Peter Carey’s Tuning Fork of Emotion: Subtext vs Portrayed Emotion in True History of the Kelly Gang
What to leave in? What to leave out? Every writer struggles with these questions, especially in revision. For me, they are most troublesome as applied to characters’ emotions. When has too much been said, and when not enough? Peter Carey is an excellent teacher on this one. His True History of the Kelly Gang is one of the greatest books I’ve ever read, in part because it strikes me as having an absolutely perfect emotional pitch.
Throughout the novel Carey’s sentences are lyrical, unpunctuated, and elegantly ungrammatical. The voice of the book’s semiliterate, highly sympathetic narrator is a towering creative achievement. The prose style is reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy’s in its baroque excess, its dark prophetic beauty:
A rich man driving his buggy past our home might see the tin trunk in the yard and the pumpkins growing on the skillion roof but he would never imagine all my father’s issue the great number of us packed behind the curtains breathing the same air snoring farting blind and deaf to each other as a newborn litter.
At night every river has a secret twin a ghost of air washing above the living water down towards the sea I arrived at a flat white gravel bed where our shallow creek joined the river and there I felt the cold air on my cheek . . .
I was returned to the cells of Beechworth Prison and here the turnkeys stripped me and shore my cut and bleeding head while heaping me with threats & insults but even a green log will burn when the heat is high enough. Many is the night I have sat by the roaring river the rain never ending them logs so green bubbling and spitting blazing in a rage no rain can staunch.
Come she said come now.
We entered the hut together our bare feet caked with soil our hats already in our hands and there we saw our poor da lying dead upon the kitchen table he were bulging with all the poisons of the Empire his skin grey and shining in the gloom.
I were 12 yr. and 3 wk. old that day and if my feet were callused one inch thick and my hands hard and my laborer’s knees cut and scabbed and stained with dirt no soap could reach yet did I not still have a heart and were this not he who give me life now all dead and ruined? Father son of my heart are you dead from me are you dead from me my father?
Joe picked up a small axe and McIntyre thought his end were come he stepped backwards falling into Dan.
Joe I cried.
My mate looked at me as at a stranger.
You touch him I said I’ll fire.
Joe raised the tomahawk in his left hand then brought it crashing down upon the leather belt crying out the word c- – t with every chop until the shining hateful thing were cut in pieces too small you could not use them to tie up your pants. Joe spat upon the ground he were panting and pale when finally he looked at me again we was both embarrassed about what had transpired.
McIntyre sat suddenly his head held in his hands.
McIntyre’s action is left to resonate in the white space, and Ned’s inner turmoil is left unexamined. This is an effective tactic because what Ned must be going through is very clear: the dread of knowing that the gang must kill or be killed. That even if they escape death this time, being branded as murderers is inevitable, and it will be the beginning of the end. The scene enacts what the events leading up to it have made both clear and inevitable. Dwelling on Ned’s inner feelings would only take away from emotion and tension inherent in the story.