The lost boy
Christopher Tayler follows an odd pair's journey into the wilderness
in Peter Carey's His Illegal Self
Saturday February 2, 2008
His Illegal Self
by Peter Carey
300pp, Faber, £16.99
The narrator of Peter Carey's new novel usually calls the boy at its
centre "the boy". But the boy's name, Che Selkirk, isn't a mystery
for long, and the reader soon learns how he got it. It's 1972 - in
other words, still the 60s, which are said to have ended two years
later - and Che, aged seven, is being brought up in New York by
Phoebe Selkirk, his absent mother's mother. Phoebe, an imperious east
coast heiress, won't let him near a television set in case there's
upsetting news about his parents, Susan Selkirk and David Rubbo.
Susan, once an upper-class student leader, and David, her radical
Harvard classmate, are on the run from the FBI as a result of their
Weathermen-like revolutionary activities. The boy isn't meant to know
about all this, but thanks to a long-haired teenaged neighbour he
thinks he knows a "Maoist fraction" when he sees one. He hopes that
his famous parents will come back for him one day.
Then, when Che is "almost eight", a woman with "little silver bells
around her ankles" steps out of the elevator into the apartment. He
knows who she is "straightaway". One minute they're in Bloomingdale's
with Grandma Selkirk, the next they're running hand in hand into the
subway - an unfamiliar experience for him - and trying to catch a bus
to somewhere called "Philly". The woman, who calls herself "Dial"
instead of "Mom", says she has a wonderful surprise in store:
plainly, he thinks, he's going to meet his father too. As the two of
them move around the country, however, holing up in cheap motels and
playing endless games of Uno, the surprise is quietly dropped. Their
travels speed up until, very abruptly, on page 23, they're in
Queensland, Australia, trying to bum a ride off some unprepossessing hippies.
At this point, Carey cuts back in time and tells the story again from
Dial's point of view, briefly dropping the jagged narrative style
he's designed to convey the boy's confused thoughts. As the reader
might have guessed, Dial isn't Che's mother. It turns out that she's
his former babysitter, a South Boston scholarship girl - her nickname
is short for "dialectic" - who's just landed a job teaching English
at Vassar. Her real name is Anna Xenos and, for mysterious reasons,
she's agreed to pick the boy up from Phoebe's apartment in order to
take him on a visit to his mother's safehouse. But before the visit
goes through, Che's mother blows herself up while tinkering with a
homemade bomb. Dial and the boy are instantly all over the news.
Panicking, she turns to the revolutionary underground, and before
she's thought things through they've packed her off to Australia,
where the help she's been promised stubbornly fails to materialise.
By now, though, we're back with the boy's point of view. And as the
narrative muddies up again - a tense ride with the hippies, a flooded
road in the night, a trailer overturned by a tropical storm - the
reader begins to wonder about various things. Why didn't Dial just
hand Che over to his father or his grandmother? Why did she agree to
help out in the first place when she knew that Susan Selkirk "could
not make a bed, let alone a revolution"? And, most of all, why has
this intelligent woman allowed herself to be sent to Australia with a
boy who is not hers and a few thousand stolen dollars? As the plot
ushers the characters towards a commune in the jungle, you start to
hope that further flashbacks will clear all this up, with, perhaps,
in the foreground, as promised by the blurb, a spare yet touching
story of growing love.
Long before Che and Dial have started settling in to their
primitively furnished hut, however, Carey's attention has apparently
drifted from the breathless sequence of events that got them there.
Although he eventually addresses most of the questions he's left
hanging, he doesn't seem greatly interested in the answers: getting
these outside observers to Australia looks to have been the main
objective. What he's chiefly interested in, the reader starts to
suspect, is describing the tropical hippie outpost, and the
Australian landscape surrounding it, from an American point of view
and in synaesthesic detail. The novel takes on a woozy, distracted
quality. Its shifts of time and perspective become less purposeful
and organised, and as the characters start coming to uneasy terms
with their new neighbours - a damaged potential father-figure called
Trevor and an assortment of officious commune-dwellers - a lot of the
energy goes out of Carey's storytelling.
