Cathleen Schine New York Review of Books, March 20, 2008
His Illegal Self is a little book in the way that raspberries or bees or nuggets of uranium are little. It is shorter than Peter Carey’s best-known books, Oscar and Lucinda and True History of the Kelly Gang, both of which are epics of almost uncanny originality set in the nineteenth century, and both of which won the Booker Prize. The new novel takes place in the more recent past, the early 1970s, and unlike much of Carey’s previous work, which is exhilarating in its scope, His Illegal Self is exhilarating partly because the depth of field has narrowed so dramatically. Reading this novel, Carey’s tenth, is like peering at the human heart, at the world itself, through the distorted precision of a magnifying glass—one carried in the pocket of a seven-year-old boy. Carey’s characters are often accidental outlaws. In His Illegal Self, the adventurer and outlaw is a child.
Carey is an Australian whose work lives and breathes in Australia. Oscar and Lucindafollows a pasty misfit minister from the cramped but somehow dangerous world of an English village to the dangerous but somehow cramped wilderness of the colony. Oscar is a gambler, and he meets a young Australian heiress on the boat over who is also a gambler. Their lives, parallel, together, apart, are absorbed by the continent in all its promise and broken promises. It is a mad, magnificent tale, as is Carey’s breathless, violent, and heartbreaking telling of the story of Ned Kelly, Australia’s national horse thief hero. The country’s past and its vigorous landscapes are very much a part of His Illegal Self, too, but Carey, who has been a New Yorker for almost twenty years, begins the novel in the city. It is just a glancing look at a sliver of a moment in Manhattan, but it is faultless.
This is an improbable story, but it takes place in an improbable time, and begins with the lives of a family distorted by the 1960s: Jay Selkirk was born in 1964. His parents were SDS radicals at a time when many children of the privileged classes were SDS radicals, but unlike most of their peers, Susan Selkirk and Dave Rabbo did not melt back into liberal moderation or neoconservative disgust. By 1972, they are famous revolutionaries who have long ago disappeared underground to rob banks and make bombs on behalf of “the movement.” Jay’s real name is Che, and he lives in an odd, suspended incognito with his maternal grandmother, who rarely mentions his parents. It is only from his teenage babysitter, the boy in apartment 5D, that Che knows anything about his mother or father:
It was in Cameron’s room the boy saw the poster of Che Guevara and learned who he was and why he had no mother and father…. After his mother and the Dobbs Street Cell had robbed the bank in Bronxville, a judge had given Che to the permanent care of his grandma…. Cameron told the boy he was a political prisoner locked up at Kenoza Lake.
Che, like a refugee wandering in a foreign country, keeps a wad of carefully folded scraps bound by rubber bands in his pocket at all times: one is a creased picture of his father torn from Life magazine with the caption “Beyond your command.” Che calls these his “papers,” and indeed they serve as his childish documentation, visas to a nation of which he has no memory.
What he can remember is his grandfather, who has moved out (leaving them for what his grandmother calls only the “Love Nest”), and Grandma Selkirk herself, a devoted, eccentric, wealthy, and well-born scion of Park Avenue. They spend most of their time not in the city apartment, however, but in seclusion in upstate New York on Kenoza Lake, far from the prying eyes of the press and of society, where his grandmother can swim, drink martinis, and read Kipling to the boy. She is determined to give him, in the unsatisfactory age of the dangerous flower children, a rich and quiet “Victorian childhood.”
Carey relates most of this information about the Selkirk family through the macro-lens blur of Che’s boyish perception. Discrete details, memories, observations hop to the forefront, then relax again into misty background. Che’s limited, idiosyncratic understanding builds both narrative and emotional suspense. The effect, throughout the novel, is that of something between a summer daydream and a nightmare.
Carey has a suspenseful way with time, too:
Then, when the boy was almost eight, a woman stepped out of the elevator into the apartment on East Sixty-second Street and he recognized her straightaway…. No one would dream of saying, Here is your mother returned to you…. The boy stood beside the splendid stranger…. That was her blood, he could hear it now, pounding in his ears.
He uses time simultaneously to distance us, to advance the story, and to enfold his characters in insistent immediacy. This meeting, for example, takes place in 1972, but Carey creates an even greater distance than that thirty-six years, presenting the adult Che as a kind of oblique narrator, nudging the novel from simple past into recollection of the past. “He forgot so much, but he remembered this, years later—” Carey writes, “it was a good seat, an armrest between them which the mother lifted so the boy could rest his face against her upper arm.” Carey also reminds us that the past, and even memories of the past, are moments in a sequence, a sequence that is taking place now: a story. (“Then,” he says in the passage above, and that word drops us into the middle of an ongoing narrative, an adventure. The boy is described not as being seven, but as “almost eight,” again suggesting movement, suggesting the future.) Yet with all that, Carey still insists on the moment itself: imperative, immediate, “pounding” in Che’s ears.
