Rare among ageing artists who know their craft, the Australian novelist Peter Carey continues to improvise and experiment at 66, and his recent run of books has been astonishing. Now Parrot and Olivier in America, a comic adventure that functions with equal brilliance as a novel of ideas, can be added to a hit parade of extraordinary sharpness and vigour that includes True History of the Kelly Gang, My Life as a Fake and Theft: a Love Story.
Carey's work is characterised by a zeal for allusion and borrowing, and, as its title hints, the new novel spins a variation on Alexis de Tocqueville's two-volume Democracy in America (1835-40). Carey's central decision here is not to rewrite de Tocqueville's treatise, as True History rewrote Ned Kelly's Jerilderie Letter, but to take the events surrounding its composition as material for a novel. Political philosophy is rendered inseparable from its application in the real - albeit dramatised - world.
In a truly democratic adjustment, the tale is narrated not only by de Tocqueville's stand-in, Olivier-Jean-Baptiste de Clarel de Barfleur de Garmont, but also by his companion and protector, John "Parrot" Larrit, a red-haired English printer with a gift for mimicry and an interest in birds. Master and servant take turns in advancing the narrative, so the reader is repeatedly tossed between hauteur and humility, a routine undertaken here with even greater subversiveness than it was in Theft.
The novel examines the relationship between this Old World odd couple as they travel around the US east coast in the early 1830s. The Garmonts send their vulnerable son away out of fear for his safety as a Bourbon noble after the July Revolution, but the public pretext for this escape is that he will conduct a study of the American penitentiary system. Carey, being Australian, knows that to study the way a society treats its prisoners is to study that society's history and character, and even before arriving in New York, Olivier is noting that Americans "carry national pride altogether too far". On arrival, he observes further that they are "obsessed with trade and money", and his ruminations soon expand to take in religion, culture and gastronomy.
An allusion in the novel's first sentence, narrated by Olivier, to things that "had happened before I was even born", provokes a legitimate fear of backstory, family history and all that Tristram Shandy kind of crap. As in Laurence Sterne's novel, an atmosphere of local chaos serves to disguise the elaborate design of the whole. Tristram's antic spirit is evident in Olivier's bungling behaviour and Parrot's wayward narration, while Sterne's antic spirit is evident in the novel's incontinent provision of jokes and interludes, including an Australian flashback. There are numerous walk-on roles, one result of which is that the female characters, supposedly figures of great importance, are left more or less undefined. But the novel is so luxuriously funny and so artful in its bagginess that even when I had little idea where I was, or why, I was still glad to be there.
In any case, a more pressing reason for that opening gesture is the novel's preoccupation with how its characters' lives are determined by events beyond their control. Carey has often used chance as a narrative motor, and class is portrayed here as the product of historical fluke. In this lottery, it is Parrot who emerges as the winner; having started with nothing, he has everything to gain. His skin may have been "scrubbed and hardened by the winds and mists of Dartmoor", but the effect of the Terror on Olivier's mother has left the Frenchman myopic, asthmatic and prone to bleeding. Similarly, the linchpin figure in this novel, the equivalent of Monks in Oliver Twist and Magwitch in Great Expectations, is a French aristocrat with only one arm, whose "body had been pierced more times than San Sebastian".
The visible manifestation of historical processes acts as a loose organising principle for the book's countless details. Parrot describes Olivier applying "a Catholic amount of butter to his Protestant bread"; Olivier peers into "the mist and coal smoke which had democratically arranged its factions in stripes of brown and white". Furniture and architecture are heavily freighted with implications - Olivier thinks of the rocking chair as an awful monument to democratic restlessness, while his prospective father-in-law construes the porch as a social engine whereby the labourer may become "more virtuous and educated".
Naturally, the most expressive recorder of history is language. Carey has access to both high-flown and vernacular language, and the new novel routinely achieves a kind of battered Shakespearean splendour. Parrot conceives of language chiefly as a tool of imaginative sympathy, and though the book seems to be charting Olivier's wavering response to American democracy, it shows increasing concern with Parrot's shedding of his inverse snobbery - a line of inquiry which concludes with the generous reflection that "a man could not be angry with a child of the awful guillotine".
But the book's real perspective is provided not by John Larrit, writing in 1837, but by his creator, who nudges the reader to recall the 170 years that followed. Olivier's fear of the majority eventually overwhelms his wonder at the possibilities of a democratic future, and Carey's longer perspective suggests that he was right. This tale, set against the backdrop of Louis-Philippe and Andrew Jackson, has as its target the New York of Dick Fuld and Jeff Koons. Olivier advises a banker that "no matter what the equation, it makes no sense to lend money to a debtor who will almost certainly default"; in his final speech, he prophesies that America, lacking an educated nobility, would inevitably produce art designed to appeal to "that vulgar class of bankers . . . wishing only to pay the highest price for the most fashionable artist".
Despite such flourishes, however, Parrot and Olivier in America uses its historical advantage for the purposes of tragedy rather than satire. What Carey knows, but Parrot and Olivier fail to foresee, is that the greatest struggles in America, as in France and Australia, would reside not in class, but in race.
Leo Robson is the New Statesman's lead fiction reviewer.
Parrot and Olivier in America
Faber & Faber, 464pp, £18.99