Bliss, Peter Carey’s debut novel (1981) is exactly that. It’s also an outrageous comedy full of off-beat humour.
I’m sorry that it took me this long to enter his world of quirky Australian characters and his cynical take on consumerism. The book is a gem and draws heavily on Carey’s seeming frustration of working in advertising.
The story centres around the experiences of Harry Joy – a doleful advertising wiz who has his world turned upside-down after experiencing a medical death. From this point, we are taken on Harry’s skittish journey as he contemplates whether he has really been resuscitated or his world is in fact hell.
Carey creates an image of daily 1980s Australians life that could indeed be a certain sort of captivity. It’s a money-obsessed world where family and friends are readily sacrificed for self-advancement. There’s little love between any of the characters, and that is particularly true of Harry’s family – which reads as the perfect send-up of the Atomic Family.
Amongst the Joys there is the drug-running son, the communist daughter and the capricious wife. A wonderful farce that occasionally flirts with believability.
Outside of the house, in Harry Joy’s hell – there are three types of ‘creatures’ – ‘captives, actors and those in charge’. While at times this frame can feel a bit laboured (with vents on ecology and ethics), the book is at its best when it walks a delicate line between the farfetched and the outright frightening. In particular, I thought Carey’s representation of ‘Alice Dalton’ – a self-described ‘pioneer of the mental health industry’ was masterful.
Alice Dalton, a minor character who makes a living out of keeping people in ‘her’ psychiatric hospital (whether they need to be there or not) sums this up. Through Alice, Carey represents a hilarious critique on the money drivers of ‘care’ that is well ahead of its time. I found myself squirming as Carey creates a near Donald Trump for tongue to capture the absurdity of this ‘hell’ in describing the perils of her business model:
“Those nasty little worms in Social Welfare expel my patients of put their clients into the cheapest place they can find. And believe me, there are some very cheap beds being offered, not the luxury we have here. Even the cancer patients don’t make up the shortfall”
Another key character in the book is Honey Barbara, who serves as the voice of reason in the book and a key plot device for Carey to inject the occasional beautiful poetic flourish. The very fact that this character, a ‘call-girl’ from a northern New South Wales marijuana farm adds to the absurdity.
The book is not without its space for reflection. There’s a lot to be appreciated about how Carey weaves through the narrative of ‘hell’, ties it to family and working life and still makes you laugh at the end of that.
It’s a balance that is captured beautifully through Honey’s ongoing observations of Harry’s change:
“he had seemed so cramped, so tense, so unnatural that she thought about him in the way she thought about Bonsai trees which she always acted to liberate: to gently break their pots, unbind their roots, to take them back into the bush and let them grow.”
Bliss is an under-appreciated and seminal work in Australian literature. It’s a perfect book for anyone grappling with a funk and looking for a way to laugh about it all. 5/5.