Fun and games with the Fastalogians

Collected Stories by Peter Carey Faber, pounds 14.99; Hugo Barnacle loses patience with unnamed countries and sly evasions in modern tales

Peter Carey's short stories nearly all date from the 1970s, and they tend to bang on about US imperialism. Not only was Australia becoming heavily Americanised at the time, transforming culturally from a British dominion into a California-with-kangaroos, but young Australians actually got drafted to go and fight in Vietnam, so this posture is not as foolish as it looks. Nevertheless, there is something of an historical air about it now.

Many of the stories are set in a dystopian future, which is itself a period touch - you will recall that Mad Max launched Mel Gibson's career as long ago as 1979 - and the style is usually magical-realist, which is the literary equivalent of crushed velvet.

In "The Chance'', Earth has been taken over by some people from outer space called Fastalogians. "What the Americans did to us with their yearly car-models and two-weekly cigarette lighters was nothing compared to the Fastalogians, who introduced concepts so dazzling that we fell prey to them wholesale, like South Sea islanders exposed to the common cold.''

Note how the sentence obeys the rules of advertising copy, the provision of which has been Carey's day job for most of his working life. It doesn't actually make sense, because the bit in the middle should read "compared to what the Fastalogians did'', but that would be wordier, not quite so snappy, and Carey wouldn't be able to hook on the sub-clause with the relative pronoun. So the sentence doesn't have much logical integrity, but it does have a nice, plausible, persuasive sheen to it, and everybody's happy.

The Fastalogians are, in fact, rather like the Americans. "Their attitude was eager, frenetic almost, as they attempted to please in the most childish way imaginable. (In confrontation they became much less pleasant... )''. The main advantage of their technology is a device that allows you to transfer your mind into a different body. No one knows how it works, but "We were used to not understanding... After all, we had never grasped the technicalities of the television sets the Americans sold us.'' The twist is that the Hups, a sect drawn from the right-on middle classes, all set out to acquire ugly, stunted bodies in sympathy with the proletariat, and the hero's beautiful girlfriend turns out to be a Hup. The satire is quite pleasing, though there is less to it than meets the eye. There are no real Fastalogians, only Americans; no Hups, only hippies; so that's what it's all about, but this way of putting it makes both writer and reader feel cleverer, and once again everybody's happy.

A number of other stories are set, like Seventies TV plays, in imaginary, unnamed countries with sinister regimes. "Kristu-Du'' features a Western architect who is building a vast tribal assembly hall for a brutal African dictator, and inadvertently turns the monster into a god when the drought-stricken people see rain fall inside the dome on the building's opening day: the nice irony is slightly undercut by the fact that architects had recognised and solved the problem of condensation in large domes, and the idea had become a chestnut, long before the story was written.

There is a certain element of childish nastiness about the collection, which some readers may find bracing. "The Fat Man in History'', for instance, involves cannibalism (in an unnamed country with a sinister regime in a dystopian future); "The Uses of Williamson Wood'' turns on whether someone will eat dogshit for $200; the narrator of "Journey of a Lifetime'' (in a UC with an SR in a DF) finds that the ice in his gin and tonic has been taken from the quantity in which a dead body has been packed; and "A Schoolboy Prank'' features a group of men digging up their old schoolmaster's dead dog from his garden and nailing it to his front door. To children, of course, this kind of thing has a fascination because it is taboo; the same may well apply to advertising men, whose job is to look on the bright side.

The best story is "The Puzzling Nature of Blue'', a fine character study of a man "in a state of conflict between his heartfelt principles and his need to be well thought of by people'', which maintains a slightly eerie or fantastical atmosphere despite being set in a recognisably real world. Suggestive of Conrad, it shows that Carey on top form is very good indeed. The worst is "Letter to Our Son'', a blow-by-blow account of Carey Junior's conception and birth, which will force the little chap to live in Ecuador under a false name when he grows up.

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