Parrot and Olivier in America, by Peter Carey


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In his Acknowledgements at the end of this novel, Peter Carey outlines its origin: “This novel began when I read Alexis de Tocqueville’s prescient Democracy in America.” He goes on to say that in the following three years he was “nourished by a hundred other works”. Australian-born, Carey has lived in the United States for the past 20 years — whatever the commercial reasons might be for that, I think it is a fair conclusion to assume that this is, at least in part, an homage to his adopted country.

I will admit upfront that I have two major barriers to appreciating this novel. First, while I am certainly aware of de Tocqueville’s work and appreciate its signifigance, I have never read it. Carey makes allusions later on in that Acknowledgement to sentences and phrases that he has borrowed and buried — alas, they would pass me by. Perhaps more significant in terms of my appreciation of the book, I am at best a reluctant Carey reader. I have some appreciation for his first Booker winner, Oscar and Lucinda, and rather enjoyed Theft, mainly because of my interest in fiction about the art world. I’ve tried most of his other works and found them wanting, particularly his historical fiction (which certainly has legions of fans). So when Parrot and Olivier in America was published, I gave it a pass — I figured if it made the Booker longlist I would pick it up then.

Which I have — and jumping to the end, my initial misgivings have been confirmed. I can understand why this book has its fans; I am not one of them.

Olivier-Jean-Baptiste de Clarel de Barfleur de Garmont is the de Tocqueville character of the book. The son of a noble and titled French family he represents the declining generation of the aristocracy of late 18th century France. A child of privilege, that privilege is disappearing — not only are the French aristorcrats being replaced, his family is on the bottom rung of that bunch because they failed to flee into exile when Napolean made his move. Carey opens the book with a chapter that reflects Proust:

Poor Maman. See how she suffers, her face gaunt, glowing in the gloom. In her youth she was never ill. In Paris she was a beauty, but Paris has been taken from her. She has her own grand house on the rue Saint-Dominique, but my father is a cautious man and we are in exile in the country. My mother is in mourning in Paris, although sometimes you might imagine her a penitent. Has she sinned? Who would tell me if she had? Her clothes are somber and loose-fitting as is appropriate for a religious woman. Her life is a kind of holy suffering existing on a plane above her disappointing child.

Parrot, on the other hand, is a child of the proletariat. The son of an itinerant journeyman printer, he is a representative of the future that is finding its way to fulfillment in Europe:

“Children remain tied to their father by nature only so long as they need them for preservation. As soon as it ends,” so wrote the great Rousseau, “the natural bond is dissolved. Once the children are freed from obediance they owe their father and the father is freed from their responsibilities towards them, both parties equally regain their independence. If they continue to remain united, it is no longer nature but their own choice, which unites them; and the family as such is kept together only by agreement.

More or less that’s it.

That last sentence is a fair summary of the premise of the book. While it takes a large number of pages for Carey to get them there, Olivier and Parrot end up in America, carrying the remnants of their French social and familial past to the new land of liberty. Olivier is ostensibly researching a book on American prisons, but he becomes fascinated by the new nation of liberty. Parrot is his servant (the novel does have an interesting, long diversion where he spends time in Australia as a prisoner on his way there, but it is just a diversion) who knows the old rules of engagement but discovers in the United States that they no longer apply. It gives away nothing to say that in this new land, they will find that their traditional roles become reversed.

Carey is a competent and talented writer and he carefully and deliberately unfolds that story in a reader-friendly fashion. He has obviously researched his material thoroughly — too thoroughly for this reader, because long sections of the book are taken up with explanations of the obvious that left me wanting only for them to end. While I appreciate the author’s determination to chronicle the “American” story, he does not have much new to add — his respect for the obvious history is so great that it comes to dominate the book.

All of which results in a curious flatness in the narrative, despite the author’s talents. Neither Olivier nor Parrot become real living characters; rather they are developed as examples of what the new nation produces when individuals from the background of the old Europe are located there. The story unfolds in an entirely predictable fashion and — if you haven’t enrolled in the value of the two central characters — there is an all-too-comfortable certainty of what will happen next.

