February 8, 2008
Reviewed by Ruth Scurr
PETER CAREY is a feral writer. His novels pin down outlaws, criminals
and other violent men in strong sentences that break the rules of
grammar. The women in his books can be brutal, brutalised, or both.
Animals, typically, come off badly: the victims of natural or
perverted killings. There is scarce comfort in the wild landscapes or
dirty cityscapes, where Carey's characters lead "comic and
occasionally disastrous" lives; but there is gritty pathos, laced
with residual faith in the transforming power of love.
His Illegal Self, Carey's tenth novel, pushes to the extreme
questions of personal, cultural and historical inheritance that have
long preoccupied him. At the centre of the story is Che, an
eight-year-old boy, born in 1965 to American revolutionaries. Che's
parents are members of the Harvard-based SDS (Students for a
Democratic Society), but he is removed from their care after his
mother hurls him under Robert McNamara's car during a student
protest. Che is raised by his privileged grandmother in New York. She
calls him Jay, especially when in Bloomingdale's. The novel's opening
sentence reveals the void around which Che has constructed his
emotional life: "There were no photographs of the boy's father in the
There are, on the other hand, photographs of his mother, but none
distinctive enough to prevent him mistaking another woman for her:
when she "stepped out of the elevator into the apartment on East
Sixty-second Street he recognized her straightaway." They say be
careful what you wish for, but Jay is too young and needy to heed
such second-guessing advice.
Che is rapidly and willingly abducted by the woman he takes for his
mother, whose name is Dial (short for "dialectic", her nickname among
the Harvard comrades). His childhood babysitter has long predicted
that "They will come for you, man. They'll break you out of here."
Dial's motivation for effecting the reckless abduction remains
obscure: her old loyalty to the SDS fragments and fades with the
"Movement" itself. "You don't have no revolutionary situation," her
father, a war veteran, remarks. "This is America. God bless America."
Dial's personal credentials are also suspect. "She could not make a
bed, let alone a revolution." Whatever is she doing stealing the
famous child of notoriously rebellious parents, and flying off to
Australia with him to hide out in a jungle squat in Queensland?
"Queensland was a police state run by men who never finished high
school. They raided the hippies in Cedar Bay with helicopters and
burned down their houses. They parked out on Remus Creek Road at
night and searched the hippie cars without permission from a judge.
So if you thought you came to Remus Creek Road to get away from being
illegal, that was just a joke."
Carey sees the joke with piercing clarity, but remains compassionate
towards his characters, following them steadily into their folly,
never condescending to their material and emotional squalor. "How
could he have been happy? It was in almost every sense impossible. He
had been torn from his soil, thrown through the sky. In spite of
which he remembered, vividly, years later a brief period of deep
tranquillity." Che returns obsessively to the question: how will his
father find him? Dial responds to his flagrant need for love while
reckoning the impossibility of motherhood: "She did not know how real
mothers did anything, how they could live without being driven mad."
The situation is hopeless and disgusting: deceitful hippies, horrible
insects, lack of sanitation, drug-induced stupor, practical and
emotional incoherence. But it is also touching and funny. "'I am an
academic,' she said. 'I shouldn't be here.' She gestured at the
puzzling plank nailed crookedly on the wall. 'I hate all this shit.'"
Che is a convincing child. Alternately vulnerable and resilient,
weathering the storms of the adult lives he encounters, learning to
steer fixedly towards a future of his own. "In the humid darkness,
Dial screwed up her face imagining how it would feel to have the
whole foundation pulled from underneath your life." It would feel
like being at the centre of a revolution, trying to find a way out;
something Carey understands politically and emotionally.
Since winning the Booker Prize a second time with his portrait of the
outlaw Ned Kelly (True History of the Kelly Gang, 2000), Carey has
published two novels, My Life as a Fake and Theft. His Illegal Self
further explores the underbelly of the Western world. All the prizes
in the world could not turn Carey into an Establishment figure, and
for that his fans are for ever grateful. "A tree fell in Australia",
is the simple opening to one chapter. Carey makes you hear the crash
and see the debris so vividly that the world seems turned upside-down.
His Illegal Self by Peter Carey
Faber, £16.99; 300pp