Many modern novels that riff off older canon classics have a way of becoming stale and contrite even before the characters are fully developed. They rely too heavily on the audience’s knowledge of the classic they borrow from–or worse, they make cheap allusions that clearly harken back to themes and characters and plot points of said classic in order to prompt even-cheaper “ah-ha!s” from the reader. This of course begs the question: why one would read a book simply for the references to a beloved work? Why would one seek to satiate their desires with vague reproductions of what they truly find irresistable, when what they really want is still staring at them, lovingly although perhaps tattered and dog-eared, from their shelves? The only reason one would do this, would be in pursuit of something better. And perhaps that is a noble goal, and why we give these books a shot. But often, authors who attempt to not just borrow, but overextend the stories of renowned, usually long-dead and copyright-free authors end up playing sycophant in order to win critical acclaim, and/or a large audience.
But there is a larger reality–every author and piece of fiction is borrowing from someone. So it’s a sliding scale, an unending venn diagram, where some overlapping is always the case–to truly deny outside inspiration is surely only possible when turning in a blank page. So there must be a sort of middle ground, or some formulas or algorithms for what makes a palatable story that identifiably borrows from a few major works that predate it. They might be impossible to fully discover, but the examples where they are executed to some degree of ingenuity are out there–one of them being Peter Carey’s Jack Maggs. The story itself borrows from Charles Dickens. But the story expatiates considerably enough so that the slightly annoying references (Great Expectations, Phipps=Pip, Tobias=starving journalist) recede into the background of overall good storytelling.
Carey sets himself a hefty goal–to write a story in the style of a Dickensian novel, and yet to add flourishes that Dickens’ editors (or Dickens own internal editor with a thirst to be widely read/bought) would have barred from his pages. That is to say, that unlike other “biographical fictions” or “modern-day sequels,” Carey seeks to improve the form, and add to the story. Having read some of these “modern adaptations,” it is clear that the intent is merely to continue a dead art–whether it be in the voice of a 19th century writer, or a story that should be left well-enough alone (i.e. “Mr. and Mrs. Darcy in Pemberley,” etc.). Carey’s style harkens back to Dickens’ day, but the language is not forced, and there are no overly obtrusive allusions for those cheap seats in the back (i.e. those looking for the “ah-ha”s). Some of the turns of phrase were fun to read, and their placement was not forced (ex.: “throwing pearls on the dowager,” or “dancing the Newgate jig”).
But the main distraction, or perhaps attraction, depending on a reader’s taste, would have to be the layers and mirrors that Carey holds up to the characters and their relationships with each other, and to the reader. The book, even before the novel begins, highlights the idea of the somnambulist (the person who engages in somnambulism, or sleepwalking). But more than this, Carey plays with the idea of possessing a hypnotic ability to extract story from those who know not what they say–to prod consciousness while in an unconscious state. It could be argued that the ability to imperceptibly flitch intimate narrative from one that does not even realize you have taken it is far more horrific than any of the legitimate mortal threats contained in this novel. Tobias Oates, the stand-in Dickensian, the poor yet prodigiously talented writer, is the self-identified hypnotist who, as if a surgeon, removes snippets of Jack Maggs’ former life in order to obtain a copyright and advance for his next novel–one that explores, from the inside-out, the criminal mind. But this idea, of opening the mind to outside interpretation opens a whole other can of fictional analysis–what is a piece of fiction, if not the extraction of narrative from an author’s mind, a child rent from the grey matter like some escaped criminal, on the lam, disguised as Athena in prose? Isn’t every piece of fiction some illegal returnee, seeking vengeance or reconciliation? Jack Maggs is not just the unpredictable character of interest, he is the narrative, he is the inner inspiration, the dark and looming figure that can create, or destroy. And that creates the most suspense, even as we sit nestled in our snuggeries leafing through our favorite tome. We have become the hypnotists, and the hypnotized.