Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Democracy in America: A Review of Peter Carey's "Parrot and Olivier in America"

Literary historical fiction about the nineteenth century isn’t hard to come by when it’s about slavery or the Civil War. Nor is it hard to find fiction about the nineteenth-century American West (wild or otherwise) thanks to the enduring interest in the Western genre and its pioneers, gunslingers, outlaws, and cattle thieves.

Less common is the literary novel that tackles the Age of Jackson—or any age, that is, between the American Revolution and the 1850—when democracy was still a novelty and the new American nation could barely tie its shoes.

Peter Carey’s latest novel, Parrot and Olivier in America (Knopf 2010), seeks to remedy this. Set in the early 1830, the novel follows the travels of Olivier-Jean-Baptiste de Clarel de Barfleur de Garmont, a young French aristocrat, and his British servant Jack “Parrot” Larrit as they study the workings of American prisons for the French government. Olivier is a highly fictionalized version of Alexis de Tocqueville, whose similar journey to America in 1831 resulted in the classic two-volume Democracy in America (1835, 1840), which remains one of the best and most widely-quoted portraits of America’s early years.

Olivier is not Tocqueville, of course, any more than Tobias Oates, the Victorian writer in Carey’s Jack Maggs, is Charles Dickens, but the common blood between them gives Carey license enough to appropriate Tocqueville’s ideas and words freely—sometimes verbatim—for his character’s own tongue.  Parrot, on the other hand, is more of his own man, having no readily identifiable historical counterpart aside from the European immigrants who flooded the streets of the young democracy and cast their lot with its destiny. Older, wiser, and more earthy than Olivier, he is the grounding element in the novel, the character with whom readers immediately identify. As his name suggests, Parrot is also the more likely of the two characters to mimic his surroundings, blend in, deceive, and adapt—all skills he developed in his long service to the one-armed Marquis de Tilbot, a French spy who cared for him in—in a matter of speaking—after Parrot’s father was executed for his role in a counterfeiting scheme.

In short, Parrot is the novel's everyman with a colorful past. 

On the surface, Parrot and Olivier in America seems evocative of Thomas Pynchon’s 1997 novel Mason & Dixon, another historical novel about two European men and their adventures in early America. But the novels are too dissimilar to draw any meaningful comparisons: While Pynchon’s is daunting both in length (773 pages) and style (its first sentence begins: “Snow-Ball have flown their Arcs, starr’d the Sides of Outbuildings, as of Cousins, carried Hats away into the brisk Wind off Delaware,--the Sleds are brought in and the Runners carefully dried and greased, shoes deposited in the back Hall…), Carey’s is more accessible and ingratiating to the reader. Chapters alternate between the points-of-view of Olivier and Parrot—the voices of innocence and experience respectively—without any of the Postmodern fireworks characteristic of Pynchon’s writing. Moreover, Parrot and Olivier in America is fairly traditional historical fiction. Neither anachronisms nor archaisms have space in the book, so readers who prefer their novels to abide by the laws of physics, or to contain sentences that only require one reading, aren’t likely to get frustrated with it.

For me, this is one of the drawbacks of Parrot and Olivier in America. When I read historical fiction, I want the book either to remove me altogether from modern times, or to overburden me with it.  I want the fiction, in other words, to become lost in the foreignness of the past or to explode the artificiality of the history-making process. Parrot and Olivier in America does neither very well, although it occasionally makes a conservative effort to do the latter. Early in the novel, for instance, Olivier imagines his narrative as a célérifère, a kind of proto-bicycle with no steering mechanism, which carries his audience back in time to his childhood in Normandy, then forward through the tightly prescribed course of his aristocratic life. With the unsteerable célérifère, Carey makes a pointed statement about the way Olivier and his aristocracy are servants to history, bound by the modes and manners of a seemingly unchangeable past of their own making.

Sadly, narrative devices like the célérifère are far too few in Parrot and Olivier in America, which is an otherwise enjoyable and captivating novel. At its best, it is a wry reflection on contemporary America and Americans from an Australian author who has called New York home for the past twenty-some years. Observations from Tocqueville’s Democracy in America are evoked throughout the text and, certainly by design, they continue to apply to America today.

As one who is not too familiar with Tocqueville or his book, I can only guess at the legitimacy of Carey’s “take” on the man and his ideas. My impression, however, is that Carey—like Parrot to Olivier—holds them at an affectionate distance. Olivier, after all, is too wed to the past and aristocracy to seriously consider the ideological divorce he pines for. What is more, his experience in America leads him to expect—even hope for—the worst: that America will one day be led by “fur traders and woodmen” presidents who “will be barbarians at the head of armies, ignorant of geography and science, the leaders of a mob daily educated by a perfidious press” (380). 

Of course, as everyone who has access to the internet or cable news networks knows, echoes and variations of Olivier’s doomsday fears continue to sound today, whether they come from the mouth of Michael Moore, Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly, or Keith Olbermann. The less reactionary Parrot, on the other hand, is much more hopeful about America’s future. “The great ignoramus will not be elected,” he believes, because of democracy’s power to raise a servant to a friend, to produce art, and to alter the course of history heretofore unsteerable.

For a lot of readers in the Age of Bush and Obama, Parrot’s idealism will likely sound naïve, if not offensive. Parrot would have it that way. No doubt in their dread and pessimism about America’s future—indeed, in their determination to coast downhill in their wooden célérifère—he would recognize something of his friend Olivier’s myopia.    

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