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Parrot & Olivier in America (Carey)

Parrot & Olivier in America 
Peter Carey, 2010
Knopf Doubleday
400 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780307592620


Summary
From the two-time Booker Prize–winning author comes an irrepressibly funny new novel set in early nineteenth-century America.

Olivier—an improvisation on the life of Alexis de Tocqueville—is the traumatized child of aristocratic survivors of the French Revolution. Parrot is the motherless son of an itinerant English printer. They are born on different sides of history, but their lives will be connected by an enigmatic one-armed marquis.

When Olivier sets sail for the nascent United States— ostensibly to make a study of the penal system, but more precisely to save his neck from one more revolution—Parrot will be there, too: as spy for the marquis, and as protector, foe, and foil for Olivier.

As the narrative shifts between the perspectives of Parrot and Olivier, between their picaresque adventures apart and together—in love and politics, prisons and finance, homelands and brave new lands—a most unlikely friendship begins to take hold. And with their story, Peter Carey explores the experiment of American democracy with dazzling inventiveness and with all the richness and surprise of characterization, imagery, and language that we have come to expect from this superlative writer. (From the publisher.)



Author Bio 
Birth—May 7, 1943
Where—Bacchus Marsh, Victoria, Australia
Education—Monash University
Awards—Booker Prize (twice); National Book Council Award;
  Commonealth Writers Prize (twice); Franklin Miles Award
  (thrice); Prix duMeilleur Livre Etranger; Colin Roderick Award
Currently—lives in New York City, New York, USA


"My fictional project has always been the invention or discovery of my own country," the prizewinning Australian author Peter Carey has said. This postcolonial undertaking has sometimes led Carey to wrestle with the great works of English literature: The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith (1994) draws on Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy, while Jack Maggs (1997), a version of Dickens's Great Expectations, is told from the perspective of the convict who returns to England from Australia.

But although Carey went to what he calls "a particularly posh" Australian boarding school, he claims he didn't discover literature until he was out of school. He studied chemistry at Monash University for just a year before leaving to work in advertising. There, surrounded by readers and would-be writers, he discovered the great literature of the 20th century, including authors like Joyce, Faulkner and Beckett. "To read Faulkner for the first time was for me like discovering another planet," Carey said in an interview with The Guardian. "The pleasure of that language, the politics of giving voice to the voiceless."

Publishers rejected Carey's first three novels, so he began writing short stories. These, he later said, "felt like the first authentic things I had done." He was still working for an advertising agency when his first collection of short stories appeared in 1973, and he kept the part-time job after moving to an "alternative community" in Queensland. His first published novel, Bliss (1981), won a prestigious Australian literary prize, the Miles Franklin Award. The book is about an advertising executive who has a near-death experience and ends up living in a rural commune.

Carey's later novels ranged farther outside the bounds of his own experience, but he continued to develop his concern with Australian identity. 1988's Oscar and Lucinda, which tells the story of a colonial Australian heiress and her ill-fated love for an English clergyman, won the Booker Prize and helped establish Carey as one of the literary heavyweights of his generation. He won another Booker Prize for True History of the Kelly Gang (2000), the story of a notorious 19th-century outlaw whose legacy still shapes Australia's consciousness.

Though Carey now lives and teaches in New York City, his home country and its past still possess his imagination. ''History,'' he writes, ''is like a bloodstain that keeps on showing on the wall no matter how many new owners take possession, no matter how many times we paint over it.''

Extras
• Peter Carey and J. M. Coetzee are the only two-time Booker Prize winners to date.

• Carey caused a stir in the British press when he declined an invitation to meet Queen Elizabeth II. The royal invitation is extended to all winners of the Commonwealth Writers Prize, which Carey received in 1998 for Jack Maggs. He did meet the Queen after he won the award a second time, for True History of the Kelly Gang in 2001.

• Fans of Carey's work know that in 1997, Oscar and Lucinda was made into a critically acclaimed movie starring Ralph Fiennes and Cate Blanchett. But they may not know that Carey wrote the screenplay for the critically panned Wim Wenders film Until the End of the World (1991) as well as the screenplay adaptation of his own novel, Bliss (1991). (From Barnes & Noble.)



