His Illegal Self, by Peter Carey, Faber & Faber, 272pp, £16.99, ISBN: 978-0571231515
Peter Carey is lost in the jungle. It’s not the concrete jungle of his more recent home, New York City, but the jungle that is more properly called “the bush”, the anarchic forest of his native Australia. A masterful novelist, one of only two to have won the Booker prize twice – the other is JM Coetzee – Carey has produced some of the most singular and simultaneously satisfying works of fiction of the late twentieth century. But that sparkling form has yet to reemerge in the twenty-first. Carey’s latest novel, His Illegal Self, has its protagonists wandering around the Queensland bush for much of its action. And as they to and fro, scramble and hide, argue and weep, the sense becomes steadily stronger that the writer has lost his own bearings.
The central character of the novel is a child, a boy not yet eight, from whose viewpoint the story is mostly told. The child of student radicals at Harvard in the 1960s, he was named Che. But after being nearly killed with his mother in a student protest, the baby Che was removed from her and given to his grandmother, a Park Avenue millionairess, to be reared. She calls him Jay. It’s a fairytale of New York.
When the novel begins, it is six years later and a young woman has arrived at the luxurious apartment to meet Che. He is convinced she is his mother, just as he had imagined her, largely on foot of some inaccurate information from a sixteen-year-old neighbour. The stranger carries a lumpy backpack, has bells around her ankles, and “tangled hair in 15 shades”. She is the antithesis of his grandmother, Phoebe Selkirk, who has “cheekbones, tailored gray hair”.
The first thing the three of them do is head off, puzzlingly, to Bloomingdale’s. Grandma Selkirk buys a bottle of Chanel No 5. The younger woman asks why she is not calling the child by his given name. One suspects that this is manufactured so Phoebe can deliver the line “You want me to call him Che in Bloomingdale’s?” A dig in the ribs, in case we hadn’t already noticed the contrast.
After that the action speeds up dizzyingly. Outside the store, the woman grabs Che/Jay and heads down the nearest subway stairs, abandoning the Nancy-Reagan-like figure of Phoebe. There is a confused and confusing series of stops and starts, a bus station, a half-observed conversation with another woman, a motel, an apparent safe house. The next thing the boy and the woman are on a plane to Australia, and finally the whizzing carousel comes to a thankful stop in rural Queensland.
In fits and splutters we come to learn that the woman, not Che’s mother, is a former home help at the Selkirk ménage, but also a brilliant academic who has just secured a post at Vassar. Her name is Anna Xenos and her father was a Greek freedom fighter. She tells Che to call her “Dial”, short for Dialectic. (I cannot but groan mentally every time I come across this.) Dial, too, was an anarchist, a critic of the lost but stubborn American political class that drove the nation deeper into Vietnam. Apparently she had collected Che to take him to his mother, but after an explosion in a bomb-making house the mother, Susan Selkirk, is dead. It is never satisfactorily explained why Dial has thrown up her Vassar job to get embroiled in this wild flight, to hang out with surly hippies and even buy a tumbledown establishment in the Queensland tropical bush. There is some reference to her previous relationship with Che’s father, who flits across the scene at one point. But it is mostly left to the reader to decide whether this could have been a consuming passion that drove her to abandon her previous life to bring his child halfway across the world.
In Queensland, that part of it inland from what is called the Sunshine Coast, framed by actual places such as Nambour and Yandina, Che (rarely referred to by his name) and Dial struggle for both concealment and acceptance. Chief among their interlocutors is Trevor, an illiterate British petty criminal and dislocated soul. Trevor is variously described as “sleek as a porpoise”, “taut”, lacking a backside, squashed into his skin, cruel, kind. There is an overall sense of dirt and chaos (Carey apparently lived in such a place himself at one time, so this is from the heart). Amid it all Che’s only regular affection seems to be for a kitten, but this becomes a bone of contention with the hippie community because cats eat birds, and the community claims to be dedicated to the natural fauna.
Eventually things come to a head when Dial, fearing that the authorities will come to retrieve the boy and take him back to the US, sends a local lawyer to New York to contact Phoebe and negotiate. This character discards his clothes when holding client consultations at the commune, but does have the grace to don a bright yellow zoot suit for the trip to America. If one wonders why a logician and Vassar intellectual would put faith in such a person, then one is putting too many demands on the narrative.
