James Wood The New Yorker, March 19, 2008
Ever since the attack on the World Trade Center, we have all heard a lot about “the Professor,” the chilling anarchist in Conrad’s “The Secret Agent,” who walks around with a bomb strapped to himself and one hand on the detonator. Far more attention has been paid to this ruthless fanatic—unsuggestively reprised by Cormac McCarthy as Anton Chigurh, in “No Country for Old Men”—than to Verloc, the harried, soft, pithless entity who is the novel’s actual protagonist. But Verloc is more interesting than the Professor because he is so much less confident. The Professor is an arrow; Verloc is a target, helplessly bearing the gouges of the various assaults made on him. He works for the anarchists, but he also works against them, as a double agent; he is despised by his handler at the embassy, and feels bullied into following the diplomat’s order to blow up the Greenwich Observatory, a job that he fatally bungles; he is a minor London shopkeeper, who sells pornography under the table; he moves through his shabby domestic existence sluggishly, as if under water.
Verloc is vivid because he is trapped—”with his features swollen and an air of being drugged.” The sticky web of accident has caught him. But recent American fiction dealing with Islamic terrorists has shown more interest in the fanatic than in the failure, in resolution than in irresolution, and a certain human complexity has been sacrificed. Two new novels, Peter Carey’s “His Illegal Self” (Knopf; $24.95) and Hari Kunzru’s “My Revolutions” (Dutton; $25.95), both set in the radical underground of late-sixties and early-seventies agitation, have at their centers characters who find themselves politically trapped. Neither is by an American—Carey is Australian and Kunzru British—and neither is about Islamic terrorists, though both can perhaps be understood as necessary novelistic transferences, displacements from contemporary ideological radicalism. The novels share an interest in the slow rotting of the ideological harvest, and in the way that eventual political failure was birthed by the very exaggeration of political success. “What would freedom look like?” is the recurrent question of Kunzru’s book, and the author seems to half enjoy, half lament the inability of any of the agitators and terrorists in the novel to provide a convincing answer.
Carey’s often beautiful novel, one of his best recent works, has the bruising tang of all his fiction, in which crooked colloquialism (frequently Australian vernacular), and poetic formality combine. The result is brilliantly vital: the world bulges out of the sentences. A man is described as “not hurrying, but prancy in bare feet.” A boy feels “squiffy in the stomach.” A beat-up car has a “busted sunken boneless backseat.”An Upper East Side matron brings back to her apartment her “powdery friends from the English-Speaking Union.” An Australian shack has a veranda “where bats hung like broken rags.” When the novel’s heroine is unhappy, her mouth turns down: “She didn’t know he saw that, the way the whole of her lower face could lose its bones.”
One of the secrets of Carey’s capabilities as a storyteller is a serious commitment to what is known as free indirect style, or the bending of third-person narrative around the viewpoint of the character who is being described. The sentences above are written in the implied voice of a little boy: it is he who feels squiffy, he who finds his grandmother’s friends powdery, he who thinks that a downturned mouth looks as if it had lost its bones. A child is here decoding the universe, and the novelist expects the reader to decode that child’s inventive solutions. It is characteristic of Carey to throw us into the depths of his sentences and let us swim for ourselves. On the second page of his novel, we encounter this:
Grandma Selkirk was what they call an Upper East Side woman—cheekbones, tailored gray hair—but that was not what she called herself. I am the last bohemian, she liked to say, to the boy, particularly, meaning that no one told her what to do, at least not since Pa Selkirk had thrown the Buddha out the window and gone to live with the Poison Dwarf.
We know next to nothing about the boy or his grandmother, and absolutely nothing about why a Buddha was thrown out the window or who the Poison Dwarf is—but we are caught by a voice, and held for the next two hundred pages.
The boy is Che Selkirk, given his provoking first name by his privileged, radical parents, members of S.D.S., who have disappeared into the underground and are among America’s most wanted domestic terrorists. He is almost eight in 1972, when the novel opens, has never known his father, and has not seen his mother, Susan Selkirk, since he was two. The formidable Grandma Selkirk, who insists on calling him Jay, has been raising him, and has secured for her grandson the “Victorian” consolations of bourgeois comfort in Manhattan and a summer house in upstate New York, on Kenoza Lake: “It would always be summer, in his memory, the roadsides dense with goldenrod and the women from the village coming to steal the white hydrangeas just like their mothers stole before them. The geese would be heading up to Canada and the Boeings spinning their white contrails across the cold blue sky—loneliness and hope, expanding like paper flowers in water.”
Everything changes when Anna Xenos, nicknamed Dial, turns up one day at Grandma Selkirk’s apartment, on East Sixty-second Street, to collect Che for a meeting with his mother. Dial was the boy’s nanny when he was a baby, and she and Susan were Radcliffe students together. Permitted to take the boy for an hour, she follows increasingly obscure commands from Susan and “the Movement,” and ends up first in Philadelphia and then in California. Che, having no visual memory of his mother, assumes that Dial is she, and a painful irony is set in motion. What Carey calls “the dark strength of the misunderstanding” will persist for more than half the book, because Dial does not have the courage to disenchant this “lovely little boy,” with his “perfect little boy legs, falling socks, banged-up shin and expensive sweater made from merino sheep, the face, the father’s face, dear Jesus.”
