Wednesday, July 7, 2010

"Bliss" by Peter Carey

Bliss is by Australian author Peter Carey and was first published in 1981.  I really had to wrestle with this book for about the first third of its length and I think it is pretty safe to say that if I was not blogging about books I would probably have abandoned all efforts to try and get through it.  I am very glad I persevered, if only for reasons of pride originally,  because this is a truly unique reading experience that will stay with me for some time.

The premise that begins the novel is simple enough.  Harry Joy, a successful advertising executive dies on his front lawn from heart failure.  Harry witnesses his own death and is brought back to life through medical intervention.  What unfolds is the truly strange journey of Harry trying to make sense of his life.

Bliss can be described as a modern fable.  The settings and characters in Bliss are painfully real.  But there is a surreal mythical cast to the whole narrative.  It is like we see much of what is happening through a fugue.  You can see the immediate action clearly enough but everything else is very blurred at the edges.  I found this unsettling.  The tone changes towards the end of the book and more depth is given to descriptions of place.  I am sure this is all very deliberate as Harry, after much torment, comes to find his own sense of place.

This is a difficult novel for many reasons.  One that stands out for me is that most of the characters, including Harry I found to be unlikeable and distasteful.  Again I am sure this is part of Carey's point.  After all, for most of the novel Harry believes he is in hell.  Harry's wife and children are awful.  I could go on and on about this but I won't.  Except to say that I ended up feeling that perhaps Bettina, Harry's desperate, frustrated and mercenary wife was not supposed to be interpreted as a real person after all.  Maybe she is meant to be seen as everything that is wrong with a society that is hell bent on a consumerism frenzy.  To this end I found it interesting to note that the novel was published in the early 1980s and perhaps Carey is predicting the greed fuelled financial crash of that decade.

One of the things that kept me going through this dark strange tale was Carey's seriously beautiful and accomplished writing,  For instance:

There was toughness in Harry Joy you may not have yet suspected, and although he appears, lying between the sheets of his hospital bed, surrounded by food and friends, to be mushy, soft, like a rotten branch you think you can crack with a soft tap of your axe, you will find, beneath that soft white rotted sapwood, something unexpected: a long pipe of hard redwood which will, after all, take a good saw and some sweat if you are going to burn it.  p36

And this insightful use of simile and metaphor just goes on and on throughout the book to breathtaking effect:

Yes he had been happy.  Of course he'd been happy.  But he had always been happy in the expectation that something else would happen, some wonderful unnamed thing which he was destined for, some quivering butterfly dream soaked in sunlight in a doorway.  p.45

I mean, who can write like that?  Isn't it to die for?

There are many elements to this story.  Too many to try and cover here.  It has the quality of a genuine adult fairy tale or fable.  I found combining the adult with the fairy tale style disturbing at times.  It is like a fairy tale because awful things happen suddenly, without preamble, as in children's fairy tales.  There are also strong strains of good, evil, and hoped for redemption, that feel like a moral story or fable.  Some of Carey's descriptions are not for the faint hearted.  I found myself a bit "grossed out" occasionally as he graphically depicts the more base side of some of his characters.  Again I am sure this is done deliberately to unsettle the reader.  It adds to the "hell" experience I am sure.

The appearance of the character of Honey Barbara does provide a needed lift to the story.  Honey is in many ways the antithesis of all that is wrong in Harry's sordid, soft and safe existence. 

I think that Carey is trying to say something profound with this novel about the struggle that plays out in all of us.  And not just inside us, but between our inner desires and the complexities of the competitive world we live in.  I feel that he largely succeeds with this.  However, for this reader, some of the elements were just a bit too stark and ghastly for me to want to fully embrace.  It is not the most enjoyable reading experience I have had recently but I would recommend it to those who are wanting to experience some excellent writing and perhaps be pushed a little outside of their usual zone of comfort.  Bliss,  Peter Carey's first novel, is an audacious and original piece of top quality literature.


  1. What a fantastic review - and thanks for sharing those passages they really are lovely :)

  2. I am pleased that you finally finished, I know you were struggling. Carey is such a hard writer isn't he. I have never finished Oscar and Lucinda despite the fact that I have started it over and over again. I love a writer thought that it hard to read and the story is hard to get into, but in the end it pays off.

    The writing definitely is wonderful - he is so talented.

    I think I will read a Peter Carey next after my current read

  3. It does sound like a difficult, involving read with some wonderful writing. I know what you mean about struggling to finish a book and sticking with it for blogging reasons ... that can be good and bad I think. I relate to the feeling of pride though so good for you! That cover seems to fit the book quite well.


Comments are very welcome.