This is made all the more frustrating by the interesting antagonisms
and misunderstandings hovering around the edge of the plot, and the
interest of the setting in general. Dial - who doesn't know that the
Australians are in Vietnam - is treated frostily by the local
countercultural figures. She in turn is unimpressed by the Selkirks'
feelings of patrician entitlement. Early 70s Queensland, which the
narrator describes as "a police state run by men who never finished
high school", looks like a promising setting for a Robert Stone-style
post-hippie meltdown. And, in transporting his central characters
from the imperial centre to the back of beyond, Carey glances at
post-colonial concerns: the name "Selkirk", shared with a famously
shipwrecked mariner, might have been chosen with Robinson Crusoe in mind.
In practice, though, these angles aren't fully explored, and Carey's
emotional choreography isn't sure-footed enough to make Che's story
live up to its dramatic opening. As you'd expect, he does a good job
of creating a lively - and carefully Americanised - idiom for his
central characters. And having lived in one himself, he clearly knows
a lot about alternative communities in Queensland. Yet, coming as it
does on the heels of such books as True History of the Kelly Gang,
the new novel seems badly paced and weirdly dull. Carey is a
formidable writer, and this isn't a complete disaster by any means,
but it's hard not to see it getting filed under "occasional misfires".
Peter Carey talks about prose, politics, and his passion for Australia
Erica Wagner meets Australia's greatest literary export to discuss
his latest novel, His Illegal Self
February 1, 2008
Best to come straight out with it. Peter Carey, your new book is
entitled His Illegal Self. Before that there was My Life as a Fake;
and then, three years later, Theft: A Love Story. What's that all about?
Carey's usual ebullience suddenly seems muted. "I know, it's a
shame," he says, not exactly joking. Sitting across from him in the
cosy environs of Lupa, a trendy Italian place in Greenwich Village,
New York, I persist. Are the books a kind of trilogy?
"No." There's a pause. "I don't know. I don't think it's something I
want to address, I think it's kind of unfortunate..." Another, very
long pause. "What are we going to put that down to? The convict
system? I don't know. The illegal thing comes from a subject, a very
personal thing between my youngest son and I, being in the country
and Charley being worried about 'illegal' drivers... there were the
rednecks and the illegal drivers, so it's some kind of tribute to
Charley, a little joke."
Just an accident, then? "Yes, and it's why I was very clear about the
jacket and why it had to be a little kid's face, because it makes
sense of the understanding of illegality, his illegal self. But the
repetition of theft, fake, illegal is rather unfortunate ... in the
sense that it suggests something much stronger than I feel. On the
other hand who's making these patterns, Doctor? It's me." And he
grins, at last, the wicked Carey grin, its slight goofiness an
effective screen for the remarkable perception and imagination that
hallmarks his work.
His Illegal Self takes place in the early 1970s. It is the story of
Che, who, at the beginning of the novel, is stolen away from his
grandmother - and a life of privilege - in New York, by a woman whom
he believes to be his mother. His mother, he knows, is an outlaw, a
member of a violent political group that bears some resemblance to
the Weather Underground. "Dial" (short for "Dialectic", her nickname
in the activist world) takes him to Queensland, a place that Carey
knows well but which is painted vividly afresh through Che's eyes.
Somehow - thanks to Carey's sure hand and true heart - this
wilderness of bugs, drugs and hippies becomes a place transformed by love.
Carey talks of the genesis of the novel in a matter-of-fact way. When
someone asked him why he set My Life as a Fake in Indonesia, his
answer was simply: "I liked the food"; the reasoning behind this
latest book is a little more elaborate, but still as bounded by the
real. He had loved finding that he could describe the New South Wales
he remembered in Theft; so the setting of His Illegal Self seemed a
"Living in Queensland is like living in Paradise. It's just gorgeous.
You live in this rainforest, in the afternoon you go to the beach,
and ride - so that was one thing. And the other thing was when I did
live in that community some of the characters around were the sort of
characters who were needed for the book; the people who lived there
were really nice and very open. It's the only place in my life I've
ever lived where no one ever asked me what I did. That's really unusual.
