HIS ILLEGAL SELF
By Peter Carey
Alfred A. Knopf, 272 pages, $24.95
Peter Carey is an expat Australian who has lived in New York City for almost 20 years, and it would seem that he’s homesick. Not just for his country, but for what he was when he lived there: a boy, and then a member of that pride of boomers who came of age in the 70’s. And so he’s concocted an unlikely tale whose true arc is to get out of the range of Bloomingdales and into the wilds of Queensland, which he portrays as a ramshackle redoubt for the most disenfranchised of the pot-addled, dropout generation. Here, far from the chic haunts of what used to be called “Bergdorf Goodman hippies,” he elaborates a lengthy double kidnapping.
First our feckless heroine, nicknamed “Dial” (short for dialectic), inadvertently abducts our hero. He’s 7-year-old Che (a child of SDS lefties), and theirs is an Oedipal folie à deux. Dial intends to take him for a visit with his mother, Susan, only to discover that Susan has been (rather conveniently) blown up in some radicalism-gone-wrong in Philadelphia. (Mr. Carey mines actualities of the day for ballast, and for leverage.)
When Dial discovers pictures of herself and the boy broadcast on television, she panics, and goes, as the boy hears it, “on the lamb.” The author transports them, via the left coast underground, to Australia. Along the way, he kidnaps the reader, who spends much time yearning for release from the overripe vegetation and meager cerebration of their eventual hide-out and its unwashed inhabitants.
MR. CAREY HAS written nine novels, two of which have won the Booker Prize: Oscar and Lucinda (1988) and The True History of the Kelly Gang (2000). His gift for vivid description includes a kind of noxious genius for the olfactory: for scorched toast, for vomit, for armpits. His writerly gifts also encompass an ability to slip inside the heads of his characters, and then out again, into authorial omniscience. But although he himself was, obviously, once a 7-year-old boy, his Che seems not so much precocious as improbable—fictional, but not in a good way. Or at least so it seems to someone who’s been the mother of such a creature.
A mother is what Che wants, and a father to rescue him. When Dial, who was his baby sitter in childhood (and whose only lover has been his father), appears at his grandmother’s upscale door, he hurls himself at her, in the conviction that she’s the mommy he’s been waiting for. She looks different from her pictures, but that’s pushed aside. Longing triumphs in His Illegal Self, which is a fantasy of wish-fulfillment. For Dial, in turn, loves the child.
The plot proceeds not so much in flashbacks as in switchbacks—a zigzag progression that involves flash-forwards to events that will occur after the book’s ending. Thus the author makes sure we know the boy will be safe. Indeed, we know he will end up in analysis in Manhattan. Mr. Carey wants our attention on the present, without too much worrying about Che’s ultimate safety.
Will the boy realize that Dial isn’t his mother? Will their nudist lawyer get them back to New York? Will the largely unappealing Trevor, the book’s significant adult male—unlettered, paranoid and outlawish—turn out to be friend, or foe? Is he a Caliban or a Ferdinand? Just when we think we can’t stand it anymore, Mr. Carey feeds us backstory, enlists our sympathy, invites us to care. Che wants to be loved, and so does this novel.
EARLY ON, THE author introduces the notion of the “DP,” or displaced person. For a while, wondering what inspired this thinly motivated story, I had the idea that Mr. Carey himself felt displaced, perhaps unloved. Awash in the novel’s soup of parent-hunger and child-longing, carried deeper and deeper into a landscape I neither recognized nor enjoyed, I began to feel displaced myself, the unwitting captive on a heedless and bizarre hegira. Looking back—the novelist does it all the time—I see now that Mr. Carey’s Queensland is a green world, a wilderness, one of those places where ordinary rules don’t apply and true natures are revealed.
Alas, the novel is compromised by its own primary conceit: that abduction is adoption. It is not. Mr. Carey gives short and unsympathetic shrift to Che’s grandmother (who calls him “Jay”) until very late in the game, when we learn about the nice “Victorian” desserts she used to serve. Meanwhile, though her pain remains conveniently off the page, her wealth and high-handedness do not. She’s more caricature than character. (It’s possible that the least sympathetic reader of this novel would be a mother, for whom kidnapping is a particular horror.)
The end of His Illegal Self is a last-page triumph of Freudian triangulation and future-flash so brilliant it knocks you out. Peter Carey can dazzle. He can write. But whether you will like this book is another story, as much yours as his. Objectivity may be desirable, but subjectivity is all.
Nancy Dalva, senior writer at 2wice, can be reached at email@example.com.