In the novel, BLISS, Peter Carey used a number of narrative devices to facilitate the conveyance of the story. The most significant of these was his use of storytelling – he created narratives within a narrative, or what Robert Scholes called fabulation in his book ‘FABULATION AND METAFICTION’ (Scholes, cited Dovey, 1983) For example, by the means of Vance’s story of New York:
In New York there are towers of glass. It is the most beautiful and terrible city on earth. All good, all evil exist there. . . . If you know where to look, you can find the devil. That is where he lives. . . . But New York is full of saints, they . . .” (Carey, 1982 p. 18).
Carey was able to introduce the ideas of power, evil, goodness, and fascination with America generally, and New York in particular into the story. This fabulation was varied and involved many of his characters.
Primarily the stories told to Harry by his father, Vance, then retold by Harry to his family, friends and work associates, were the basis for Bettina’s dreams and aspirations of success, while they became a security blanket for Harry in times of stress. From them sprang the lies and dreams of his son, David, who wanted to be able to tell stories like his father. When he discovered that he had no talents for narration, he determined to live out a story of his own devising, even though it led to his death.
Alex Duval’s secret, truthful reports were another variation of storytelling, and another device for bringing the theme of cancer and corruption to the attention of the reader. It also re-introduced the message of punishment for wrong-doing which gradually built up within the story.
Honey Barbara’s stories of her commune home, of Krishna and folk-law, and even of the ‘dream police’, were also a form of fabulation. They suggested an alternative lifestyle to the corrupt, degenerate one that Harry was currently living – a tempting Paradise as a foil for the Hell in which he felt trapped.
Bettina’s advertisements, and her dreams of New York, were also fabulation, providing her character with substance and a sense of reality. At the asylum the old man, Nurse, who wrote down his memories so he wouldn’t forget them after treatment; the matron, Alice Dalton, who told the boy scouts about the business of running an asylum; at the restaurant Aldo, with his story of his cancer and its treatment with marijuana; from the circus, Billy de Vere, who told the elephant story which became a reality, and a nightmare for Harry – all added their individual stories to the composite narrative.
By using these individuals to tell their separate stories, Carey was able to present the reader with a variety of viewpoints, despite the fact that he had the overall narrative being presented by a single narrator, who was eventually revealed as one of Harry and Honey Barabara’s children.
In the movie this use of narrator was altered, although it was still a device used to draw the viewer’s attention to the theme of storytelling throughout the movie. It opened with Harry (in the present) telling a story, which he called ‘The Vision Splendid’ as told to him by his father. This immediately introduced the viewer to the religious nature of the coming movie, yet what followed didn’t initially seem so. Rather the next scene showed family and friends at the aftermath of a dinner-party, drinking, smoking, swearing and appearing generally debauched. This device of visual gluttony and degradation was used as a device several times in the movie to draw attention to the Hellish nature of Harry’s existence.
The next narrator, who we recognised as an older Harry, then took over the narration to tell of Harry’s deaths, madness, and final move to Paradise. At this point the narration changed from third person to first as Harry’s identity as the narrator was affirmed. But the final scene was narrated by his daughter, as he was unable to tell of his own final death.
Carey used this story-telling device to work for his characters as well as against them. When Harry got caught up in the elephant story he lost control – he was in a story not of his father’s making or of his own telling. But it was significant that he solved the problem by telling the only original story he was ever to tell. Unfortunately, this clever use of the device was omitted from the movie, with Harry’s reward of freedom being attributed to the relinquishing of the marijuana to the police. Ultimately, however, Harry was able in both book and movie to attribute his freedom to being good, and thus begin his ascent out of Hell. This was indicated in the book when ‘ . . . the taxi drove him across the bridge, the river below appeared as black as the Styx.’ (Carey, 1982, p. 73).
Carey used shift in time as a device to introduce Vance’s stories from the past, and to take us into the future to see David’s demise. However, although the directors had the ideal medium for exploiting time-shift scenes, they rarely took advantage of it, showing the adult Harry with his father as a dream rather than a true jump back in time. By contrast, Carey’s adroit use of this time-shift device, linked as it was to the story-telling device, kept the reader involved and gave them a hindsight for what was to follow.
While sex and cancer were themes of the story I believe that they were also devices which were used as markers in the story. Initially sex was graphic and rampant, used to mark people’s relationships with each other, and thus to the whole story. The fact that Harry was unaware of the debauchery around him was used to heighten the shock experienced by him when he did see it.
Sex was also a commodity, to be bought and sold – Lucy with David to buy her drugs, Honey Barbara with Harry for the first time as a means of giving in to the Hell in which he lived, Bettina with Joel as a mark of power to be gained in their prospective futures. But sex had a double edge – it could be used for good or evil. Honey Barbara represented the good, wholesome capacities of sex, while Bettina and Joel’s led to self-destruction.
The text was marked by sexual episodes, both in the book and the movie, until Harry found Honey Barbara in the car on his front lawn. That episode marked the attaining of sexual bliss, and after that sex was only implied for the rest of the story – even when Harry finally reached Paradise and won Honey Barbara back with his tree-planting love-letter we only knew they’d had sex because we discovered the offspring as a narrator.
