Carey's 'unusual' novel exposes politics of disability

The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith The politics of gender and race are now so well recognised that these subtexts in novels rarely escape reviewers' notice. But narratives about disability are another matter. Peter Carey's The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith, for example. Its central figure is someone of very short stature, of distressing appearance, unable to walk, of incomprehensible speech, with aspirations to act.

Throughout the novel Carey uses language which could offend people with disabilities. Neither Australian nor British reviewers of The Unusual Life, which was published in 1994, appeared to ponder these matters. It was not, said the London Review of Books, a novel about disability. Maybe not, but disability is the vehicle for something else ...

[It is] a most engaging if uncomfortable tale. But a closer reading reveals Carey as social critic. While themes of colonialism, migration, and identity are clear beneath the narrative, disability enters more subtly. The literary devices Carey uses to point to these meanings are mainly parody and farce. The hilarious footnotes are a clue: they mimic the academy, and the academy is implicated in Carey's critique. This is a profane book with a profound message.

The novel begins with Tristan recalling his birth. I gasped at Tristan's description of himself, when his mother, acting a Witch in Hamlet, takes her newborn on stage and shows him for the first time:

ENTER TRISTAN SMITH — a gruesome little thing, slippery and sweating from his long enclosure in that rubber cloak, so truly horrible to look at that the audience can see the Witches must struggle to control their feelings of revulsion. He is small, not small like a baby, smaller, more like one of those wrinkled furless dogs they show on television talk shows ...

Tristan calls himself a dwarf, his 'lipless mouth drools', his speech is unintelligible to most people, and he moves around on his knees. Here is an archetype. My eyes widened: what was Carey up to? By page 69, his intent began to emerge.

When Tristan rejects his acting teacher ... his stressed but loving maman screams that he is a child with Special Needs and that if he doesn't stay with Madame Chen she will send him to a Special School. Tristan recalls the incident as 'that truly dreadful night which gave birth to the fearful notion of Special Needs'.

The term Special Needs comes from officialdom, from negotiations between governments, people with disabilities, and academics; it permeates government policy in both Australia and Britain. Was Carey casting stones at shibboleths? How familiar was he with contentious debates about disability? Extraordinarily so, it seems.

In this dramatic moment between Tristan and Felicity, a postcard arrives from Bill Millefleur, suggesting Felicity let Tristan act a character, namely the Hairy Man. Tristan sees the postcard as 'a ray from God on high', as rescuing him from the Special School; however, the footnotes tell us that in the animistic culture of the Native People of Voorstand, the Hairy Man is the 'bogey-man', and in Christian theology, he is Satan, and that both these meanings exist in Efican culture.

So the rescue also means relegation as a feared outsider. This is Carey not as pessimist, but as ironic observer. Here too, Carey encapsulates a lengthy debate on disability and its cultural contradictions in a few sentences. There are many such instances.

Another shibboleth tumbles on page 172 in Felicity's answer to Tristan's assertion that he will learn to talk better so that audiences can understand him. 'Maybe there are some things you won't be able to do ... The problem with diction is physical, darling, you know that.' 'I'll ... learn,' he insists.

There is a prevailing idea that learning can banish any incapacity and this idea, too, is part of government educational policies. The consistency of Carey's stoning seemed astonishing. These transgressions demanded closer examination, for Carey is far too intelligent a writer, far too sensitive to language and to social trends, to warrant a judgment of being mindlessly offensive ...

By writing the central character as disabled, the broader world is starkly shown as increasingly oppressive of those whom Tristan, as archetype, represents. But as archetype he also represents the increasing scrutiny we are all under. This world exacerbates earlier oppressions of conformity, appearance, image, and performance.

In this revelation, The Unusual Life is fundamentally nondisabilist, but if read superficially, it can be dismissed as offensive. Its complex narrative contains arguments which occur both in and outside the academy about how we should understand and portray disability. The voice and experience of Tristan, in all its conflicting humanness, is always present, as are the words and actions of those who, in life's paradoxes, sometimes oppress and sometimes nurture him. Listening to the voice of oppressed people, once a policy priority, is no simple remedy ...

In using disability to expose corporate oppressions, and in mocking the language and principles which emanate from government, the academy and people with disabilities, The Unusual Life becomes a book that offends what Frank Moorhouse calls Official Culture ... Perhaps it is the perception, rather than ignorance, of these politics which underlies the silence on the most subtle of the political meanings which inhabit The Unusual Life. And, as Moorhouse notes, literary prizes go to books believed to be officially acceptable; these books then dominate public discussion.

Whatever the reason for the silence surrounding The Unusual Life, it is inexcusable, for this is a tract in the Orwellian tradition, a passionate work where imagination soars and invites the reader to rethink the world ...

LINKS:

Peter Carey's website

Disability Services Australia


Gillian Fulcher Gillian Fulcher is a critic, editor and scholar. She is the author of Disabling Policies? A Comparative Approach To Education Policy And Disability (London: Falmer Press, 1989).

 

 

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