"Into this came this American guy, and nobody asked what he did
either, and it turned out in the end that he was actually wanted by
the FBI for conspiracy to import cocaine into the US from Mexico. But
we didn't know that. He just turned up. Suddenly one morning there
was this huge police raid with helicopters; that was the first we knew."
Although this description may seem exotic to British readers, Carey
recounts it with a deadpan style that makes his alchemical
transformation of the plain stuff of life even more striking. But,
then, it's clear that Carey is a storyteller in his very bones; and
my opening question was, in a sense, unfair - in that his whole body
of work is peppered with chancers, liars, thieves. That is: people
who make their lives as stories, just as the novelist does.
Can we trust Peter Carey? As it says on his (brand-spanking-new)
website: "He claims his birthplace of Bacchus Marsh had a population
of 4,000. This fact should probably be checked." Born in 1943, he was
sent away at the tender age of 11 to the prestigious Geelong Grammar
School (alma mater of Rupert Murdoch and the Prince of Wales).
Might this explain the persistence, in his fiction, of the dislocated
or orphaned child, of which Che is just the latest example? Carey,
it's clear, is wary of such "explanations"; and of 21st-century
society's obsession with the "real" - reality TV, "misery memoirs",
the docu-drama. Has fiction lost its appeal? There is, it seems to
me, a distrust of the very form. Carey doesn't mince his words.
"Yes, fiction's certainly distrusted... yet we have a society where
the basis of everything, the political basis of our lives, is a
complete fucking lie. And the media have no interest in telling any
truth at all. And in this, maybe, you have something happening at a
profound level - maybe people think there are conspiracies because
there are. I mean, they understand something's wrong.
"Maybe the great passion that something has to be really 'real',
exists because there's so much that's not. If you look at this [the
Bush] Administration, and all of the things that have led us to where
we are now - the whole schmear - it's all complete lies. And this is
the time when we have a passion for what's true, and no interest in
what's made up? I don't know. The degree to which people are
suspicious of the imagination is beyond me. When fiction works really
well, it has to work in such a way that it feels like it wasn't made
up. But this time now doesn't trust it."
"This Administration", "schmear" - spoken like an American; indeed, a
New Yorker. Carey has been in the city for nearly two decades; he
seems at home here. The beginning of our meeting is taken up with a
little tour of his neighbourhood; he lives in SoHo with the publisher
Frances Coady. We hit Joe's Dairy, where he buys me a ball of the
best mozzarella in the city; then on to Raffetto's, for the best
pasta to go with it. For dessert, a tart from Once Upon a Tart... oh,
yes, we go to a bookstore, too, Three Lives on West 10th Street,
where it's clear he's a regular customer (that was clear at Joe's Dairy, too).
By his account, it's happenstance that he ended up in New York; he
first came with his wife, Alison Summers, whom he has since divorced.
For some years he has been at Hunter College as director of the MFA
Programme in Creative Writing.
Read recent pieces about Martin Amis's supposedly exaggerated salary
for doing the same at Manchester University and you could be forgiven
for thinking the whole thing a con; or anyway, a business
proposition, a way for students to "make it" in the writing game.
Carey shrugs; he takes what he does seriously, but is realistic about
what he can achieve with his 12 students - chosen from a couple of
"I tell them to forget about the business. That's nothing to do with
me. I used to be slick at talking about this, but as I've started to
enjoy it more, I'm not slick at it. First, I think it saves people
time - a couple of years, three years. They'll figure it out in the
end. If they haven't got talent, you're not going to give it to them,
but they will have it because you've chosen them.
"But they might turn out to not have will; which you can't always
judge very easily at the beginning. If they don't have will, they're
screwed. But you can't make them write every day or get up early in
the morning; you can give them an example, or tell them what they
should be doing, and they might listen."
The students line-edit each other's stories; they analyse other
writers - recently Edith Wharton and W.G. Sebald. Carey once asked
them to keep a weather diary: it's a way of making writers, who tend
to be, in his words, self-obsessed, look out at the world. But there
are no magic tricks: that's clear when he talks about his own working
methods, which come down to hard graft, to feeling his way into a
book and writing and rewriting until it somehow comes true to what he
intended - but without knowing what that will be when he begins.
