from the invented poet’s sister, the prosecution for obscenity and the title of the fake poetry collection, “The Darkening Ecliptic”.

The thread running through all Carey’s work, as Rebecca Vaughan made clear in her postgraduate study of the author at Flinders University, was his simmering political flame. This is her summation of some of his works:

  • The Fat Man in History: The stories are vivid and moving interrogations of various kinds of colonialism.
  • War Crimes: The title story is a narrative of capitalism at its worst.
  • Bliss [Carey’s first novel]: Explicates his beliefs about industrial and consumer society and the way we treat our environment.
  • Illywhacker: Explores Australians’ attitudes towards themselves.
  • Oscar & Lucinda: A searing indictment of colonial practice, incorporating an Aboriginal viewpoint.
  • The Tax Inspector: An exploration of the plight of the poor and abused; an indictment of the sharp division between rich and poor in contemporary Sydney.
  • Jack Maggs: The devastating effects, both personal and national, of colonialism.

In his marriage of Tocqueville’s history and his own fiction, Carey calls to mind the traditional good luck advice to brides: “Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue—and a silver sixpence in her shoe.” Olivier, a young French aristocrat and lawyer, from a family that barely survived The Terror, is shipped off to America on a trumped-up commission to study prison systems. His over-protective mother arranges as his travelling companion an Englishman twice Olivier’s age, who began his working life as an uneducated printer’s devil in a printery manufacturing counterfeit French assignats, but now is fully literate, fluent in French, inherently artistic, and worldly-wise as a result of having been kidnapped to Australia to avoid the English police. He is repatriated to Europe by a mysterious one-armed count, the Hero of the Vendée (the Catholics’ and royalists’ uprising of 1795) specially for the assignment to protect his young charge, but more particularly to spy on him for his mother, and to ensure he does not fall for any American girls.

Olivier-Jean-Baptiste de Clarel de Barfleur de Garmont, also scion of a Normandy family, takes part of his name in corrupted form from Tocqueville’s Clérel. In a play on history his mother’s family Barfleur is given the name of the Channel port from which an ancestor of Tocqueville sailed with William the Conqueror for the invasion of England. But here Carey begins to set the scene for the contrast and conflict in class that is the underlying theme of the book. Olivier is a nouille, a wimp. He is also a snob, an under-developed weakling, a pathetic hypochondriac needing the constant application of leeches for his headaches. His manservant, John Larrit, or Monsieur Parroquet—the Parrot of the title—comes to refer to him disparagingly as Lord Migraine. He is timid, and myopic as well. In one of the silliest statements in the book, he says of his Abbé-tutor: “He never learned I was shortsighted. I so wished to please him I shot things I could not see.” So in a shooting competition on his trans-Atlantic voyage, his poor eyesight becomes an advantage when other passengers fail to hit a floating barrel. When the inspiration suddenly struck him to “write an entire book about Americans and loudly declare them the most interesting creatures he had seen”, he would not deign to write it, but would dictate everything to his servant, “an ink-dipped ant who must scurry around the page at his command”.

Despite Carey’s repute as a bravura performer in the depth and accuracy of his research, his research and his inventiveness frequently blend to blur history. He jumps in and out of time like Dr Who in his police box. He credits the invention of carbon paper to his one-armed count, although it had been developed in England thirty years earlier and played no part in Tocqueville’s notebooks. He cannot resist the temptation to drop in popular sayings, hoping the reader will not notice the anachronism. “Gently, gently catchee monkey” or more correctly “softly softly” did not enter the language until the late nineteenth century, when the British army brought it back from the Ashanti wars. “Shoot the breeze” is certainly American in origin but the Oxford Dictionary dates its invention to 1941–43. Likewise, “rags to riches” was not thrown around in the New York of the 1830s—it didn’t originate until Horatio Alger’s popular “Ragged Dick” books were published from 1867 onwards, inaugurating the American myth of exemplary hardworking lives leading to wealth and honour.

It was when checking these “facts” in Parrot and Olivier that I realised this was Carey’s method of working—his plots derive from his research, and not the other way round, as with most historical novelists. Here is an example: in the 1830s pigs, owned by the poorer classes, scavenged freely in the streets of New York, to the frustration of the civic authorities and at some danger to pedestrians and carriages. Their impounding frequently led to riots. The “Tombs”, the forbidding city jail in which Carey had Parrot unjustly incarcerated, was formally the New York Halls of Justice and House of Detention. Carey combines the two pieces of research in his invention of a riot by pig owners in which Olivier shoots a ruffian trying to rob him and Parrot is arrested. He is released from the “Tombs” only by a blatant bribery that enables the author to express his low opinion of American justice as equalling money. The fact that construction of the Tombs did not begin until five years after Tocqueville had left is not allowed to spoil one of Carey’s dazzling inventions.