Book Reviews 
Tocqueville, recast here in garish tones as Olivier-Jean-Baptiste de Clarel de Garmont, strolls out of his famous Democracy in America and into the pages of this kaleidoscopic story along with the whole grasping, bragging, bargaining cast of our ravenous nation. It's another feat of acrobatic ventriloquism, joining Carey's masterpieces, Jack Maggs, which pulled on a loose thread in Dickens's Great Expectations, and True History of the Kelly Gang, which blasted through the life of a legendary Australian outlaw.
Ron Charles - Washington Post


The eminently talented Carey (Theft) has the gift of engaging ventriloquism, and having already channeled the voices of Dickens’s Jack Maggs and the Australian folk hero/master thief Ned Kelly, he now inhabits Olivier-Jean-Baptist de Clarel de Barfleur, a fictionalized version of Alexis de Tocqueville, whose noble parents are aghast at his involvement in the events surrounding Napoleon’s return and the reigns of Louis XVIII and Charles X. To remove him from danger, they send him to America, where priggish snob Olivier inspires Carey’s humor during his self-centered adventures in New York, New England, and Philadelphia. Olivier can’t shake his aristocratic disdain of raw-mannered, money-obsessed Americans—until he falls for a Connecticut beauty. More lovable is Parrot, aka John Larrit, who survives Australia’s penal colony only to be pressed into traveling with Olivier as servant and secret spy for Olivier’s mother. Though their relationship begins in mutual hatred, it evolves into affectionate comradeship as they experience the alien social and cultural milieus of the New World. Richly atmospheric, this wonderful novel is picaresque and Dickensian, with humor and insight injected into an accurately rendered period of French and American history.
Publishers Weekly


Olivier-Jean-Baptiste de Clarel de Garmont is French nobility, son of survivors of the French Revolution. Olivier has had every privilege and is acutely aware of his relative social position. Imagine his surprise and discomfort when he is banished, for his own safety, to newly emerging democratic America. Son of an itinerant English printer, with a colorful and varied past, Parrot proves an unlikely companion. Parrot is sent to accompany Olivier as his servant and secretary, with the secret mission of reporting Olivier's activities back to his mother in France. The story alternates between Parrot and Olivier, who narrate from their widely different points of view. Featuring well-developed and multifaceted characters (the novel was inspired by the life of Alexis de Tocqueville), this book is rife with humorous details and turns of phrase, and the language is sophisticated (readers might want to have a dictionary handy). Verdict: Written by a two-time Booker Prize winner, this engaging book will be particularly appreciated by readers interested in early 19th-century American history, the French aristocracy, and emerging democracy. —Sarah Conrad Weisman, Corning Community Coll. Lib., NY
Library Journal


A New World historical novel from Carey, the two-time Australian-born winner of the Man Booker prize. We start in the Old World. When the nobleman Olivier de Garmont is born in 1805, post-revolutionary France is still volatile. Olivier lost a grandfather to the guillotine. His parents remain in exile until the Bourbon Restoration. Olivier's liberal sentiments endanger him during the next revolution (July 1830), and his ultra-royalist mother decides he should be sent out of harm's way, to America. She acts through her confidant, the one-armed Marquis de Tilbot, and his middle-aged servant, known as Parrot, a most undeferential Englishman. Parrot's story: As a boy in England, he was rescued by de Tilbot after his father's wrongful arrest for forging banknotes, sent to Australia where he married and had a child, then was plucked away again by the Marquis. (All this dribbles out in flashbacks.) Olivier is drugged and put aboard a vessel to New York, together with Parrot. Now the nobleman has transplantation in common with his thrice-uprooted new servant. His cover story in America will be that he is investigating their prison system, as did another French nobleman, Alexis de Tocqueville, the inspiration for this novel. Carey's nobleman is a playful distortion of de Tocqueville, for Olivier is a nincompoop, myopic both literally and figuratively, with zero interest in prisons and slow to realize the resourcefulness of his savvy Parrot. Carey exploits this comic material only fitfully, though he cooks up some adventures for the odd couple and a romance for Olivier, who falls for the daughter of a Connecticut landowner ("I had arrived, quite unexpectedly, in Paradise.") Their starry-eyedcourtship distracts attention from a more interesting development: the budding friendship between the principals ("in a democracy...both parties know that the servant may at any moment become the master"). Quirky and erudite, but the payoff in human-interest terms is meager.
Kirkus Reviews



