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Read The Unusual Life Of Tristan Smith (1997)

The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith (1997)

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3.59 of 5 Votes: 1
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0571174930 (ISBN13: 9780571174935)
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The Unusual Life Of Tristan Smith (1997) - Plot & Excerpts

If the varied works of Peter Carey have a unifying thread, it’s his fascination with what it means to be Australian, and Australia’s relationship with the rest of the world. Illywhacker, his second novel, was the first to thoroughly explore this theme, covering three generations of an Australian family across the 20th century, their country in thrall first to the British and later to the Americans. The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith, written a few years after Carey moved permanently to New York, explores this relationship through the use of two invented countries: Efica, a French-settled collection of subtropical islands with a population of three million, and Voorstand, an enormous, continent-sized superpower originally settled by the Dutch.Tristan Smith is born in Chemin Rouge, the capital of Efica, to Felicity Smith, the founder and operator of a left-wing theatre and acting troupe. His father may be any one of her three lovers: Vincent, a business magnate, Wally, the theatre’s producer, and Bill, one of the young actors. Unfortunately for him, Tristan is born a deformed cripple with mangled legs and not enough skin across his face, and the novel follows his difficult life in Efica and later Voorstand.Tristan is the novel’s narrator (an oddly omniscient one, not unlike Illywhacker and Oscar and Lucinda) and he addresses his story to a hypothetical reader in Voorstand, admitting that this is “the periphery shouting at the centre.” Later, when he arrives in Voorstand as an adult and is dismayed by how the dirty and decrepit cities do not match up to his expectations, he explains to the reader why this upsets him: “Madam, Meneer, you are part of our hearts in a way you could not dream.” The novel is littered with Tristan’s patient explanations to the Voorstand reader about just how important Voorstand is to the rest of the world, in subtle ways they may not grasp.This is not unique to Australia, of course. People in countries all over the world, these days, grow up on a diet of American culture. You feel you know the place well before you ever go there, and you know much, much more about America than Americans know about wherever you’re from. (This is also true of Australia looking up to the United Kingdom, and perhaps New Zealand looking up to Australia.) It’s not a negative thing, it’s just very interesting, and odd in the sense that Americans themselves can never experience it, because no country’s culture is more pervasive than their own.Passive cultural domination is one thing; aggressive political and military domination is quite another. The caves in Efica’s southern islands are threaded with Voorstandish naval navigation cable; their northern islands contain toxic waste dumps from Voorstand’s nuclear plants; and when Tristan’s mother runs for office and looks set to claim a victory for her left-wing party, the Voorstandish intelligence agencies become increasingly, horrifyingly hostile. This segment of the book is based in part on Peter Carey’s long-standing belief (which he explores more thoroughly in his 2014 novel Amnesia) that the CIA played in active role in the dismissal of Australia’s left-wing Prime Minister Gough Whitlam in 1975. This belief is of dubious merit, in my opinion, but no matter; one does not need to look far to find the long arm of American interests meddling in the governments of minor countries all over the globe, all over history. The useful thing about using allegorical countries is that they can stand in for many real countries, and indeed Carey has spoken about how The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith was received in different countries:INTERVIEWER: As you write in Tristan Smith, again addressing Voorstand, “You stand with your hand over your heart when the Great Song is played. You daily watch new images of your armies in the vids and the zines.”CAREY: When I read that line to a Canadian audience, I can feel them ‘get’ the line. I mean, they understand about the big country and the little country and they know which is which. Yet I have sometimes been surprised to discover American readers who never saw any connection between Voorstand and the United States. I suppose that one of the things about false consciousness is not having self-perception.Carey spends a lot of time developing this alternate little world dominated by Voorstand – a world in which he can naturally never mention America or Australia, nor any part of the New World at all, but in which Europe and Africa and Asia still exist. The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith is full of footnotes, asides, maps, and references to fictional books and documentaries, all in an attempt to build a sense of verisimilitude for these made-up nations; for Efica with its history of dyeing and convict settlements, for Voorstand with its unsettling Disney-esque religion and the great entertainment of the Sirkus. Carey also invents hundreds of slang words derived from French and Dutch, used in dialogue throughout and filling a glossary appendix. Whether this worldbuilding succeeds or not is largely a matter of opinion. Personally I thought he scraped through.The novel is then, unfortunately, let down by its own plot. It creaks along well enough for the first half, carried by the reader’s expectation that this will all build to something. The second half becomes something of a shaggy dog story – and not in a good way like Illywhacker. Carey lost my attention about two thirds of the way through and never regained it. His prose here also seems to lack something. I couldn’t quite put my finger on what. Perhaps it’s so caught up in servicing the fictional world that it doesn’t strike the level of wry clarity I’ve come to expect from him. It feels a lot more like one of his bizarre short stories than one of his great novels.The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith is undeniably an ambitious book. It’s big, it’s bold, it makes an audacious and unapologetic demand for your suspension of disbelief. I can understand why Carey wrote it and why some people would love it. But for me, although it strikes some interesting notes (mostly because I’m Australian) it’s ultimately a failure. Carey is one of my favourite writers, but I found this to be his least interesting novel since Bliss.His next two are Jack Maggs and True History of The Kelly Gang, both of which I’ve already read, so next up is either his non-fiction book 30 Days In Sydney: A Wildly Distorted Account or his 2003 novel My Life As A Fake.