What Che does not realize, and what we come to realize only gradually, is that the splendid stranger who sets his blood pounding is not his mother. Her name is Anna Xenos, daughter of a working-class Greek family, scholarship student from Southie, Harvard graduate, newly hired to be the Alice May Twitchell Fellow, a professor at Vassar. His Illegal Self is the love story of this former radical, known as Dial (short for Dialectic), and a little boy raised as a Victorian in a radical age.
At an interview at Vassar, just the day before, Anna, dressed in Charles Jourdan shoes, was officially offered the assistant professorship, a triumphant moment for the daughter of an illiterate, immigrant sausage maker. But it was there, as she overlooked the placid green lawn and made polite conversation about the fall foliage, that Anna was drawn back to her own radical political past and to her close but unsympathetic relationship with Susan Selkirk. “I believe we have a friend in common,” says a dumpy fifty-year-old Chaucer professor. Dial has not seen Susan since Harvard, when she was the babysitter for the infant Che: “She carried the weight of his squirming life from May until September 1966—cruel ear infections long ago, jagged teeth like shards of quartz attacking from inside….” Secretly, Dial referred to Susan as “Crumbelina,” a privileged girl who “could not make a bed, let alone a revolution.” But now, not really understanding why, she agrees to the older professor’s request; she will call Susan, who asks her to arrange a visit with her son. Dial will take the boy to see his mother for two hours, then back to Grandma Selkirk.
Mrs. Selkirk, a perfectly recognizable, absolutely fresh New York creature, is one of Carey’s most fastidiously drawn characters. He reveals her in oblique slants of light that illuminate someone arrogant, vulnerable, comic, and tragic. She is a woman who buys a bottle of Chanel perfume as a gift for her estranged revolutionary daughter. Upstairs in the house in Kenoza Lake there was a proper library with a sliding ladder and heavy books containing engravings of fish and elk and small flowers with German names which made [Che] sad. On the big torn sofas where he peered into these treasures, there was likely to be an abandoned Kipling or Rider Haggard or Robert Louis Stevenson which his grandma would continue with at dusk.
We catch glimpses of her through the language and the bits of imperfect knowledge that drift down to her grandson: Che wonders, for example, “about his missing grandfather and the Poison Dwarf who had once been Grandma’s friend.” One portrait of her comes in the form of a passage about the Guggenheim Museum, as implicit, as evocative as a perfectly wrought short story: When the boy was four years old, and before that probably as well, Grandma Selkirk would take him to the Guggenheim Museum and order him to run down the spiral ramp which—she said so—was what was intended by the architect, Frank Lord Right. That had been the boy’s misunderstanding. Grandma used the name herself whenever possible. How perfect, she said. Frank Lord Right was not building Calvary, she said, did not mean us to trudge upward to our crucifixion. Push UP on the elevator button, his grandma said, then run like the wind.
Three times he got into trouble with the guards apparently—he had no memory of this but he sure recalled Grandma’s argument with the tiny black guard after she cupped her hands on the Brancusi head. The guard said, Get back, then Grandma called for someone higher up and in the end she was the only person in New York allowed to touch the head.
It is art, she told the guard, who hated her for being bohemian, she said so.
It is Grandma Selkirk who gives Dial a brown paper bag filled with things to keep Che busy should his mother be late, which the no-nonsense Mrs. Selkirk fully expects her to be: chocolate, card games, and two books—The Call of the Wild and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Grandma Selkirk is the link between the adventure stories of the past, full of danger and humor and betrayal and freedom and love, and the coming adventure among unwashed hippies who have chosen to live on the edge of civilization.
As Dial and Che set off, their new life begins immediately, even as they rush down together into the subway to Grand Central—”hand in hand, slippery together as newborn goats”—where Dial expects to meet Che’s mother. They both experience the exhilaration of new lovers. “He looked at her adoringly, little glances, smiles. She thought how glorious it was to be loved, she, Dial, who was not loved by anyone. She felt herself just absorb this little boy, his small damp hand dissolving in her own.” In this novel, love physically folds around the boy. Carey uses images of marsupials, of pouches and pockets of warmth and safety. When Che is happiest or when he is most afraid, he presses his face against Dial’s arm, her stomach, her breasts, “the warm cave beside her neck.”
