Illustration by Dana Collins

AS THE 21ST CENTURY BEGINS, there is a vogue, perhaps as never before, for the historical novel: The cluttered trunks of centuries past serve as dressing-up boxes for many contemporary authors. The brocades and velvets, doublets and pantaloons, make for vivid reading, but there is all too frequently a whiff of must about the enterprise, a slightly strained quality to the diction, just the faintest aura of fakery. More pervasively, there hangs over many such fictions the dastardly question “Why?,” the lingering impression that late-17th-century Milan or Tierra del Fuego at the turn of the last century is no more than an arbitrary choice, an author's whimsy prolonged and elaborated, “just because.”

Any fiction, of course, raises the question “Why?”; and it is the mark, then, of a successful work that it seems to justify itself, that by its nature it represses the question. That's what Peter Carey's novels do. And although three of his past five have been set in the 19th century (and a fourth, The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith, in an alternative reality in a different time), I don't think of him as a historical novelist at all: The worlds he creates, whether past, present or future, are so wholly imagined, so vividly pressed into an excitedly living language, that the novels become novels of a unique imaginary present. (Moreover, Carey creates a different language, notably, for each tale, to the point where Tristan Smith wields an invented vocabulary, explicated in footnotes. Carey is a masterful ventriloquist — “he do the police in different voices,” and each of them spot-on.)

Carey won his first Booker Prize in 1988, for Oscar and Lucinda. He won again this past year, for True History of the Kelly Gang, making him, along with J.M. Coetzee, one of only two writers to win the prize twice. Of Oscar and Lucinda, he has said that it is a “science fiction of the past,” and there is, in this strange and apparently paradoxical formulation, a certain satisfying precision. What I understand him to be articulating thereby is the thorough freedom that he, Carey, has taken in the imagining of history, and simultaneously, the delicate care with which he has manipulated that freedom. The glass church that Oscar accompanies up the Bellinger River is an apt image for any of Carey's creations: beautiful, fragile and, too, preposterously risky, which makes the glory of his triumph all the greater.

If, indeed, a reader should pose the question “Why?,” there is, in Carey's case, always an answer. His creations are not the mere trills of a brilliant but ungrounded mind, his choice of character and setting no witty costuming (although wit, most delicious and frequently most dark, is at the core of almost everything he writes): His mission is no less than the writing of his beloved country, the voicing of Australia. The freedoms that he takes are those of an orphan or a bastard, roles that recur throughout his novels and which resonate, metaphorically, in Australia's relationship to Britain, as the repository for all the ä47 convicts and refuse rejected by the empire. They are the freedoms of outlaws, like Ned Kelly, who plunder the establishment in order to build anew, who must claim entitlement where none is readily granted. They are angry freedoms, and joyful ones, too. They are vital. Carey writes as his characters live: knowing that everything is at stake.

“Our history is a history of orphans,” explains the narrator of Oscar and Lucinda, Oscar's great-grandchild, “or so my mother liked to say. She used the word in a sense both literal and sentimental. She did not mean it in the sense that it is true for the nation as a whole, but only as it applied to the three corners of the family history.” Herbert Badgery, the lying, taletelling narrator of Carey's first great novel, Illywhacker (the book in which he nailed his flag to the mast and made clear the immensity and daring of his literary project), puts it slightly differently: “I would rather fill my history with great men and women, philosophers, scientists, intellectuals, artists, but I confess myself incapable of so vast a lie. I am stuck with Badgery & Goldstein [Theatricals] wandering through the 1930s like flies on the face of a great painting.” This wonderfully vivid image speaks volumes, and presages the poignantly menacing Jack Maggs, eponymous hero of Carey's 1998 novel, which brought him to a wider readership in the United States. Jack Maggs is, of course, Magwitch, the convict of Dickens' Great Expectations, and Carey's novel is his story — indeed, it is the tale of the writing of his tale. Not a fly but a cockroach, he: “'I am a cockroach, isn't that so?'” he says. “'It was very clear what would happen to me if I were to ever set foot in England again. I was transported for the term of my natural life. Weren't those the words? Did not his lordship wish to crush me with his heel?'” Jack Maggs and his creator have taken similarly daring liberties, in order for this novel to exist: The former has returned from Australia to his native England, at the risk of his life, while the latter has taken the beloved literature of that country and has turned Dickens on his head.

THE RISKS OF CAREY'S LATEST BOOK, True History of the Kelly Gang, are greater still. He once told me, speaking of this book when it was still at an early stage, that he had no interest in a project unless it was difficult: Again, this investment, this endeavor (the name, of course, of Captain Cook's ship), is part of what makes him such an important figure: He does not shout his ambition from the treetops, in the trying manner of so many American males, but he writes as if his life depended on it. As Lucinda asserts, in Oscar and Lucinda, “We are wagering everything. We place ourselves at risk . . . We are alive . . . We are alive on the very brink of eternity.” In True History of the Kelly Gang, Carey has set himself a literary challenge on the scale of Tristan Smith; but whereas Tristan Smith speaks with a new, invented vocabulary that the reader must learn in order to become involved with the story, in the case of Ned Kelly, Carey has chosen to inhabit the written (not spoken) voice of a near-illiterate outlaw. Language and punctuation are in no way transparent, here; they are blunt instruments with which Carey must somehow fashion a beating human heart.

The novel begins: “I lost my own father at 12 yr. of age and know what it is to be raised on lies and silences my dear daughter you are presently too young to understand a word I write but this history is for you and will contain no single lie may I burn in hell if I speak false.” Parse that one, if you can. But Carey's challenge is to lure us onward, to make of this obstructive, pared language (from a writer who so delights in words, who can make them fizz and pulse upon the page) not only a thing of beauty in itself but a conduit to human truth. It is as if he set out to write a masterpiece with one hand tied behind his back. The result is a tour de force, of course; but it is more, and more importantly, an anti-historical history, a living voice. A beating heart.

Every fiction Carey writes is unexpected, and each work makes its world new. But a reader's delight comes only upon reflection from the ambition and the artistry, from the stylistic virtuosity; in the reading itself, delight comes from the depth and fullness of the characters. There is nothing hysterical about Carey's creations, nothing hyperbolic, no matter how extraordinary their surroundings and their circumstances. They are not ciphers, or symbols, or metaphors or metafictions, although all these elements may be in play in their stories. They are instead moral characters in the Chekhovian sense, vulnerable, complex, misunderstood, people whose passions and losses form and deform them just as we, here, now, are formed and deformed. The humor that suffuses Carey's work is not, primarily, of the spectacular, Rushdie-esque kind; it lies in the misheard sentence and the crooked cravat, in the detail and the diction, in the places where it matters.

Taken book by book, Carey's fictions delight and challenge; examined as a whole, his oeuvre is both morally and aesthetically remarkable. He has lived in the United States for over 10 years now, and has yet to turn his imagination to these shores; but it seems, somehow, appropriately paradoxical and in keeping with Carey's love of the difficult path that Australia's greatest living writer should be quietly at work — transported, orphaned and free — in New York.LA

Claire Messud is the author of The Last Life and The Hunters, a finalist for this year's PEN/Faulkner Award. She is a 2002 Guggenheim Fellow.

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