I am not an avid reader of historical fiction, so the result for me was a growing frustration; I am certain that those who like the genre more than I do would find more to appreciate in this novel than I did. Having said that, Parrot and Olivier in America is no Wolf Hall — unlike Hilary Mantel, Carey is not trying to present a new version of the historical story, he is much more trying to faithfully recount a conventional one.

The novel is not a particularly difficult read. Indeed as Carey piles detail upon detail, I profess to a bit of admiration for the way he made the mundane and seemingly trivial a vital part of the story. But, since I could engage with neither his recital of the history nor the characters whom he places at the centre of the story, I found the reading experience to be dis-engaging rather than engaging. In one sense, I appreciate that Carey has chosen to pay tribute to his adopted land but as a reader I sure wish he had found a more exciting and intriguing way of doing it.

I am not surprised that Parrot and Olivier in America made the Booker longlist; I see it as a kind of lifetime achievement recognition for a novelist who has written historical novels set in a number of different places and now chooses to address the United States. I will be disappointed if it advances further — too many other authors have chosen to take more risks and produced far more interesting volumes than this one in the past year.


24 Responses to “Parrot and Olivier in America, by Peter Carey”

  1. dovegreyreader Says:

    I’m currently enjoying this one if only for its seemingly light-hearted take on life after giving up on The Room as far too depressing and a child’s narrative voice that just annoyed me senseless. Plus who’d have thought Peter Carey knew anything about Dartmoor…but I have a feeling I may weary of it now I’ve read your review Kevin.
    This year’s Booker is feeling very lack-lustre to me so far.


  2. Guy Savage Says:

    I think Lisa said she hadn’t liked Carey’s novels since he moved to America. Another writer I haven’t read.

    DGR: A child’s narrative voice…count me out.

    I say, after you work your way through these Booker nominees (a dull lot so far), you are going to have to read something really wonderful.


  3. KevinfromCanada Says:

    DGR: It certainly was not a punishing read — just sort of wandered along at a consistent 6 or 7 out of 10. I am approaching the halfway point of Rose Tremain’s Trespass and feeling the same way about it — the characters are interesting but it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. The Room is on its way and I can’t say that I am looking forward to it with eager anticipation. So far I would say it is looking like a very “conventional” list, although I am hoping Galgut, McCarthy and Murray will change that.
    Guy: I have been cheating a bit — in between Booker books I read a few chapters of The Tenants of Moonbloom, which I am thoroughly enjoying.


  4. Guy Savage Says:

    That’s a recent NYRB classics release, isn’t it? I signed up for their newsletter and give every release a good hard look. I just bought Pedigree since it’s from one of my all-time favs-Simenon.


  5. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Guy: 2003 actually (and yes it is NYRB). I hadn’t heard about it until earlier this year when someone (and I now forget who — if whomever it was drops in here, please remind me) mentioned it in a discussion about novels focused on buildings (Moonbloom is a rental agent who manages four near tenements in New York). It is also, of course, a “New York” book, a genre that I am slowly but surely working my way through.


  6. Guy Savage Says:

    That must mean that I recently saw it. I am always a few years behind.


  7. Sasha Says:

    I’ve only read one Peter Carey novel, Theft, and like you, I enjoyed it because it was about the art world. I like the language there too. And I do want to try Oscar & Lucinda if only because its premise is one I usually go for.

    With Parrot & Olivier — Well, beyond the fact that I thought it was really about a, uh, parrot, I know nothing of it, and haven’t been intrigued. Like you, I’m not a big fan of historical fiction.

    I’ve never been much interested in the Booker list, but it seems I’ll be persuaded to read very little of it.

    Thank you for the review. Definitely clears up the bit about the parrot, haha.


  8. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Sasha: Happy to have cleared up the confusion about the parrot. While it has been some years since I read it, memory says the Oscar and Lucinda is a better book than this one — unless for some reason the “American” angle has a special appeal.


