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The Boston Phoenix Oliver Twisted

"Jack Maggs" razes the Dickens.

By Peter Keough

FEBRUARY 2, 1998: 

JACK MAGGS, by Peter Carey. Alfred A. Knopf, 320 pages, $24.

Contemporary novelists owe more to Charles Dickens than they can imagine, which is reason enough to get even with him. As Harold Bloom has pointed out, the relationship between latter-day artists and their distinguished predecessors is more Oedipal than adulatory. This, it seems, is part of the motivation behind Peter Carey's sprawling, sensuous, and subversive Jack Maggs.

The Australian writer has a secure niche in today's literary pantheon -- his Oscar and Lucinda won the Booker Prize in 1988 (and is now a feature film directed by Gillian Armstrong and starring Ralph Fiennes). Perhaps he now feels qualified to challenge the master on his much-tilled Victorian turf. At any rate, Carey spins a gripping, emotionally and intellectually stimulating tale of his own.

In 1836, transported felon Jack Maggs returns to his native London from the penal colonies of Australia. Discovery by the authorities would mean his execution. His mission is murky, perhaps nefarious, and involves a graceful house at 27 Great Queen Street and its absent tenant, a dissolute fop named Henry Phipps.

While waiting for Phipps to return, Maggs takes up residence next door, engaging himself as a footman for Percy Buckle, a former fishmonger who's inherited a fortune late in life. His household includes a comely maid, Mercy Larkin, and an embittered, sexually ambiguous fellow footman, John Constable. It also hosts a straggly party of semidistinguished visitors -- in particular an up-and-coming writer, Tobias Oates.

As the virile, enigmatic Maggs stirs up intrigue and sexual tension, Carey's rollicking narrative shifts blithely among the principals' points of view. The prose hasn't the ethereal fancy of Oscar and Lucinda, which is as lucent and multifaceted as the crystal chapel its protagonist wrestles across the outback. Instead, it has the grease and fetor of the marketplace. Readers enamored of Carey's usual lushness might find it thin.

Carey's focus in this novel, however, is not so much on language, or the stories it tells, as on the creative imagination that is their source. Oates is a thinly disguised version of Charles Dickens himself: the biographical parallels are evident. Like Dickens in 1836, he's a struggling journalist fashionable for his Boz-like sketches of the city. He has a passionless marriage with a woman called Mary, and perhaps something extra on the side with his wife's sister Lizzie -- an allusion to Dickens's overweening affection for his sister-in-law Mary, who died in 1837, and his relationship with his sister-in-law Georgina, which became scandalous in 1858. More important, he shares Dickens's abhorrence of his impoverished origins, and his compulsion for storytelling. As Oates's cook tells Maggs when her master's interest in his mysterious situation proves obsessive:

"He cannot help himself. He saw your livery, and thought: there's a chap with dirty livery. Just what you would think or I would think, but Mr. Oates, he can't stop there -- he's thinking, how did that fatty-spot get on his shoulder? He's wondering, in what circumstances were his stockings torn? He's looking at you like a blessed butterfly he has to pin down on his board. It is not that he hasn't got a heart. Indeed, I'm like as not cold-hearted in comparison. But he is an author, as I'm sure you don't need telling, and he must know your whole life story or he'll die of it."

Plus, he needs the money. With debts, a baby, and other pressing expenses, Oates sees in Maggs's tale a breakthrough novel. In a dire bargain, he promises to find Phipps if Maggs submits to the "animal magnetism" that will allow Oates to extract his terrible past and become the "first cartographer" of "the Criminal Mind." Maggs, meanwhile, writes his own story in an ongoing, autobiographical letter to Phipps describing his thieving childhood -- his Fagin-like mentor; his ill-fated childhood love, a kind of low-rent Estella and the partner in crime who betrayed him, an aphasic Uriah Heep. The adult that he grows into is a kind of half-formed amalgam of Bill Sikes and Abel Magwitch who, Carey notes in a Borgesian aside, "reappears not only in The Death of Maggs and Michael Adams, but in almost everything Tobias Oates ever wrote."

The details of the story tend toward the schematic and perfunctory, but the postmodern preoccupation with the problem of text and authorship beguiles. Dickens's reputation will no doubt endure his parodization as the compromised Oates; as for Carey, this game attempt to confront the origins of genius will enhance his own, though his feelings about his predecessor might best be described by Maggs's reaction to the person who would write his story:"[He was] prey to a new anxiety . . . that he had become the captive of someone whose powers were greater than he had the wit to ever understand."

Peter Keough is the film editor of the Boston Phoenix.

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