Review of Bliss, By Peter Carey, University of Queensland Press, 1981. Going Down Swinging Issue 5 Spring 1982.
Peter Carey’s first novel, Bliss, must have been one of the most eagerly awaited books of last year. Its publication was preceded bu profiles of Carey in both The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, both of which later gave the book good reviews. But even before the literary establishment began its fanfare I was suspicious of Carey’s novel. I have never been able to fully reconcile his role in advertising with his reputation as one of Australia’s leading younger writers. Despite this I enjoyed his first two books of short stories, though at times I doubted his motives. As a result I approached Bliss in a critical frame of mind. It lasted twenty pages. Once again Carey won me over in spite of myself.
The novel is basically the story of Harry Joy who, like Carey, is in is late thirties and involved in the running of a moderately successful advertising company. Harry, however, suffers a heart attack and lies in his backyard, clinically dead for nine minutes. During his ‘first death’ he discovers:
“That there were many worlds, layer upon layer, as thin as filo pastry.”
For a time he is completely at peace, but the possibility that a corresponding world of terror may exist sends him fleeing back to his body as it is being carried out the front gate. The rest of the novel is concerned, min the main, with Harry’s response to his new found insights into the evil and hypocrisy which everyone else takes for granted. To add to his confusion Harry actually believes that he has died and the new world which he is discovering is, in reality, hell.
Bliss adopts a far more rigid moral and political stance than any of the earlier stories. Of course Carey’s work has always been political in a sense, one only has to look at the title stories from The fat man in History and War Crimes for evidence of this. What I am suggesting, however, is that in Bliss Carey is being more directly political than before, and, particularly in his portrayal of the advertising industry, manages to make quite strong moral judgments.
One of Harry’s most disturbing discoveries in Hell is the fact that many of the products he has been involved in advertising are strongly carcinogenic. Worse still, he realizes that he was perhaps the only person who wasn’t aware of it. Carey also hints at a cancer epidemic which, we are told, will sweep through the West and most of the industrialised East within a few years.
It is interesting, while still on the political aspects of Bliss, to look at a comment Carey made in an interview with Kate Ahearne, Stephen Williams and Kevin Brophy (Going Down Swinging No. 1 1980). When questioned about Craig Munro’s doubts about his role in advertising, Carey answered that it had given him a chance to work with other people, and also that it had given him a solid political education. It is possible to apply this statement to Harry Joy, though perhaps his ‘political education’ is a little sudden. For most of the novel Harry has to struggle with his political consciousness, his desire to produce a ‘good ad’. The conflict is only finally resolved when Bettina, his wife, finally gets the chance to fulfill a lifelong ambition of designing and producing her own ads. She is blind to everything but the beauty of her ads and her desire to break into the big New York ad houses. Her dreams though, are shattered by her discovery that she is suffering from incurable cancer, probably as a result of long term exposure to petrol vapours. Bettina turns against the petrol company for which she has been designing ads, destroying both herself, and the entire Board of the company with a petrol bomb.
Despite the ‘political realism’ of Bliss it is, in the final instance, far more optimistic than most of the stories. Carey himself admits (GDS, No1, 1980, p.46) that his early stories are, essentially, fatalistic. In the second collection, War Crimes, stories such as “He Found Her in Summer”, and “The Puzzling Nature of Blue”, are at least moving towards a position where the possibility of optimism is admitted. Bliss, however, concludes on a note of ecstasy. Carey refers to the unqualified happy ending to Bliss in the interview by commenting on Harry’s development from total innocence to a point where he confronts “the shit out of the world and comes to some real positive conclusions about it.” I agree with Carey when he says that this represents a big development (movement is probably a better word) on his earlier work.
Bliss, both in its language and content, is a very crafted novel. Although primarily the story of Harry Joy, all the other major characters dominate sections of the novel. This I had a feeling that hidden within the novel were a number of individual stories, cut up and distributed carefully throughout the book. Or perhaps this is coincidental, a result of the method of narration that Carey has employed. We learn, in the last lines, that the narrator’s voice in fact belongs to Harry and Honey’s children, who have obviously grown in a up in a tradition of storytelling, a profession that Harry adopted after his arrival at Bog Onion Road. So finally the novel turns a complete circle. Harry finds that the Bliss that was suggested in his ‘first’ death finally in his third death, after he has returned to the childhood memories of a guru-like father. The ending maybe, as some critics have noted, simplistic and contrived; nevertheless it still managed to move me on the two occasions I read it.
Of the many diverse influences on the novel, perhaps the most surprising, as far as I was concerned, was the apparent debt Carey owed to Tom Robbins of Another Roadside Attraction and Even Cowgirls Get the Blues fame. The major areas where this becomes obvious is in the method and style of narration and the character of Honey Barbara. In both of Robbins’ early books one of the minor characters later identifies himself as the narrator, explaining both the insights and the asides which characterize the narrative style. In Bliss, the revelation of Harry and Harry’s children as narrators can perhaps help to explain a similarity between Carey’s and Robbins’ narrative voice. The character of Honey Barbara also appears to owe much to Robbins. The similarity between Honey and many of Robbins’ female characters is particularly noticeable in small details such as the way she walks and her often impulsive, but enlightened dialogue. This became for me the weakest aspect of the novel, perhaps because the flaw was so unexpected and because Honey Barbara is the bridge between the cancerous city world and peace of the alternative life-style at Bog Onion Road. This Honey, who eventually becomes the most important character after Harry Joy, becomes, at times, almost contrived, and disrupts the smoothness which characterizes the rest of the novel.
The publication of Bliss came at a time when Carey’s earlier stories were being published overseas in a variety of different forms. It remains to be seen how many readers in America and England will react to the Carey novel. For me, despite a few flaws, the hype that surrounded its publication and my own doubts about Carey’s 9decreasing) role in advertising, Bliss was one of the more impressive novels I read during 1981.
Mark Roberts 1982