The innocent rapture of a boy who thinks he has found his mother and a young woman who knows she has found a boy she loves rises around Dial and Che like a poignant mist. This is the air they breathe, even as the story batters them about. And the story does batter them, rising up now like any good adventure story to place them in danger. In Penn Station, an SDS flunky hands Dial two bus tickets to Philadelphia with the words “Change of plan. Mrs. Selkirk expects you to go to Ph and be back tonight” written on them in pencil. A little warily, she accepts the tickets and rides the Greyhound to Philadelphia, expecting to bring the boy back to his grandmother that night. When they arrive, however, Mrs. Selkirk makes it clear on the telephone that she knew nothing of this plan, and accuses Dial of kidnapping her grandson. Dial realizes she has been duped:
She believed people, always had—for instance, the handwriting on the ticket…. The worst was—she believed it because the hand was so dogged, so dull, so lacking in imagination. She was such a snob she did not see their lie. And so she let herself be their instrument, be used to steal the child.
She then discovers that Crumbelina, while waiting in an underground bomb factory for her little son to be delivered, has blown herself up. It is too late to put things right: Dial is a fugitive from the law. She has unwittingly kidnapped Che.
The link between the kidnapped boy and Jack London’s kidnapped dog is explicit:
He thought The Call of the Wild must be the best book ever written. Dial never said anything but she had lived at Kenoza Lake and knew he came from a house almost identical to Buck the dog’s. The judge’s place stood back from the road, half hidden among the trees, through which glimpses could be caught of the wide cool veranda that ran around all four sides.
And so the newly minted outlaws, like newlyweds, head off together to cross the continent and eventually end up on another continent altogether: Australia. And here the writing takes on Carey’s distinctive, palpable physical awareness of Australia’s distinctive weather and flora and fauna and even its soil.
In His Illegal Self Carey’s prose and preoccupations continue to be plainly, deeply connected to Australia. This novel about two Americans is rooted in the pain and peculiarity both of Australia’s geography and of its history. One of the aspects of that history that informs all of Carey’s work is the myth of the outlaw. Trevor, one of the first people Dial and Che meet when they arrive in Australia, turns out to have been one of the “migrant children.” It is one of the many scandals of colonialism and Australia’s painful birth that these children, as young as four, were virtually kidnapped from their parents and sent by Great Britain to Australia to provide “good white stock.” Once there, they lived in charitable institutions where they were used as slave labor and physically and sexually abused.
Trevor is an illiterate hippie living in a bunker in the rain forest, hiding out, off the grid. “So when they come for me,” he tells Che, “I’m out of here. I’m an orphan, dig it. This is why you need to know me.” The novel is not only about a country historically tied to the reality and the myth of the outcast, but also about a precise time in history, a time of runaways. Dial’s last name, Xenos, means “displaced person, stranger, a man who arrived on the island of Zákinthos years before the birth of Christ.” The hazy, dreamy, disconnected quality of Che’s narrative as he is taken from Park Avenue to Philadelphia to Oakland to Seattle to Australia allows us to feel the sameness of hiding, wherever you are. But only in Australia does the meaning of hiding hit Dial and Che, for only in Australia does the exile have such a rich historical context.
Tensions between the hippies and the Queensland police recall the colonial repression of the Irish settlers in nineteenth-century Australia that Carey wrote about in True History of the Kelly Gang. Even the title of this book, His Illegal Self, holds within it the history of Australia, a nation founded mainly by deported prisoners. Hiding, in this novel, is yet another way of being lost.
It is only in Australia that the two American runaways truly meet the reality of their disoriented, displaced existences. “The boy had no idea where on earth he stood. He understood the names of hardly anything, himself included.” The idea of knowing and understanding the names of things as a proof of belonging, of existence, was one of the ideas that propelled Carey’s unsettling virtuosity in My Life as a Fake. In that novel, the postmodern Frankenstein’s monster, Bob McCorckle, raged through the Malaysian jungle in a feverish need to name and catalog every leaf, every insect, every spore of life. “The boy,” as the seven-year-old protagonist of His Illegal Self is often called, does not know if his name is Jay or Che; he does not know if Dial is his mother or not; he does not know if the unpleasant man he met in Seattle is his father or not. What he finally does know is love. His Illegal Self is as complex and multilayered in its narrative strategies as any postmodernist could want, but its story is finally one of almost radiant simplicity.
Hitchhiking along the Bruce Highway, Che and Dial wind up in a city in the province of Queensland. “Everything…had been chopped down in Nambour long ago, so there was no shade remaining. They itched and hurt, the mother and the boy. They were unwashed, unloved, ripped, ‘feral’ to the local eye.” They come across a feral kitten as well, and adopt him as a pet. Che names him Buck, after Buck in The Call of the Wild, because Jack London’s big dog had been “suddenly jerked from the heart of civilization and flung himself into the heart of things primordial.”
Earlier, when Dial is reading the book to Che in a motel in Oakland, Che asks her:
What’s primordial, Dial.
She bit her lip. You crazy little thing, she said. Primordial.