How much dramatic licence is a novelist allowed if his historical scenes are to be credible? Carey’s grasp of things mechanical is certainly not up to the standard of his romantic descriptions. The engine of a steamboat was not to be found on the hurricane deck, or the boat would have overturned. The original expression was not “two sheets to the wind” but “three sheets in the wind”. He has been romanced but left confused by American gun lore. First, he describes the gun Olivier is given as a long-barrelled pistol. Then he details its four barrels, two locks and two triggers, with the barrels rotating as they are fired. The gun he praised for the marvellous intricacy and ingenuity of its Yankee design has been identified by historic gun experts as a pepper-box, a cheap and sometimes crudely made weapon, often with five, six or seven barrels, that became popular for dealing with cardsharps and cuckolding lovers. There are examples in Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum. Its importance was as the historic bridge between the single-shot pistol and the revolver, and as the personal weapon of the Forty-Niners of the Californian gold rush. It did not have a long barrel, or two triggers. And it was not invented until five years after either Tocqueville or the fictitious Olivier visited New York. Samuel Colt’s Paterson, the first revolver, came later, with one barrel.

Unlike the real Tocqueville, Carey’s ersatz character ventures scarcely further in America than Philadelphia and Albany. There is not any interest in travel, nor space for it, because the author has allocated the last 150 pages to a love story, as the device by which he is finally to deliver his terrible judgment on America, its capitalism, its morals, its politics, its art, its plebeian society and (an echo of 2008) its bankers who lend to sub-prime borrowers only to foreclose. It is to be delivered through the symbolism of the utter humiliation of his anti-hero. And it turns on what is perhaps the least credible construct of the book. Olivier, effete nobleman, comes to his admiration of American democracy through his infatuation with the perfection of American beauty, the radiantly flirtatious Miss Amelia Godefroy:

Was not the American democracy preferable? Was not the French turmoil the result only of its inevitable path toward democracy, a treacherous confluence where the river of nobility met the ocean of equality? Was it not better to inhabit the future than the past? And if the future appeared half-made and raw, was it not also peacefully free of politics and parties?

But he was forced to confront himself:

I would die rather than be parted from her—but she would be destroyed by noble France. I had been, so many evenings, drunk on the possibility of America, but was I in love with America or Amelia?

In working through this theme to his ridiculous denouement, Carey takes us on an imaginary journey with Amelia’s father to test his fitness as a son-in-law—and on a merry chase through his own prejudices. In Albany, Tocqueville and Beaumont had been honoured guests at the Fourth of July commemoration. Tocqueville wrote, approvingly:

One mustn’t expect fine uniforms and embroidered costumes; one must reflect upon the great event that the fete commemorates, and see the emblems that engrave it on the people’s memory … in our fetes there is more brilliance, and in those of the United States, more truth.

At a young lawyer’s reading of the Declaration of Independence, Tocqueville recorded: “It was as if an electric current made every heart vibrate.” Olivier and Phillip Godefroy also witness the celebrations in Albany. But after sneers at the lack of martial splendour, the parade of trades and crafts (“how comic this solemn participation of the industries and trades”), Carey can only mimic Tocqueville: “It seemed that an electric current made all our hearts vibrate.”

The drunken French consul who accosts them in Charleston predicts that democratic liberty will one day bring a loony to rule America: “le fou viendra”. If a clue is needed to decipher these cross words, it was provided by Carey himself in an interview with John Freeman, editor of Granta, in September 2009:

Olivier sees what is possible for us to end up with—which is where we were a few years ago, a year ago, where you are suddenly looking at the possibility of fascism … you read Democracy in America knowing about George Bush, knowing about Sarah Palin and you will find that this French aristocrat has imagined this possibility already.

But on their journey, Carey is not finished with poor Olivier. Tocqueville, taken to admire the Niagara Falls, had crouched against the rock face behind the falls, thrilled by the sensation of enormous power thundering past (a visit that’s now possible in a wheelchair). When Mr Godefroy insisted on doing the same thing at the much smaller Kaaterskill Falls in upstate New York, Olivier was paralysed with terror and needed immediate first-aid with leeches.

