09 November 2011

A Different Approach: Peter Carey's 'Jack Maggs' for Dickens 2012

I've been recommending Peter Carey's 1997 novel Jack Maggs (UK ebook here, US paperback here) for almost as long as it's been around. I usually refer to it as a 'riff' on Dickens' Great Expectations--but I obviously need to be saying more, or less, because I'm not aware of a single reader I ever won for Jack Maggs that way.

Carey's US publisher clearly chose to go the way of saying less: the connection to Dickens has never been mentioned in American publicity for Maggs, perhaps on the assumption that huge chunks of its possible readership had never read Great Expectations, or hadn't reread it in so many years that they'd fear they'd forgotten too much of it, or possibly thought of it as an unpleasant bit of required reading best forgotten. Such generalizations are always tricky: most of the people with whom I've discussed this say they and everyone they know read it as teenagers and found it a difficult book to put down and one of their favorite Victorian novels. Still, it's long been customary to tell prospective readers that no familiarity with Dickens is required of readers of Maggs, and this is, in fact, true.

The next question that always comes up is whether Maggs is 'as good a novel' as G.E. Well, if we assume that such comparisons are meaningful, it would be only fair to point out that not many novels are as good as G.E. You can embrace Maggs without turning aside forever from G.E. Just as you can love Dickens and still find room in your heart for Carey.

Still, most readers of Maggs, I think, will focus on similarities and differences between it and G.E. Carey's title character has a great deal in common with Magwich, the escaped convict whom readers of G.E. first see encountering young Pip in the early pages of that novel. Maggs even has a Pip of his own, now (in 1837, when Carey's novel begins) grown up to be (like Dickens' Pip) something of a gentleman but (unlike Pip) neither hero nor protagonist.

For many readers, the most memorable and perhaps most disturbing character in Jack Maggs, however, will be a young journalist and emerging novelist, full of ambition but uncertain of success, newly married but already emotionally entangled with his beautiful young sister-in-law. His name isn't Dickens (it's Tobias Oates), but if you think your way back to 1837 and Dickens' situation prior to Oliver Twist, the resemblance is unmistakable. This is, needless to say, not Dickens as the most prized of all Victorian novelists: at best, it's an unsentimental (view of) Dickens, Dickens 'warts and all', or warts and then some.

Carey (born in Australia in 1943) has spoken of his long-standing interest in Dickens' Magwich, arguably the first Australian character in fiction. In this context, the first distinction between the two novels is that one is Victorian, the other postcolonial.

Still, for me, Jack Maggs is of particular interest as a novel that lets us think about how writers (like Dickens, or Tobias Oates, to name only two) rework their lived reality and transform it into fiction. (That's what I meant last time by 'a certain kind of novel'.) Maggs suggests how a writer somewhat like Dickens might have transformed a series of events with which his own century was not prepared to confront directly--to form a novel that it could comfortably embrace. So when we read Maggs we get Carey's take on the realities of the Victorian era--which include implicitly that era's own efforts to conceal what it cannot confront.

And we may also get some insight into the... Victorian? (neo)colonial? canonizing?... aspects of ourselves--which might begrudge Magwich, Maggs, or Carey a place at the table.

Is it the right reading for you for the Dickens centenary year ahead? I don't know. But it's my most contrarian recommendation. And, what's more, it's a good read.

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