What is it.
Wild things, she had said, the law of the wild.
It’s a good name for him, he said.
This passage of spare, suggestive elegance reveals at once the boy’s touching combination of innocence and sophisticated intelligence; Dial’s pride in his curiosity and adult impatience with it; the love and happy trust Che feels for Dial; the love Dial feels for him; the uneasy, protective guilt that haunts her; and of course that ominous, heady link between the kidnapped boy and the kidnapped dog. The quality of Che’s trusting confusion (emphasized by Carey’s idiosyncratic punctuation, which seems to accentuate the narrative’s purity and innocence) is eerily reminiscent of Jack London’s Buck. Both the boy and the dog are led off cheerfully, willingly, having no idea they will be taken far from home, far from everything that defines life for them. And both of them are brought up short with the same shock and enraged terror when they reach their new “primordial” lands.
It is in this primordial land that His Illegal Self comes even more forcefully alive, almost literally. Sometimes, the land is described as a body. In the township of Yandina, “the street looked skinned.” In the rain forest garden, “above the moths were the bananas, their ripped-up leaves moving like fingers, and below was the inky green of rain forest where arm-thick vines wound around trees with skins like elephants.” And again, “The forest around the huts was laced with narrow winding trails, like veins in a creature yet unnamed.” “The trees, Carey says, “like aliens, swished their dangerous tails.”
At other times, Carey’s Australia is teeming, crawling with other forms of life. When Dial buys a parcel of land in the hippie commune on the edge of the rain forest, her hut has inside it “a heavy viscous emptiness, a blanket of air, inert surfaces from which tiny black flies rose, her furies.” Even time takes on this quality. “The afternoons were slow and thick as ants.” The sky, the days, the nights, the outside, the inside—all are constantly moving, decaying, burgeoning. “What had been slick and slimy had set hard and the ridge and rut of truck tires were now becoming clouds of dust, like dead souls rising in small whirls and skirmishes.” The earth is a place where seeds are cradled, womblike; a grave in which vegetation rots and molders; a cloud in which the souls of the dead argue and dance.
For Peter Carey, even emptiness, even dust, even the dead are alive. “Outside the open windows the world was green, fecund, everything rotting and being born….” To inanimate things, Carey’s language gives life. To vegetation, he gives blood. And all living things are seen in their busy, teeming progress toward death. A hippie neighbor angrily leaves a bag for Dial, telling her she must get rid of Buck, the kitten. When Dial opens it,
The contents slithered onto the floor like what? Flowers. Grass tussocks. Some stinky mulch. Then she understood what she was looking at: small dead birds, some bright, some dull, some filled with ants and possibly—she saw the movement like a living stomach—maggots.
Carey has a way of rotating language and ideas around in circles, giving them an almost global dimension. He uses the images of holes dug in the ground as graves, as hiding places, as the deep and life-giving homes of seeds. He uses the word “tangled” sometimes as a sinister word, to describe the rain forest; sometimes to convey chaos and disorder; and sometimes as a word that seems to embody all that has happened to the two outlaws: Dial looked “down at him as if he was some poor moth she’d tangled in a string.” The tangled web that has been woven around Che is certainly one of deceit, though not his own. But sometimes “tangled” is used as a purely tender word, to describe the boy’s hair or the nest of crocheted blankets and shawls Che and Dial sleep in.
The novel ends with a daring and heartbreaking rescue worthy of this adventure tale. It is no accident that with the raw, earnest tale of Buck’s adventure Carey pairs Huckleberry Finn, with its frank humor and subtle, complicated morals of imperfect beings. Carey’s characters, too, maintain a stubborn imperfection. They are impulsive, unyielding, paranoid, yet it is these weaknesses, which are somehow so full of life, that draw us closer to them. And they are funny. Carey’s hippies, in their meetings where long discussions take place to establish the protocol for holding hands in a circle, are an amusing, hapless bunch. And the lawyer who eventually tries to get Dial and Che out of this mess is a brilliant comic oddity. He leaves for New York in a daffodil yellow zoot suit determined to find the jazz musician Max Gordon and jam with him. Needless to say, he fails in both his missions.
One of the wonders of Carey’s work is that his great, urgent narratives, so turbulent, so dark, so grand, are at the same time animated by such conscious and playful craft, as well as by a profound comic awareness. The lightness of Carey’s touch, the poetic attraction to tender detail, give to the magnificent weight of his tales an unexpected sense of life, of wild, galloping physical movement and growth. Carey celebrates an underlying and undeniable sweetness, a sweetness that exists so improbably in the worlds of confusion, betrayal, and violence he creates. He writes with a tumultuous joy and a tumultuous dread. His Illegal Self, like his other work, is an adventure story for the modern, tormented soul.