Among the many things about democracy that annoyed the French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville during his 1830s tour of America was the shape-shifting quality of language under its influence. He complained, in his classic treatise Democracy in America, that the restless spirit of citizens under this political system led to the constant creation of new words and new meanings at every turn. There was a chaos and a swagger to these linguistic innovations that the nobleman, happier with the changeless hierarchies of the ancien regime, could not bear. “Thus rope dancers,” he wrote, “are turned into acrobats and funambulists.”
Peter Carey – whose new novel, Parrot and Olivier in America, fictionalizes Tocqueville’s American field trip – is an accomplished and unapologetic funambulist when it comes to prose. His sentences walk tightropes, and the thrill to be had from them can be described as verbal vertigo. Consider how Ned Kelly, the hero of his True History of the Kelly Gang, sums up his displaced forefathers: “our brave parents was ripped from Ireland like teeth from the mouth of their own history.” Carey proves Tocqueville’s point about language in America; his writing is rambunctious and innovative. Continue to read my review in The Abu Dhabi Review, the arts and ideaa section of The National.