  9. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Thanks for this one Kevin. I have to say nothing about it grabs me on your description. It sounds like a solid novel dealing with a topic that doesn’t hugely excite me. Solid on that basis just isn’t good enough to get on my TBR pile.

    It sounds readable but a bit dull. It doesn’t sound like one of the finest literary novels from the relevant regions from the last year.


  10. anokatony Says:

    Seeing as Carey has already won two Bookers, I don’t think he should be put on the list just for lifetime achievement reasons.


  11. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: I’d say the impression you summarize would be exactly my impession of how this book would land with you — I don’t think it touches any of your areas of interest.

    Tony: One can only speculate about jury politics, but I have to wonder if having taken the “radical” decision to keep previous winners MacEwan and Martel off the longlist, they had to put Carey on to show that the omissions were deliberate. Of the three historical longlisted novels that I have read, I’d rank them Levy, Mitchell, Carey. That is probably a reflection of my interests in the subject of each rather than overall quality — these three are all quite good writers. And if someone was looking for a substantial read to take to the cottage for a couple of weeks, I would say take any of the three. Alas, I don’t think good cottage reading should win the Booker.


  12. Trevor Says:

    Kevin, I didn’t read Theft when it was published a few years ago mainly because it didn’t make it on the Booker list. It sounds like I may be missing a book on the art world I’d enjoy. I keep looking for them and am tempted to read the new YA novel Heist just to get a fix (Sherry tells me it is a lot of fun), but maybe I should go with the Carey novel instead. Any advice?


  13. Trevor Says:

    And speaking off topic about the art world, did you get a chance to read David Grann’s most recent piece in The New Yorker about the world of art authentication and some of its more recent frauds? I always like his articles because of the path they take. One gets the sense Grann is taking you along the journey of enlightenment, allowing you to think one way and then undercutting that with some new knowledge he himself gained only later in the project. Often that later knowledge becomes the center of the article. This one didn’t disappoint.


  14. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Trevor: My biggest problem with Theft was that it could have been so much better than it was. I still haven’t read the Patricia Highsmith Ripley novel with the art world at its centre — it is being saved for when I need relief from some of this prize reading.

    I also haven’t read the Grann. Will look out for it.


  15. tolmsted Says:

    Kevin –

    I haven’t read it yet, but actually had the novel in hand yesterday to buy (I ended up passing it up for David Mitchell). I’m not sure how much you like to supplement your readings, but Peter Carey just had an excellent interview on KCRW’s Bookworm with Michael Silverblatt (I’ll put the link at the end of my comment). I’ve had lukewarm feelings about Carey’s novels as well – I never made it through Oscar & Lucinda, but I did finish True History of the Kelly Gang & His Illegal Self which weren’t terrible (high praise, huh?). He’s an author I keep wanting to appreciate but never seem able to.

    I bring up the interview because Carey discusses Parrot & Olivier as a critique on democracy. And he seemed to lean more in the direction of sharing Olivier’s fears than Parrot’s hopes. They also discuss it being the kind of great American novel which is no longer being written and the dumbing down of the reading public (who are interested mainly in plot synopsis rather than the art of literature which Carey seemed to feel rested mainly in the prose). Not having read the novel I’d be interested in your thoughts.

    As always, thanks again for the review!


  16. KevinfromCanada Says:

    tolmsted: Thanks for the link — and it raises an interesting point which I’ll ramble on about for a bit if that is okay.

    I don’t do very much supplementary reading at all, particularly in the area of authors explaining what their book is about. My reasoning is: If it is not apparent in 400 pages of reading the novel, perhaps he should do the rewrite instead of me reading his explanations about how to read it? If he can’t make the point apparent in the published book that I have paid for, perhaps the failure is his, not the reader’s? My image is one that I take from an artist (sorry, can’t remember who) who said: “When I put my signature on the painting, it exists in and of itself. My work has been done.” By all means, let writers promote their work — they are not allowed to tell readers how to read it.