Discussion Questions 
1. Why does Carey choose to let Parrot and Olivier narrate their own stories? What makes their narrative voices so distinctive and engaging? What would be lost if the novel were told from a single perspective or by an omniscient narrator?

2. In what ways are Parrot and Olivier uniquely positioned to represent the huge social changes that were sweeping across Europe and America during the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries?

3. As he arrives in America, Olivier remarks that "the coast of Connecticut was the most shocking monument to avarice one could have ever witnessed, its ancient forests gone, smashed down and carted off for profit" (p. 144). What other instances of American greed does he observe? What is the irony of a French aristocrat being appalled by the greed given free rein by American democracy?

4. Carey's prose style in Parrot and Olivier in America is vivid, richly metaphoric, and often extravagantly sensuous. When Parrot and Mathilde make up after a fight, for example, Parrot writes that her "hands were dragging at my clothes and her upturned face was filled with cooey dove and tiger rage. Her mouth was washed with tears. I ate her, drank her, boiled her, stroked her till she was like a lovely flapping fish and her hair was drenched and our eyes held and our skins slid off each other and we smelled like farm animals, seaweed, the tanneries upriver" (p. 148). What are the pleasures of such writing? Where else in the novel does the writing reach this pitch of overflowing metaphor?

5. What does Olivier find to be the most appealing characteristics of America's fledgling democracy? What does he find most baffling?

6. Olivier is loosely based on Alexis de Tocqueville, the French aristocrat and author of the classic Democracy in America. In what ways does Olivier resemble Tocqueville? In what ways does Carey depart from the historical figure to create his own character?

7. How do Parrot and Olivier initially regard each other? What are the major turning points that lead to their unlikely friendship? Why is their friendship possible only in America?

8. At the end of the novel, Olivier argues that America's young democracy "will not ripen well," that it will suffer the "tyranny of the majority" (p. 378), and that the American people prefer their leaders to be just as undereducated as they are. He goes on to tell Parrot: "You will follow fur traders and woodsmen as your presidents, and they will be as barbarians at the head of armies, ignorant of geography and science, the leaders of a mob daily educated by a perfidious press which will make them so confident and ignorant that the only books on their shelves will be instruction manuals…" (p. 380). Parrot attributes Olivier's harsh judgment to being heartbroken and having suffered as - a child of the awful guillotine' (p. 380). But to what extent have Olivier's predictions come true? In what ways can this passage be read as a sly commentary on recent presidents and the sorry state of the press in America?

9. How are Olivier and Parrot differently affected by the leveling of class distinctions in America? Does Parrot benefit from being in America?

10. Why does Amelia break off her engagement to Olivier? Does she make the right decision? Is Olivier better off without her?

11. Of the banker Peek's mortgage loan to Mathilde, Parrot says: "For Peek had played Shylock with her, himself lending her the capital and loading her to breaking point with every type of extra fee, compulsory insurance, brokerage, advance payments on taxes I am still sure that he invented" (p. 272). How surprising is it to see this version of today's housing boondoggles played out in in the 1830s? What is the significance of these schemes having such a long history?

12. After he discovers that Mathilde, Eckerd, and Watkins have burned down their house for insurance money, Parrot exclaims: "You are scoundrels, all of you." To which Mathilde replies: "We are artists. We have a right to live" (p. 314). Is Parrot right to call them scoundrels? Or is Mathilde's point of view the more sympathetic one?

13. What are some of the funniest moments in Parrot and Olivier in America? What makes Carey's writing so humorous?

14. What does the novel add to our knowledge of the early period of American democracy by seeing it through the perspectives of Parrot and Olivier? In what ways does the era described in the novel mirror our own?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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