- Telling Lies and Stories:Peter Carey's Bliss
There are many stories in Peter Carey's Bliss, and not a few lies, but there is one story that enjoys a special, privileged status. This is the story of Little Titch that Harry Joy invents under duress and tells to Constable Box and Sergeant Hastings, "the only original story he would ever tell" (76). I want to examine the story of Little Titch, and the sequence of other stories in which it is embedded, as a point of entry into Carey's larger "story" in Bliss, the bildungsroman of Harry Joy's mid-life crisis, his fall into hell, and his eventual attaining of "bliss." A story about telling stories, Bliss is postmodern in its awareness of the problematic nature of trying "to grasp reality through a fictitious construct" (Wright 150), and yet it uses such problematic stories to make narrative sense of extra-fictional experience.1 [End Page 637]
The story of Daniel or Little Titch is a double parable of survival in a brutal world. Titch's mother survives, despite her diminutive size, by displaying her disability—notably in the 1909 Queenscliff competition for The Shortest Woman, which she wins. Little Titch, who admires the silver cup his mother won at Queenscliff, develops his own strategy for survival, attaching himself to the lashing rear leg of the vicious gelding Billy-boy, the only place where his persecutors—his father and his older brothers—are afraid to approach him.2
At the end of Little Titch's story, the teller is "as perplexed (who was Little Titch?) and as embarrassed" as his audience; but—perhaps instinctively, or as in a dream—his narrative images both his own immediate need to escape the brutality of the police station and also his larger need to devise a strategy for survival in the hell in which he has just discovered that he is living. The Little Titch section is thus a microcosmic version of the story of Bliss as a whole. It also enjoys the dual status of being an invention, that is, in some sense a lie, and yet in another sense true to Harry's experience, because in telling it, the author informs us, he is "glimpsing the true nature of his sin" (76). And after telling the story and being released from custody, Harry feels rejuvenated, experiencing "the rewards of originality" (79). It is, however, his only original story, and he cannot invent another for his wife Bettina (80).
Harry's only original story is embedded in a series of other stories, some of which are self-evidently highly fictive. Harry is at the police station, for example, as a result of an earlier, very unoriginal story—the elephant that allegedly sat on his red Fiat 500, mistaking it for the red box on which it was (supposedly) trained to sit (it may be a subtextual pun that one of the policemen who pick up Harry is a senior Constable Box). The elephant story has acquired the status of an urban legend (Smith 27), and a variant of it is used, for example, in the television advertisement for AAMI Car Insurance in which an elephant stands on a car. The story is first told to Harry at Milanos Restaurant by Aldo and Billy de Vere from the circus, and the narration stresses its fictive status:
"What happened?" Harry asked. . . .
"Drink first . . . or you']] think I'm lying. . . ."
"It is almost the same as the original story" . . . "No . . . in the original . . . it was a red Volkswagen" . . . "No ... it was a Fiat. . . ."
"Life," Billy de Vere raised his glass, "imitating art. Or should I say . . . life imitating bullshit."
"Do you know the story about the Elephant, Mr Joy?" Aldo said. "Because very soon you are going to have to tell it to your insurance company."
Aldo and Billy de Vere roared laughing.(69-70) [End Page 638]
Very soon Harry has to tell it to Constable Box and Sergeant Hastings, who pull him over for driving his crushed Fiat, decide he is either "a smart arse or a looney" (72), and take him to the police station...