    I think Carey is grossly inflating the nature of his book if he is linking it to a critique on democracy. There are far, far better treatises (indeed, better columns daily in the NY Times) on that subject than what is contained in this book. It is a decently-written look at a period of American history, not much more. As for ranking it with the “great American novels”, he is well, well back with this one. And to download that onto the “dumbing down of the reading public” is, quite frankly, offensive. I certainly make no reference to the “dumbing down of the American author” — although I do think a case could be made regarding this book.


  17. tolmsted Says:

    That’s what I get for trying to type up a quick comment at lunch. I think I completely mis-represented the interview and author! The great American novel comment was actually made by the interviewer, who was remarking that Parrot & Olivier explores the complexity of being an American – i.e. the American identity – and how no one was writing those kinds of novels (which he refers to as the Great American novel) anymore.

    As for the dumbing down of the reading public, both the interviewer and Carey commented on it in general, not necessarily in relation to whether or not readers appreciate his book in particular. Carey statement was that “we seem to have come to understand that a novel is a plot synopsis and so you will forever find the reviewing of books in this country to be mostly occupied with plot synopsis – this happens and that happens, and then – as if somehow the story was art. And that to retell the story was to understand the art”. I don’t want to clog up your comments with the full quote, but I found it very interesting and not wholly wrong.

    I agree with you that a book should stand on its own. But I do enjoy sometimes exploring it outside of the cover flaps. If the author has created an entire microcosm of words and plot that is fascinating and complex enough to want to take that extra step past just reading it and learn more? I see supplementary reading to be a lot like discussing a book with a friend – you get to find out the things you miss or see what other people take away from it. For example, I’ve heard multiple authors say that sometimes a reader will approach them and point out something they hadn’t intentionally put into the book, but which was completely obvious once it was pointed out. I like that… that there might be something in their own novel that even they didn’t get the first go round.

    Now I’ve rambled on. I hope I didn’t offend, I agree completely that an author’s explanation in defense of his/her book can be annoying and obnoxious. But if it’s more of a sharing, I actually do enjoy it.


  18. tolmsted Says:

    Wow, I just realized how long that was…. sorry!!!


  19. KevinfromCanada Says:

    tolmsted: No need for an apology — it was a thoughtful and well-reasoned explanation. And I appreciate the clarification regarding the interview discussion (I couldn’t access it) — I probably did go overboard in my response.

    While some of the observations about reviews being plot-oriented may be true, I think readers who want more do have other sources. I’d say about half the NY Times reviews (both daily and Sunday) do go beyond that. And the New Yorker’s longer pieces certainly do (and I wish there were more). And certainly the New York Review of Books does.

    I will also admit that there are lots of very good readers who revel in supplementary reading and that my grumpiness is more a reflection of personal taste than anything else.

    I think I will just avoid the Great American novel discussion, beyond stating that I do find quite a lot of good fiction is being written in the U.S. these days. Maybe not THE great novel, but some very good ones.


  20. Lija Says:

    Thanks for this helpful account. Like you, I’m not a big historical fiction reader, but I do occasionally enjoy it – when I feel like the book manages to really bring the characters alive, not just use them as symbols for something else. And it doesn’t sound like this book does that.


  21. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Lija: I certainly felt that Carey was more focused on creating a picture of the emerging young America than in developing Olivier and Parrot as characters (although he does do that as well, but I think they are meant more as representatives of their class, at sea in the New World). While I also had some problems with David Mitchells The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, I think it is a better example of developing characters inside a historical context, rather than using them to illustrate it.


  22. Tom C Says:

    I usually enjoy Peter Carey’s books but it sounds like this one is not his best. I still think he’g going to find it hard to improve on Oscar and Lucinda. I am not reading all the Bookers this year but have read Mitchell and am bout to read The Finkler Question and The Slap. Thank you for this interesting and useful review


  23. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Tom C: I think you might like this one better than I did. You have a greater interest in books about history and I suspect you would find more than I did in the contrast between the European aristocrat and proletarian with the emerging America.


  24. Enchanted Castle Alert & Booker Finalist Reviews « Frisbee: A Book Journal Says:

    […] to Kevin from Canada for reviews of both Rose Tremain’s Trespass and Peter Carey’s Parrot and Olivier in America. […]


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