The Queensland police, notorious for their lack of social sensitivity (just like the New South Wales police, the Victorian police and probably all other Australian police, especially at that time) make a violent appearance, which triggers the final scenes. Che runs away, but is found after a great search in which Dial and the hippies put aside their differences to save the child. I don’t wish to give away the ending, but it seems that love will triumph. Maybe.
So: many books have greater force when read at one sitting. Some reviewers have enthused about His Illegal Self. Perhaps if one were flying from New York to Sydney and read it all at one gulp the impressionism and jerkiness might be less noticeable. Granted we are seeing the action, most of the time, through Che’s child eyes. Hence the choppiness, the vagueness. But this can become annoying. For example, in the key moment when Che’s father appears, it is unremarked and practically invisible. Shirley Hazzard, a fellow Australian, was a mistress of the sly incident or character, unstressed at the time, but her covert appearances or incidents had their due weight in the long run. Carey is skilled enough to give a subtle clarity. Why hasn’t he bothered here?
Pablo Picasso commented, famously, that he could paint like Raphael when he was twelve, and then spent his whole life learning to paint like a six-year-old. Carey could write like Raphael, and is possibly tired of, unchallenged by, his own facility. He wishes to develop further, a laudable artistic aim, and stretch the writing muscles. He rejects the clear narrative of previous novels for a hand-held camera effect. The result for the reader is not a success. At times, though, his great talent is unobscured.
As the first fat raindrops splatted like jelly against the windshield, the mother pulled him close against her generous breast. She was all he had for now. Trevor, said the snaggle-toothed passenger, not looking at the boy. His skin was smooth and taut, but his edges were all raw and poor, like he had crawled along drainpipe to arrive here.
This is Carey as he has been, simple but telling. But in numerous other passages the writing is palpably self-conscious, writing-class clever but without heart: “Pink mouth asking, green eyes blaming, sharp teeth threatening revenge”, to describe the kitten. The poetic singsong jars.
When we read about the child Che climbing into a spare sleeping bag to escape an adult hippie row, then being unable to control his bowels, hauled out and hosed down, surely we should feel some sort of compassion. But Carey somehow avoids, or misses that. (This, incidentally, is where the father appears, holding the hose, though it is so unremarked one only realises some time later.)
There is no disrespect to Carey here. It is disappointment that fuels the criticism (and a querying of possibly more sycophantic commentators who have called the book “a prince”. If Oscar and Lucinda were the monarchs, this is little more than a footman.) His Illegal Self is too arch, too vague, and dialogue, although carefully pitched for an American audience, is too staccato and obfuscatory. What is the point? That childhood is difficult and confusing?
It could well be said that Peter Carey is the greatest and most successful Australian writer. That statement scarcely needs qualification by a temporal limitation. Who reads Patrick White any more, despite his Nobel Prize? Thomas Keneally (Schindler’s Ark et al) might come close. Kate Grenville (The Secret River) might yet get there. Carey’s novels, starting off in the 1980s with an Antipodean magic realism, have been consistently impressive. The London Review of Books frothed at the mouth over Illywhacker (1985) and its 139-year-old narrator: “It is impossible to convey in a review the cumulative brilliance and accelerating hilarity of the prose.” He followed this with Oscar and Lucinda, The Tax Inspector, Tristan Smith and Jack Maggs. His more successful works, like the last mentioned, have had historical settings.
Carey is a storyteller and a chronicler of the human condition. Like other fierce talents of the era, Germaine Greer (aged 69), Clive James (69), Barry Humphreys (74), Carey (65) was formed by the Australia of the 1950s and 1960s, but had to leave, for fame and survival. Maybe it was something to do with politics as well – Carey was deeply disappointed by the result of the referendum to remove the connection with the British monarchy when the proposal was narrowly defeated in 1999. And he has been open about his great pleasure in seeing the twelve years of conservative (that is Liberal Party) federal rule end with the defeat of John Howard last November by Kevin Rudd of the Australian Labor Party.
