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Carey's 'unusual' novel exposes politics of disability

  • 19 March 2008

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