January 28, 2008
This is one of Peter Carey's most unassuming books and has a rare
One of Peter Carey's best early stories, American Dreams, is a
beautifully ironic comment upon America's powerful hold over the
Australian imagination. To the characters who populate the tiny
unnamed town in which the story is set, America appears both familiar
and distant. Its chimerical glamour enthrals them. It is a land of
movie stars, giant televisions, luxurious cars. It represents escape.
When the enigmatic Mr Gleason startles everybody by transforming
their mundane lives into art, crafting a perfect replica of the town
and its inhabitants, they are puzzled and discomforted at being
exposed in such a way.
The story ends with Americans coming to see the model, which has been
transformed into a tourist trap, and gawk at the locals, but in a
neat ironic reversal the tourists have trouble accepting that the
inhabitants are really the people being represented.
American Dreams becomes less a tale of mutual incomprehension than of
wilful blindness. The two cultures gaze at each other but each
prefers the representation to the unglamorous reality.
Not the least significant aspect of Carey's 10th novel, His Illegal
Self, is that it turns the small town perspective of American Dreams
on its head. Its two main characters, a young woman named Anna Xenos,
who goes by the nickname Dial, and a six-year-old boy named Che
Selkirk, are Americans. They spend much of the novel stranded in a
hippie commune near the towns of Namboor and Yandina in southern Queensland.
The sense of defamiliarisation as Dial and Che adjust to the strange
landscape and its odd inhabitants is one of the novel's achievements.
Carey has, on occasion, explored questions of cultural difference in
a very colourful fashion - notably in the elaborate allegory of Efica
and Voorstand in The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith, and in his
amusing memoir Wrong about Japan. But in His Illegal Self, which is
written in an unobtrusively Americanised idiom, the quiet sense of
dislocation provides impetus to the book's deep emotional undertow.
The novel is set in the early '70s against the backdrop of the
political radicalism of the time. Che is the son of two disaffected
children of the privileged classes, both of whom have joined the
militant fringe of the counter-culture. They have abandoned Che to
the care of his grandmother, a wealthy New York matron, who describes
herself as a "bohemian", deplores her daughter's revolutionary zeal
and insists upon calling her grandson Jay.
The opening chapters, in which Dial absconds with Che, taking his
hand and running away from his grandmother on a New York street, are
as taught as any thriller. The point of view switches back and forth
between Che and Dial, and the overlapping perspectives are
brilliantly handled, gradually revealing the farcical nature of the
plot and the bungling that compels the pair to go underground.
Carey is not particularly interested (a la Philip Roth) in the
destructive passions that politics can unleash but the novel does set
out a pointed contrast between the countercultures of Australia and
the US. The American radicals, for whom the narrative displays no
sympathy whatsoever, are self-important and ruthless. They are full
of passionate intensity and are genuinely dangerous: they rob banks
and build bombs.
The Australian hippies, with whom Dial and Che eventually come to
reside after a series of on-the-road travails, are hapless ferals in
Joh Bjelke-Petersen's Queensland, which the omniscient narrator (not
a character) describes at one point as "a police state run by men who
never finished high school". (Would it have improved matters, one
wonders, if they had finished high school?) They are not apolitical
but they are mumbo-jumbo spouters, bumbling and ineffectual.
Dial and Che might have no knowledge of the country in which they
have sought refuge but there is more than a hint of mockery in the
way some of the Australian characters' understanding of the US is
revealed to be little more than a jumble of preconceptions.
But if there is mockery in Carey's portrayal of the hippie commune,
there is affection too. Trevor, a dodgy character who is an
illiterate but smart petty criminal, as well as a keen nudist, is
revealed to be a soft-hearted chap, who becomes an unlikely ally for
Dial and Che.
Even the unwelcoming Rebecca, a minor character who is initially
portrayed as the kind of laid-back fascist who doesn't care what you
do as long as you obey the rules, is granted a degree of empathy
towards the end of the book.
This is reflective of the overall movement of the novel and is
ultimately more significant than its contextualising politics. His
Illegal Self is concerned with loss of innocence but also with the
painstaking creation of personal trust.
In the book's gently paced second half the fragile and evolving
relationship between Dial and Che is deepened. Che's conflicted
feelings about his estranged father are explored and the two exiles
slowly come to develop something like a sense of affinity for their
shambolic new home, whose landscape the novel affectionately evokes.
His Illegal Self is a sad story but it has a warmth and directness,
an earthy poignancy, that one does not immediately associate with
Carey's boisterously inventive fiction.
His recent novels have not been shy about acknowledging their debt to
classic literature. He has rewritten Charles Dickens in Jack Maggs,
William Faulkner in True History of the Kelly Gang and Mary Shelley
in My Life as a Fake. His writing has also at times revelled in its
virtuosity, most obviously in the booming voice of Ned Kelly and the
rambunctious double-act of "Butcher" Bones and his perceptive idiot
brother Hugh in his previous (and very different) novel, Theft.
His Illegal Self is in its quiet way a technically accomplished work
but it does not flaunt its proficiency. A few passing references to
Huckleberry Finn, which highlight the novel's sympathy for Che's
child's-eye view of the world and the sense of freedom he discovers
as he romps through the bush with the commune's hippie children, are
as close as the book gets to a canonical homage. It is none the worse
for this unassuming quality.
His Illegal Self might be a relatively straightforward and
understated tale by Carey's usual standards but it is a fine novel.