Carey was born in Bacchus Marsh, a town in the state of Victoria, in 1943. To get a sense of Bacchus Marsh, conjure up Naas perhaps before the Celtic Tiger. Or Milton Keynes in relation to London, the New Jersey towns for New York. It’s a bit of a joke place, somewhat redeemed by its delightful name and Avenue of Honour, elm trees commemorating soldiers who fell in World War One. It might be overly fanciful, but there is something about the name Bacchus Marsh that is so right for a Peter Carey provenance. On the one hand, the mythological figure, mischievous god of wine and riotous human behaviour; on the other, the prosaic nature of the marsh, the local swamp. And also nearby is the wonderfully lugubrious-sounding Lerderderg Gorge. Could the sounds of these names have tripped a fantasy wire in the infant Carey brain? This mixture of the mundane, unseen forces, and lavish imagination combine in his best work.
Carey emerged from that background, the son of a car dealer, to study science, and some of his early books were seen to have elements of science fiction (Illywhacker won the Ditmar prize for Australia’s best science fiction novel in 1986). His formidable powers of imagination outstripped the demands of science, and he went to work in advertising (a trajectory shared by another contemporary master of hyper-reality, Salman Rushdie). After some short stories, he published his first novel, Bliss, in 1981, then Illywhacker four years later. Oscar and Lucinda came in 1988 and earned him his first Booker. All his books were garlanded with prizes. Since then it has been roughly a novel every three years, with the previous one, Theft: A Love Story, published in 2006.
Oscar and Lucinda, set partly in eighteenth century Devon, and partly in the wild New South Wales of the time, is a love story, riveting and poignant. The prose is economical but vivid, the rhythms and contrasts well-judged.
They wore, mother and daughter, dresses of the palest and prettiest colours, the daughter in peach, the mother in a moiré grey, but both of them in bright petticoats and Miriam’s crinoline cage produced an effect like a trumpet flower you might imagine growing in exotic latitudes. Once on board, of course, this finery was packed away, for they could afford no better than steerage, and it was still packed away when the trunk, a big wooden cask all boxed around with black iron bands, washed ashore at Yellow Rock the day after all those souls had drowned.
I chose this passage practically at random; there are so many to choose from in this work, where the evocation of a scene gives way to an emotional turn of the knife. Or this, from The True History of the Kelly Gang:
I had grown the brave beginning of a beard, but were not too old to hear the tale of Conchobor and Dedriu and Mebd or the one of Cuchulainn in his war chariot bristling with rippling instruments and tearing shafts and how I wished I had some equal defence against the world. My mother told these tales the firelight shining in her eyes and every space inside the hut were taken by a ready ear and a beating heart. We was far happier than we knew.
The heart, the force, the unmannered artistry of these is not evident in more recent Carey work. He is these days director of a writing programme at New York’s City University, and this shows. Writing programmes, like much academic endeavour, are excellent things; but you can’t teach talent, and sometimes the studied elegance and contrived understatement gets in the way of mature communication.
Carey, speaking to an interviewer on RTÉ radio recently, said he was, as he grew older, “fanatical” about getting rid of the unnecessary, and making everything that is left do the work. In this latest novel, that effect might be working against the effect of the message: he is often too lean and spare.
One has to compare His Illegal Self to the engaging beauty of Oscar and Lucinda, or the extraordinary net in which Carey captured the reader with The True History of the Kelly Gang. Even Theft: A Love Story, the previous novel, while not reaching the heights of his earlier books, still carried the reader along, especially with the character of Hugh, the “damaged 220-pound” brother of the central character, artist Butcher Bones.
Carey’s best work has had historical settings, and His Illegal Self is indeed historical, recreating the mid-1970s, briefly and invisibly in New York, then in the commune culture which still exists in backwoods Queensland. But despite mentions of the Vietnam War, the atmosphere is timeless, rootless – and a little pointless.
To return to Picasso: the problem for the accomplished artist can sometimes be how to retain the magic once you have shown what you can do. Carey has moved away from his earlier magic realism to something perhaps more mature, but less distinctive and lovable.
Angela Long is a journalist and reviewer. She has written for newspapers and magazines in Ireland, Britain and Australia, including The Irish Times, The Sunday Times and The Sydney Morning Herald. She has also worked for the BBC and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.