Apr 25, 2010
Monkey Droppings - Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey
The Monkey grapples with feelings of vague disappointment in the face of overwhelming opposition by the majority of critics.
Ah, who needs friends anyway.
Parrot and Olivier in America
by Peter Carey (2010)
Peter Carey is unquestionably one of the more celebrated novelists around. The two-time Booker-winner has proven time and again that he is a master of language, and every new novel from the Australian author is a tempting treat.
His most celebrated works, such as Oscar and Lucinda, tend to be historical tomes, and as such Carey’s newest effort, Parrot and Olivier in America, would appear to be another possible award-winner. Yet no author can maintain a perfect record; coming on the heels of his under-appreciated novel His Illegal Self, Parrot is sadly a lesser work.
Parrot and Olivier in America is set as a picaresque travelogue between two disparate personalities, representing class ideologies of the 19th century. Carey loosely bases Parrot on Alexis de Tocqueville, a French political thinker whose treatise Democracy in America is considered a magnum opus of social analysis.
Olivier de Garmont is a French nobleman, a lawyer sent to the burgeoning country of America, ostensibly to write on a dissertation on their prison system. Olivier is rather stuffy, described by his travelling companion thusly: “The trouble with the general class of Garmonts is that they cannot imagine the life of anyone outside the circle of their arse.”
John Larrit (or Parrot) is Olivier’s servant, an older Englishman acting as Olivier’s protector/transcriber during his voyages. Parrot is a rough-and-ready sort, an artist who has lived a truly Dickensian life of turmoil.
Together, the duo travels a period of great historical upheaval in Europe and North America. It is the time of France’s July Revolution, or as Parrot opines, the time when “the Frogs had once again become maddened by their king and went around the capital smashing anything that reminded them of their own stupidity.”
As they travel America, Olivier becomes enchanted with the future of governance, despite warnings that democracy is “a tiny tender fruit, but it will not ripen well.” Parrot maintains a more skeptical attitude, observing, “Democracies and monarchies, it does not matter—the world is filled with poor men tortured by the state.”
Historical novels are often a means by which to critique modern society, and Parrot is no exception. There is a harsh glee in Carey’s words when Olivier states, “Americans carry national pride altogether too far...Most of them boast about it without discernment and with an aggressiveness that is disagreeable to strangers and shows but little intelligence.”
While there is much humour to be found in statements such as “The common American people preferred their leaders to be as uneducated as they were themselves,” Parrot rarely achieves its potential. Carey has sketched out a novel weighted with political and philosophical concerns, but the story feels fragmented, by turns episodic and shallow.
Unlike Margaret Sweatman’s recent, similar novel The Players, Carey only occasionally achieves a balance between themes and characters. Rare for the author, Carey’s adventurers remain ciphers throughout, although Parrot is far more interesting than his titular counterpart.
It is impossible to label anything by Carey a failure, and Parrot and Olivier in America contains some set-pieces that likely rank with his best. Parrot is an interesting, sometimes lyrical foray into the roots of American democracy, but the novel’s unevenness proves its undoing.
VERDICT: MONKEY LIKES, BUT COULDN'T HOLD BACK THE YAWNS
Originally published (expurgated version) in the Winnipeg Free Press, April 24,2010.