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 . . . 

But Carey may be an even better poet than McCarthy, in that the tone of his beautiful sentences rises and falls in synch with the tides of the story’s emotion, bursting into paratactic flame precisely when the moment requires it:

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.  

To help us arrive at a more nuanced appreciation for Carey’s perfect pitch, here’s an example of where the author could have stopped on the action, but went on to dwell on the protagonist’s emotions:

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? 


In a workshop, Carey might have been advised to stop after “shining in the gloom.”  After all, it’s a good image, one that would resonate nicely in the silence of, in this case, a chapter break.  Moreover, by spelling out his protagonist’s emotional reaction to his father’s death, doesn’t the author risk reducing the impact of the event by over-determining the reader’s response and blah blah blah?  Plus, Peter Carey—I mean, you’re a promising young Australian writer and all—but isn’t that “Father son of my heart” stuff just a little over the top?
Carey’s answer to his workshopping tormentors is easy to imagine, given the story context.  Most children love their fathers, but there has been quite a bit of trouble between Ned and his dad.  As is often the case with fathers and sons, disenchantment and fury have long ago supplanted hero-worship.  If we were left with just the image of the corpse, there are any number of possible interpretations -including that Ned is glad his father’s gone, that he doesn’t really care, that he is horrified by it, or that he is shattered by it.  But our sympathy for Ned, and our patience with him as an evolving protagonist, depends upon his coming to the latter conclusion. All bitterness suddenly forgotten, Ned understands that he truly loved the father he’d convinced himself he hated.  The moment carries a great deal of tragic weight. The tragically elevated lyricism is, therefore, completely fitting. 
Now for an example of where Carey could have gone on to dwell on the emotion, but didn’t.  Things have escalated for Ned Kelly and his gang of outlaws, to the point where the police would rather take them dead than alive. But as of yet, no one has committed murder.

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. 

So what can story writers learn from Peter Carey’s emotional pitch? Here’s my takeaway lesson:
In revision, if you have any doubt as to whether or not to spell out a character’s emotional reaction, look at the scene and the events leading up to it.  Is there enough context for the reader to guess the character’s precise emotional state, with no room for interpretation?  If so, leave it.  If not, consider spelling it out. As Carey demonstrates, both methods, used artfully, can add resonance to the story. 


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