When sex ceased directly to mark the text, and as the arguments slowly disintegrated the household and Honey Barbara’s strength, we saw her reduced to her original status as a commodity. Sex as a device was supplanted by the device of money as a power to be controlled in the lives of all at Harry’s house.
Cancer was a very important marker in the story, creeping insidiously into the story, as it would through a body. It was used three times specifically to make the reader more aware each time of its importance to the story. Aldo was the first cancer victim to mark the narrative. His case was dealt with in a low-key way. The second cancer marker was the wife of Harry’s client, Adrian Clunes, who described quite graphically how his wife had cancer. “She weighs four stone and six pounds and everyone comes, like ghouls, to look at her. Our friends are nice enough to stay away, . . . ” (Carey, 1982, p. 117)
At this point the Cancer Map was introduced, a device which strengthened Harry’s resolve to fire his client as his first constructive step towards being good and getting out of Hell. The map was the concrete evidence of the cancer symbol that was used to show that life in the city, and in society, was like a cancerous growth festering and nurtured from within – fed on foul air, drink, smoke, pollution, petrol fumes, in fact most commodities.
Bettina’s cancer was the final marker, closest to home, affecting the reader directly because she was one of the main characters – not just a friend or an associate’s wife. Her explosive death, and Joel’s subsequent suicide signalled an end to Harry’s Hell, and his enslavement by Bettina to the advertising business. He escaped to Paradise and safety, yet seemed to take some of his Hell with him, as he found the rainforest initially unreceptive, and Honey Barbara hostile.
Death was not only a theme throughout the narrative, but was also a device with which Carey manipulated both his characters and the reader. We knew in advance, for example, that Harry would die by the end of the story, as the opening lines were “Harry Joy was to die three times, but it was his first death which was to have the greatest effect on him,. . .” (Carey, 1982, p. 7) This statement/opening device prepared us for the story to follow, though not for the extremes that it would take.
The text was liberally sprinkled with deaths which were either drug-induced, cancerous, or suicidal – all unnatural deaths. Even the final, ultimate death of Harry was caused by a branch of one of his beloved trees falling on him – even in Paradise he wasn’t really safe from death.
In the movie symbolism was used as a narrative device implying by its presence the presence of its associate. An example of this was the use of cockroaches which first appeared emerging from Harry’s chest after his open-heart surgery. They represented, by their connotation of the lowest-of-the-low, the embodiment of Hell. Later they were to appear crawling across Harry’s bedroom wall, with its pseudo-Paradise mural, in the scene where Honey Barbara was reduced to her commodity status – Harry told her that she knew how much she cost him to keep, so she was not to say she didn’t love him.
Another device used in the movie to represent the presence of Hell was a musical motif – a sliding down a semi-tone on a violin string, slightly distorted, creating an unnerving, uncomfortable yet sad feeling. This was effectively used during the period of time following Harry’s operation, and his second imagined death, until his escape to Paradise – the rainforest.
The movie directors were able to use many devices symbolically. Apart from the cockroaches, music, and sardines to represent the evidence of sexual misbehaviour, they were able to show visually the degradation of the city, its traffic, its pollution from smoking chimneys, car fumes, rubbish, and its greyness.
Allied to this the degradation of the people was seen by showing the stained linen, both bed and table, the clutter of unwashed plates, cutlery, glasses, full ashtrays that filled a scene, with the people an integral part of the debauchery. All characters were shown smoking, a symbol of cancer, continually, during meals, meetings, sex, arguments, parties, and working. This device showed how evil and Hell had pervaded all of society.
Against this the directors were able to portray the rainforest as green, glistening, clean, filled with singing birds and rippling streams. When Harry entered this Paradise he had to pass through a fire, symbolic of cleansing, to reach safety – the precarious nature of which was noted-by-device of having a burning branch fall directly behind Harry as he thought of safety.
The ultimate movie device was the viewpoint of the camera – used most effectively to show Harry’s out-of-body experiences at his first death, including the Heaven and Hell visuals, and his final death as he rises to the tree-tops to be inhaled by the trees.
Carey in his book endeavoured to present the narrative by using devices as a movie director would – cutting from scene to scene, shifting in time, using markers as a director would use symbols. And most effectively, he allowed the story-telling of his characters to tell the story for him.
(C) Jud House 28/08/2005
Carey, P. (1982). BLISS. London: Picador, Pan Books Ltd.
Carey, P. (1981). EXOTIC PLEASURES. London: Picador, Pan Books Ltd.
Dovey, Teresa “An Infinite Onion: Narrative Structure in Peter Carey’s Fiction”, ALS, Vol 11, No 2, Oct 1983, pp. 195-204.
Sibree, Bron “Carey Faces up to Fame”, WEST AUSTRALIAN paper, Saturday August 10, 1991
Turner, Graeme “American Dreaming: The Fictions of Peter Carey”, ALS, 12, 4, 1986, pp.431-441.
Willbanks, Ray. (1992) SPEAKING VOLUMES: Australian writers and their work. Melbourne: Penguin.
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