Novel Gives the Dickens To Historical Fiction


By Peter Carey

Alfred A. Knopf

306 pp., $24

Peter Carey's latest novel, "Jack Maggs," roars by with all the beauty and violence of a summer thunderstorm.

Just as English playwright Tom Stoppard plucked Rosencrantz and Guildenstern from the periphery of Shakespeare's "Hamlet," so Carey has created a stunning story about the convict who surreptitiously adopts Pip in Charles Dickens's "Great Expectations."

The novel opens on the day Jack Maggs risks execution by returning from exile in Australia to find the young Londoner he has supported lavishly for years.

When Jack finds his adopted son's house empty, he takes employment next door in the chaotic household of a bookish grocer, who's looking for a footman of exactly the right height to complete a matching set.

Struck by a devastating attack of pain during his first official duty, Jack receives treatment by a dinner guest, Toby Oates, a wildly popular novelist and amateur practitioner of animal magnetism.

Toby claims that "no mesmeric act on earth will have anyone perform an act against their moral temper," but from that moment until the book's incendiary conclusion, Jack endures a parasitic relationship with the young hypnotist who determined to plunder Jack's inflamed mind for material to use in his next novel.

A servant in the writer's house explains her master's obsession with others' lives.

"He cannot help himself," she tells Jack. "He saw your livery, and thought: There's a chap with dirty livery. Just what you would think or I would think, but Mr. Oates, he can't stop there - he's thinking, how did that fatty-spot get on his shoulder? He's wondering, in what circumstances were the stockings torn? He's looking at you like a blessed butterfly he has to pin down on his board. It is not that he hasn't got a heart. But he is an author, as I'm sure you don't need telling, and he must know your whole life story or he will die of it."

Their daily sessions together, riddled with gruesome revelations and threats of violence, grow increasingly exploitative and deceptive, a process that humiliates Jack and causes the magnetist to devolve into moral idiocy.

This is a story of horrible secrets, risky confidences, and romantic entanglements. Carey's characters are torn between the compulsion to reveal themselves and the anxiety of exposure. This tension is perfectly captured in Jack's fervent efforts to record his life story by writing it backward with invisible ink.

In 91 brief chapters, Carey's novel charges through Jack Maggs's desperate attempt to locate his son before he's apprehended. The effect at times is like running through a hall of mirrors, as these characters tell their stories within a story based on another novel. But Carey isn't interested in calling attention to his own artistic sophistication. He never lets us feel disoriented as he drops in flashbacks that reveal the horrible pasts that brought these characters to the current crisis.

Carey combines a historian's knowledge with an artist's skill to create a vision of early 19th-century London that's at once captivating and repulsive. He's certainly caught the Dickensian spirit with his strange, sometimes grotesque characters and remarkable coincidences, but readers of "Jack Maggs" will confront depravity that the Victorian author could only suggest.

Here are the odoriferous streets in all their busy excitement and retched poverty. Despite the wealth some have accumulated, the city grinds away like an immense machine, manufacturing children for a culture of crime and exploitation.

And yet within this din of frustration and woe, poor Jack finally catches the strains of hope and loyalty that leave us feeling thrilled at his surprising triumph.

For artistry, for psychological subtlety, for sheer entertainment, "Jack Maggs" is sure to beat the dickens out of any other novel this year.

* Ron Charles teaches English at the John Burroughs School in St. Louis.

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