True Confessions

Reading between the lines.
Feb. 11 1998 3:30 AM

True Confessions

Hughes speaks.

Jack Maggs: A Novel
By Peter Carey
Knopf; 306 pages; $24

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It's a fine time to be writing a Victorian novel. The last year has been one of Jane Austen's brightest; PBS and cable TV have given fresh life to Hardy, Scott, and all three Brontës; even Dickens got a Hollywood makeover this winter, his Great Expectations transported from Kent and London to New York and Florida. We have renewed our fascination with the close spaces of 19th-century England, and it is with those close spaces, the dim hallways and yellow glooms, that the Australian novelist Peter Carey's Jack Maggs reacquaints us.

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Already a best seller in England and Australia, Maggs marks Carey's second foray into Victorian England. His first, the Booker Prize-winning Oscar and Lucinda (1988), is now a major motion picture. Carey specializes in the picaresque, in one-man novels about larger-than-life social misfits who must cope with rotten childhoods, loveless families, hideous disfigurements, and secret shames. Orphans with tics and dwarfs without lips or teeth (Jack Maggs and The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith), 10-year-old parricides and sexually abused teen-agers (Illywhacker and The Tax Inspector)--Carey documents their stories in exhaustive, loving detail. There is plenty of humor in his books, some of it sharp and much of it just plain funny; and bizarre bits of magic that, though not always comprehensible, compound a real sense of menace.

Jack Maggs offers many of these Carey staples. It opens with the return to England of its eponymous hero, and uses a combination of linear narrative and flashback to tell a story that spans several decades. In broad outline, it echoes GreatExpectations, Dickens' story of Pip the waif who is befriended by Magwitch the convict, though Carey's book is also partly a reflection on how Dickens' novel came to be written. There are quite a few correspondences between the two novels, of which the play on names is only one. Like Dickens' Abel Magwitch, Jack Maggs has been exiled to the Australian backwaters. Both men have protégés: Maggs' is Henry Phipps, a much younger man who we think may be his son. Maggs returns from New South Wales, where he is now a citizen of good repute and considerable wealth, to England, where he is still a wanted man, to find Phipps, whose foppish lifestyle he has long subsidized. It is with Maggs' search for Phipps that the story begins.

Soon after his return, Maggs encounters Tobias Oates, a novelist and self-styled "cartographer" of the "Criminal Mind," of which Maggs is soon forced to become the hapless embodiment. Oates cuts a deal with Maggs: He will help the convict find Phipps if Maggs will agree to undergo a series of experiments in "Mesmerism." Their terrible sessions (click for a sample) anchor the tale and provide a framework for its telling. Through them--plus a cache of invisible-ink letters Maggs writes to Phipps in order to acquaint the protégé with his protector--we look into Maggs' tortured soul, and witness an Oates in all but tumescent pursuit of Maggs' life story, which he will exploit for his next best seller.

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T hough there is much that Carey takes from Dickens, he manages to separate his story from its archetype quite easily. Carey's is a metanovel--Great Expectations, the Australian version--that takes on the master and his work by first tenderly tucking them into its pages, then slowly exposing their vulnerabilities. What we end up with is a sharp postcolonial critique not just of one writer but of novel-writing as a whole.

Carey lays his trap by hewing close to Dickens in style and mood. Maggs' London is Dickens' London, only darker: a city whose humanity has long since run dry and whose juveniles--the Twists and Dorrits and Chuzzlewits and Maggses--are forced into lives of crime. The year is 1837--that of Victoria's accession--but we get a sense not of empire or of politely crumpeting tearooms but of decay and disease, of the more-Dickensian-than-Dickens underside of rapid industrialization and urban growth.

C arey does an impressive job as time traveler and tour guide. Maggs is delightfully atmospheric and full of peel-away details, shit-rimmed cobblestones and stinking. The quaintly elaborate names--Percival Clarence Buckle, Mercy Larkin, Sophina Smith--are a lively match for Dickens' Uriah Heeps and Augustus Snodgrasses. And the quaintly elaborate capitalization--Buckle "found his way into ... the sleepy arms of his Good Companion"--takes you further back, to Richardson and Pamela, as does this priceless request: " 'Turn over my pretty one, and raise your sweet white bottom in the air.' " But it is through the portrait of Oates, author, hypnotist, and all-round selfish bastard, that Carey brings his novel into its own. For Oates' pretensions--his impassioned defense of abused children; his overassiduous note-taking; his obsessions with criminality, mesmerism, and his wife's sister--parrot Dickens' own well-documented preoccupations. Jack Maggs is arching its brow at Dickens' vaunted causes, making them potentially smelly. And where a literal-minded parodist might have bound the narrative to Dickens and his doings, Carey gives the novel and its themes a full life outside them. If you've read the Victorian author, you get your insider's chuckle. If not, you still get a good yarn.

Carey's careful separation of 19th-century England from modern-day anywhere may be the key to our appreciation of the Victorian world, but it is his portrait of Maggs that allows you to collapse that distance and to really settle into his novel. Carey gives us the flawed, utterly romantic anti-hero of high Victorian fiction--absurdly tall, absurdly shy, absurdly proud, absurdly trusting, Maggs is a sighted Edward Rochester, a kinder Heathcliff. His scarred back and missing fingers, his tragic isolation from those around him, however, also make him identifiably Careyesque. Of course, Carey isn't the first author to use castaways to dramatize a world gone wrong. If anything, he makes a remarkably unsubtle play for your sympathies.

Carey's cheerful ham-fistedness turns out to be just what is called for to correct Dickens' lugubriousness. Suffice it to say that when Carey rewrites Dickens' ending--Maggs, unlike the late lamented Magwitch, does not die a miserable death--it is a perfectly delightful solution. Maggs is given an out. In fact, all the sympathetic characters in the novel are given outs. They are allowed to transcend their particular poverties--of class, gender, or nationality--in a way Dickens granted precious few Micawbers. Carey even reclaims that slighted continent, Australia. It isn't just a convenient dumping ground for convicts, he tells us, with the ticklish pride so typical of the expatriate (Carey lives in New York). Jack Maggs' burgeoning dignity and the choices he makes at novel's end give 19th-century Australia the bourgeois stature it lacked in Dickens' novel, allowing the country to become a place of hope rather than of exile. By the same token, Jack Maggs' triumphal march burnishes the literary moment to which its author lays proud claim, restoring the 19th-century English novel, that much-maligned instrument of colonial oppression, to a well-deserved place in the sun.

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