cover image The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith

The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith

Peter Carey. Alfred A. Knopf, $24 (422pp) ISBN 978-0-679-43888-5

Carey, known for his quirkily skewed re-creations of Australian culture (Oscar and Lucinda; The Tax Collector), has outdone himself in this bizarre, uncannily strange dystopia about the life of a dwarf, who narrates the tale. Tristan Smith, born to an unmarried woman who runs a radical theater in a land called Effica, suffers from a facial disfigurement so severe that only his mother can look upon him without revulsion. His life as a child is unrelievedly sad until he discovers the various guises that theater can provide, which launches him into the vibrant world of his mother's professional circle. A consistent theme-political, cultural and historical-is the position of Effica as an ``Ootland'' state, peripheral to the culture of faraway Voorstand, a kind of Anglo/Dutch hegemony whose world dominance in all things is beyond dispute, though not unchallenged by such underground dissidents as Tristan's mother. And it is this depiction of an entire world culture-futuristic, in some respects fitted out with unfathomable features, such as a kind of mass-audience shadow play involving live actors and holograms, as well as familiar figures like Rimbaud and Baudelaire-that gives this novel its refreshingly improbable authenticity. When Tristan's mother dies tragically, he falls in with a motley crew of her colleagues; together they embark on a secret mission to Voorstand, in search of his father, an Ootlander actor who has become famous by selling his soul to the Voorstand theater. The second half of the book details Tristan's time on the run in Voorstand, where he finds spectacular renown in the guise of a famous folk figure, Bruder Mouse, whose battles with The Hairy Man are somehow central to Voorstander's understanding of themselves. When he at last is, literally, unmasked, Tristan and his mates are charged with all manner of crimes of mispresentation by the state. Carey's novel approach to the narrative-the entire tale is in the form of Tristan's direct testimony to formal authorities of Voorstand culture-is brilliantly maintained throughout, and the fairy-tale quality of its figuration makes for a surpassingly rich feast of metaphors and mercurial meanings-George Orwell and Lewis Carroll wrapped into one. Author tour. (Feb.)