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Tabula Rasa

The Tax Inspector

by Peter Carey. University of Queensland Press, 1991. ISBN 0-7022-3256-4.

A review by David Carroll, 2002.

The Tax Inspector, 2001 coverAll around Vishnabarnu were the names of angels. They hung over him like a woven web, a net, like a map of the human brain drawn across the walls and ceilings of the world. He knew himself a long way from God.

This is a bit unfair. Of the various Peter Carey novels I have read, The Tax Inspector probably did the least for me. Singling it out for review is not really providing a representative sample of his work (though I guess the same rather useless criticism could be made if I reviewed my favourite of them, Oscar and Lucinda). Also, Peter Carey has just won his second Booker -- not to mention pretty much every other award that True History of the Kelly Gang was eligible for, and probably a few it wasn't -- so I suspect I'm not going to be doing irreparable harm to reputations here. The reason I am reviewing The Tax Inspector some eleven years after its date of publication is that it falls squarely within the jurisdiction of this website, and in particular is a fascinating look at juxtaposing modern Australian lit with the Serial Killer Novel™.

Lets start at the beginning. The Tax Inspector is centred around Catchprice Motors, a car dealership a little way out of Sydney, who have found themselves increasingly isolated from potential customers. It's a family business, and three generations of the Catchprices work on the premises -- Frieda, who co-founded the business despite her better judgement, her children Mort and Cathy, and her grandson Benny. The novel opens with Benny being fired, family business or not. There are also a few other Catchprices waiting in the wings -- Vishnabarnu has escaped to become a Hare Krishna, and Jack Catchprice has escaped into the big, bad world as a successful property developer. Escape is the operative word here, because neither the business nor the family is a healthy place to be, although both of them find it a lot more difficult to disentangle themselves than they would like. That's also a lesson Maria Takis is going to learn, when she arrives one Monday morning to conduct a tax audit.

Into this mix throw some Sydney gangsters and a veritable dungeon complete with instruments of torture and the scribblings of religious mania, and you know it's going to get messy.

I don't want to draw the serial killer connection out too far (if you've read it, you might be able to guess why), but nonetheless I do think this novel is deliberately drawing on the genre that was particularly popular in the early 90s. Silence of the Lambs came out in 1988 and cemented Thomas Harris as an important figure (Red Dragon started that off way back in 1981). Both American Psycho and the adaptation of Silence came out in 1991, which certainly didn't hurt. There were an awful lot of lesser examples of course, and not just from the usual offenders, ye humble horror novelists. As Richard Glover asked in his review of The Tax Inspector: ' Why is it... that every time I pick up a literary novel these days, I seem to end up in some cellar with a demented sexual pervert?' (SMH 27/7/1991 -- yeah, we've quoted that before). It actually took another couple of years before some works distinguished themselves from the pack -- the likes of Joyce Carol Oates' Zombie and Poppy Z Brite's Exquisite Corpse. (An Australian example, Justine Ettler's The River Ophelia, is also of some interest.)

But back to Carey, and does this comparison help at all? I think so, and not only because of the contents of that cellar. It is generally believed by the Catchprices that this audit is going to be the end of them. The various family members react in their own ways -- at least, when they're not too preoccupied with all the other family shit they've got to deal with -- but Benny has perhaps the most interesting solution. He wants to show Maria the effects of what she is doing. He tries to get her to see them as 'real people', and so she will not be able to complete her task. It's a neat reversal of the standard defence against serial killers that is often attempted in various of the books I've mentioned. Often the killer can only complete the kill by dehumanising his victims, making them faceless participants in his rituals, and yet such a defence is often useless -- breaking the ritual only leads to a more uncontrolled violence. Those rituals are often for a higher purpose, a twisted rationale that leads to this degradation and torment. Maria has her own rituals and purpose -- she very much sees herself as a Tax Inspector, but the Catchprices is not what she has in mind.

There are plenty of other trappings of the genre as well; child abuse, violent pornography, kidnap and terror tactics are to be found within. There are other twists Carey makes. It could even be said there is an interesting parallel with Hannibal Lector -- or rather, the contrast that Lector makes with Jame Gumb that is at the heart of Silence -- but I wouldn't advise searching too carefully for such things. One, it may be a bit of a stretch, and two, there are more important things you should be paying attention to.

Despite playing with the archetypes, Carey is not really interested in making a thriller out of any of this. As usual, he concentrates on the characters and their stories, and conveying his wonderful knack for detail and the twisted yet compelling logic that underpins his societies. If you haven't read any Carey, then let me just say he has a truly masterly touch at convincing you of the truth of a situation, no matter how awful or obscure. The Tax Inspector is just as much about selling cars (a feature of his early work, with both Bliss and Illywhacker covering this at one stage of the process or another), the experience of immigrants, tax evasion, pregnancy, Sydney (a topic he recently devoted a whole (mostly) non-fiction book to -- which contains a bit of a spoiler for this novel, strangely enough), and the strange roads taken in the pursuit of a flower garden. It's all good stuff...

But.

As I implied at the beginning, the novel didn't really work. Carey's writing is always dense and intricate, and he's thus not the easiest author to read -- though at its best the sheer beauty of it is more than enough reward. But here the pay-off never quite happened for me. His second novel Illywhacker is a bit of a tough slog (more so than this one), but has a magnificent finale. Perhaps the thriller tropes won out here, because there is a rather more conventional ending that, whilst undoubtedly primal, left me a little bemused. There seemed to be loose ends, and I wanted more out of some of his diversions. I'm not sure the second generation of Catchprice's -- Mort, Cathy and Jack -- were followed through adequately.

In the end I found The Tax Inspector to be a deeply interesting book, because of its links to a genre and a setting I'm very much partial to. Maybe that distracted me from its own charms, because as a novel in its own right, I found it a little unsatisfying. There are certainly more powerful books I could recommend, but not enough of them that this one isn't worth a look.

 

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