What is fine about the book is the careful fidelity that Carey shows to Dial and Che. There is, of course, not one large misunderstanding but a hive of smaller misunderstandings, and Carey briskly evokes them. Again, his use of free indirect style makes him at once daring and economical—a line or two of battered error will do better than paragraphs of perfected comprehension. For instance, when Dial takes Che on the subway, where he has never been, to Grand Central, Carey captures the shock of it all—the cars swaying and screeching, “thick teams of brutal cables showing in the windowed dark,” the shuttle train “painted like a warrior.” It is all done in a few short paragraphs, which culminate in this: “He was underground, as Cameron in 5D had predicted. They will come for you, man. They’ll break you out of here.” Cameron Fox, we discover a few pages later, is a neighbor, “the son of the art dealers in 5D. He had been expelled from Groton on account of the hair he would not cut, maybe something else as well.” The novelty of the actual Manhattan underground and the childish fondling of the glamorous word “underground,” about which Che has heard so much, wonderfully meet in a single, uncomprehending sentence that is both funny and forlorn.
The book is in general funny and forlorn, because it is a chronicle of mishaps and accidents and peculiar will-lessness—it has that Verloc-like “air of being drugged.” Anna Xenos, a scholarship girl from South Boston, should not be running across the country with a boy whom she has essentially kidnapped. She has a new job as an assistant professor at Vassar, and, besides, she has never really liked the posh, fanatical Susan Selkirk: “Crumbelina, Dial had called her, secretly of course. Crumbelina had smeared butter across the countertops in Somerville. She could not make a bed, let alone a revolution.” She hates the bourgeois stiffness of Che’s grandmother. She is loyal to the Movement, and takes her orders from it, but doesn’t really know why, save out of curiosity. The Movement has, in effect, set her up. She has been used to abduct the child. But in Philadelphia she discovers that Susan Selkirk has blown herself up, and suddenly she, Dial, becomes the boy’s sole guardian.
She cannot return the boy to his grandmother, because she will be arrested for abduction; and she has encouraged the boy to think that he will be reunited with his father. So the two go on the run, and Dial finds herself joining Che’s father on the F.B.I.’s list of wanted fugitives. She laments the hole she has climbed into. She feels like a “sucker.” The novel burrows into the separate and often separated perspectives of this strange dyad, Dial and Che. For Che, the flight is a drastic adventure, in which the complications internally suffered and pondered by Dial are boyishly simplified: happy that he is finally with his mother, he waits every day to be united with his father. For him, the best thing about the trip across America is the motels. But everything is ultimately confusing, and the boy must become expert at his own kind of detection: “Plans have changed, she said, getting all busy with a cigarette.”
“His Illegal Self” is written in very short chapters, some as brief as a single page. The action is tightly edited, and the sentences jerk us forward like a leash. There are no quotation marks. Carey needs this never-apologize-never-explain form, not least because he decides to send his errant couple to Australia, not quite credibly. (Why not Mexico?) But Australia only improves his already vital prose, and gives him a new source of comedy. Dial and Che end up in a wild area north of Brisbane, where a hippie commune runs a collection of shacks, “up a dirt track at the asshole of the earth.” The locals don’t care much for the American interlopers, and the American adult does not even know that Australia is involved in the Vietnam War. “She had no idea of what Australia even was. She would not have imagined a tomato would grow in Australia, or a cucumber. She could not have named a single work of Australian literature or music.” A semi-savage dropout named Trevor looks after them, and with his help a local lawyer, Phil Warriner, is deputed to travel to the States, to communicate with Che’s grandmother about the boy’s safe return. But Dial’s first sight of the way-out Phil is not inspiring (and, indeed, he proves a useless emissary). He insists on removing all his clothes: “Phil sat his rain-wet backside on the dusty floor and took out a yellow pad and asked them questions and Dial looked him steadily in the eyes, anything to avoid the penis which was peeking between his crossed legs like a mushroom.”
For Che, the Australian bush is novel and familiar—he becomes again the explorer at Kenoza Lake. Carey has always been a quick-eyed observer of the child’s world: this is the energy that propels sections of novels like “Bliss” and “The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith,” and which revels in the boyish escapades of Ned Kelly, the Australian outlaw, in “True History of the Kelly Gang.” Through Che, Carey writes something like an exile’s ode to Australia (Carey has lived for nearly twenty years in Manhattan), to the “rabbit’s fur cloud” and “the weird broken teeth of the Glass House Mountains shoving out of the prickly bush below the velvet sky” and the cry of the Australian magpie, “like nothing else on earth. Who was it who said like an angel gargling in a crystal vase?”
Carey’s novel is determinedly unpolitical—to a political degree. It may appear to harbor a conservative disdain for the spoiled ambitions of nineteen-seventies radicalism. It is, after all, a novel about not a would-be victor but an absolute victim, and a very young one at that. The pressure—inherent, in some ways, in Carey’s loving notation of nature—to contrast natural beauty and longevity with ephemeral, venal human machinations has a reactionary history (it is called “pastoral”). But the novel does not feel like an indictment; it hugs the flanks of its characters and their largely unearned vicissitudes. A brief book, it leaves Dial and Che dangling in 1973, and offers no sorrowful or complacent ideological update. This was then, the book merely says, and what a lot of madness there was, some of it real and some of it manufactured: “She had wild hair but she was not wild and no matter what Time magazine said about her so-called generation she had only made love to one man in her life.”