I've never read a Peter Carey novel that I haven't enjoyed. He's a brilliant stylist with an great ear for language (of the spoken and written varieties) and he can spin a good yarn. "The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith" is no exception. I spent a while trying to figure out if its setting was intended to be futuristic or just an alternate reality present. I believe it's the latter--a conceit that allows Carey ample opportunity to poke fun at what I read as USA stand-in. Of course, he also satirizes espionage, post-colonialism, banana republics, experimental theater, leftist politics, vegetarianism and Christianity at very points along the journey. But the satire is often fairly gentle, by comparison.Other readers here have commented on this book's being sad or difficult. I found it to be neither. Tristan, the eponymous narrator, is witty, clever and pretty lovable, despite of (and sometimes because of) his myriad handicaps. This is a rollicking read, imaginative and weird, a true picaresque. My only complaint derives from what feels like a gradual losing of steam toward the end of the novel. Any further comment on that, though, feels like a spoiler. So, leaving it at that.

What do You think about The Unusual Life Of Tristan Smith (1997)?

Not all is as it seems in this hefty but not huge novel by Peter Carey, who is still considered one of our (English language) better writers.Echoing many writers and books, beginning with the "Tristram Shandy" twist in the title, and using the title to understate things--the word 'Unusual' barely begins to describe our novelistic plight---Carey brings us to an imaginary world which is recognizable the way our own image is in a fun house mirror.Using carefully crafted and often biting prose, all manner of pretense and flummery get raked over the coals, as do such larger issues as Imperialism and the folly of espionage.Altogether an enjoyable adventure of the imagination, conducted for the most part by a sad little man.Recommended.
—Dan Downing

Certainly not the easiest novel to wade through, but it does reward the patient reader with its blend of whimsy, political allegory, alternative/parallel worlds, dystopian satire and vivid, highly surreal imagery and crackling dialogue (with an alternative vernacular that takes some getting used to). Think John Irving and Russel Hoban filtered through the lens of Terry Gilliam. It's a complex, sprawling, coming of age tale, told in the first person by the titular "hero", Tristan Smith, a horribl
—T. Edward

Reading Peter Carey is always a gamble. The bower-bird nature of his source material, where his current obsessions - often an aspect of the creative life - is unpicked to the point of immersion, sometimes comes off and sometimes doesn't. His books are quilts - glass and gambling, painting and forgery, ern malley and the botany of Malaysia. Does that last one jar a little?You bet it did. My Life as a Fake was the worst Carey book I've suffered, a hopeless melange of Frankenstein, Carey's nostalgia for a good nonya curry, and the fascinating tale of the Malley hoax. With child stealing and post-colonial jungle riffing on the side. It just did not work as a whole book. TOO MUCH. Even Carey can fail to convince us with his incredible ear for jerked dialogue, gumbo politics and grotesque mise en scene. But this one - Tristan Smith is a pearler. I'd heard absolutely naught about it, and now I know why. It's tough, in the same way Sterne's book, one of its obvious echoes, is tough. 150 page diversions on the narrator's birth aren't for everybody. As usual, Carey bites off way too much and chews like crazy.Obsessions, catalogued within:The theatre, the real experience of acting on stage, and receiving that action - right up close, in the footlights. Raw theatre, Pram Factory Theatre. Sometimes terrible, because it's risky, alchemical, apt to blow up.Congenital deformity. How would it work if the protagonist was saddled with serious handicaps to his speech, movement, digestion? Unable to walk? Unable to be looked at?Politics. Imagine Australia and the US and the deep contradictions of their relationship. BUT - they are not Australia and the US - in this world Australia was a colony of France, the US a colony of Holland. OK.Linguistics. The above shift means that the cultural referents, the slang, the religion, everything - has evolved differently. And you'd better keep up 'cause he ain't explaining it.Circus. The history of danger and mimetics, Hermes-trickery and human sacrifice - it's Cirque de Soleil without nets, with the possibility of death. Circus as actual religion, as addiction. It's mad and magnificent. I read it in total silence and concentration away from everything, and was convinced and transported to those places without question. It's hard work. I bet it wasn't popular. But read it; The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith is shit hot.

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