Nevertheless, Olivier perseveres with his great study, and Carey plagiarises the titles of five chapters of Volume II, Book 3 of Democracy in America his character is supposed to have drafted: “I have completed these chapters in readiness for your return,” he says to Parrot:

* INFLUENCE OF DEMOCRACY ON WAGES (Tocqueville Book 3, Ch. VII)

* HOW THE GIRL CAN BE SEEN BENEATH THE FEATURES OF THE WIFE (Ch. X)

* EDUCATION OF GIRLS IN THE UNITED STATES (Ch. IX)

* HOW THE EQUALITY OF SOCIAL CONDITIONS HELPS TO MAINTAIN GOOD MORALS IN AMERICA (Ch. XI)

* SOME REFLECTIONS ON AMERICAN MANNERS (Ch. XIV)

Meanwhile the rationale for giving John Larrit his strange nickname is revealed. The Carolina Parakeet or Parrot is one of the most famous and beautiful illustrations in James Audubon’s folio The Birds of America. Monsieur Parroquet, now a skilled engraver, goes into business with his paramour Mathilda to produce illustrations of America’s unique birdlife for the European market. Carey is so grateful for the opportunity to borrow and trivialise Audubon’s achievement — even down to having an old crone devise Audubon’s unique technique of wiring bird carcases to hold natural postures — that he appropriates, word for word and without attribution, the introduction from the original 1827 edition, the Double Elephant Folio, when he says: “Let me quote from our prospectus”:

To those of you who have not seen any portion of the author’s collection of original drawings it may be proper to state, that their superiority consists in the accuracy as to proportion and outline, and the variety and truth of the attitudes and positions of the figures, resulting from the peculiar means discovered and employed by the author, and his attentive examination of the objects portrayed.

Carey seems to have a penchant for living dangerously. Parrot and Olivier in America is not the first book in which he paints himself into a corner and has difficulty convincing the reader that he has extricated his characters convincingly. If there had been anything more absurd than building a church of glass in Australia’s climate, it surely was boxing and carting it overland further north, and then sinking it on a barge. But he outdid himself in his tale of nineteenth-century America. After 360 pages he was in a quandary as to how to exit Olivier in sufficient defeat and shame. He confessed the difficulty to readers of Granta:

the argument about democracy and how it works with those two characters comes to a climax … in theory I could get there, but I didn’t know that I could get there, and the day I actually arrived at the point … it was exhilarating. What I’m saying is that it’s not so much the discovery of things about America, but the discovery that you can pull off this crazy idea that you have.

Carey’s solution is to insult the entire Godefroy family by branding them provincials and revealing the Garmonts as snobs. Olivier’s mother would never receive Amelia. It doesn’t ring true, but the marriage is off, and he is thrown out of the house, left to drag his own trunk back to New York and beg the charity of his old servant. Parrot, to underline the dialectics of the argument as to whether America might become better in theory or in practice, has made a success of the New World. This is the author’s final twisted insult to Tocqueville, who not only returned to France and wrote his major work, but also defied his mother’s aristocratic prejudices, rejected arranged marriage, and wed an English commoner for love.

Parrot and Olivier in America has no more to do with Tocqueville’s seminal work or is an evocation of the Old World colliding with the New than Mel Gibson’s Braveheart or Russell Crowe’s Gladiator are useful reproductions of Scottish and Roman history. The disappointing thing is it may be taken as such by those who read no further. Yet in his closing address to the 2010 Sydney Writers Festival, Carey berated Australians as mere market figures in a corporatist state, interested only in entertainment and not readers of literature: “We have yet to grasp the fact that consuming cultural junk … is completely destructive of democracy,” he intoned. Carey, not Olivier, is the snob. Parrot and Olivier may strike some as a good read, but just because it purveys Carey’s messages does not make it literature.

Reviewers have praised some of the final lines of the book as revealing the mingling of hope and pain, loss and rebirth in the young America:

Look, it is daylight. There are no sansculottes, nor will there ever be again. There is no tyranny in America, nor ever could be. Your horrid visions concerning fur traders are groundless. The great ignoramus will not be elected. The illiterate will never rule. Your bleak certainty that there can be no art in a democracy is unsupported by the truth.

Carey’s irony and his fierce politics have escaped them.