"As I'm writing I'm thinking, what is this book about? In the end
this one is only about love. So for me to be writing a book and then
to understand that it's about this relatively simple thing was a
surprise - I've written books where you could discuss what they were
'about' in a very different way. It's very strange that you spend all
this time playing with something to give it pattern and meaning and
it wouldn't work if we knew at the beginning what we were doing."
When he speaks this way it seems clear that, to some extent, the
finished product of the novel is an afterthought: the happy result of
the process of writing, a process that consists of discovery and escape.
At the end of our talk he refers briefly to the difficult separation
from Summers, the mother of his two boys: "I wrote three books going
through the most horrible time in my life - who was it that said you
might 'live your days within the pages of a book'? Well, I did. I
really had thought you had to have a peaceful life to write... but I
then discovered that you don't. So the thing of going somewhere else,
living in your imagination, is a privileged state."
It was reading his Booker-winning Oscar and Lucinda, many years ago,
that first truly made me feel the possibilities of fiction; or,
rather, to wonder whether it would be possible to be a writer. Now,
at the end of our meal, Carey effects another introduction - to
camomile grappa. Wow. I am quite overcome, and decline dessert, which
Carey, with a flash of that grin, claims that he predicted.
"As a novelist," he intones, "I can see into the souls of others...
that's a gift we have. I can just look at people and know what it is
they are feeling, and thinking... it's why I carry this notebook." He
throws back his head and laughs.
His Illegal Self by Peter Carey
Faber, £16.99; 300pp
Extract from His Illegal Self
Inside the Ford were smells which the boy could not have named or
untangled - long wisps of WD-40 and marijuana, floating threads of
stuff associated with freaks who made their own repairs, dandelion
chains of dust and molecules of automotive plastics which rose up in
the moldy heat, 1961, 1964, 1967.
At Kenoza Lake he had gotten accustomed to moldy paper, books with
yellow pages, the rotting leaves in late November, the smell of dairy
cows across the lane. As he scrambles across the busted sunken
boneless backseat of John the Rabbitoh's wagon, he tried to like
where he had come. His dad would maybe smell like this exactly, underground.
You OK, baby?
I'm cool, he said.
As the first fat raindrops splatted like jelly against the
windshield, the mother pulled him close against her generous breast.
She was all he had for now.
Trevor, said the snaggle-toothed passenger, not looking at the boy.
His skin was smooth and taut, but his edges were all raw and poor,
like he had crawled along a drainpipe to arrive here.
Dial, said the mother.
Trevor was now offering drugs and the boy was certain that he was
through the doorway which had been waiting for him all his life. His
grandma had always fretted about it, being stolen back by
revolutionaries. She never spoke directly to the subject, so he had
to listen through the wall - his history in whispers, brushing,
scratching on the windowpane.
The edge of the storm took the car like a kitten in its mouth. The
driver stared into the rearview mirror. Where you heading? he asked
the mother who was already dealing from the pack.
She answered, North, which made the boy certain it could not be true.
He had three wild cards which were very good. He drew his finger
across his throat to tell her he would win.
Other works by Peter Carey
The 139-year-old Herbert Badgery, confidence trickster, aviator, car
salesman, charlatan tells tall tales of his life, spanning the
landscape and history of Australia.
Oscar and Lucinda (1988)
Travelling to Australia on a ship in 1864, Oscar Hopkins, an Anglican
priest, begins a romance with glass-manufacturer and fellow
compulsive gambler Lucinda Leplastrier. The story of their doomed
attempt to transport a glass cathedral to a remote missionary outpost
won Carey the Booker Prize.
Jack Maggs (1997)
The deported criminal Jack Maggs escapes from Australia, risking his
life in 19th-century London to seek vengeance and reconciliation.
This mirrors Dickens's Great Expectations, but puts Magwitch, alias
Maggs, at its centre.
True History of the Kelly Gang (2001)
This Booker prize-winning tale traces the life of the outlaw Ned
Kelly. Told through Kelly's own voice, in a journal written to a
daughter he will never see, it describes his life as prisoner, horse
thief, bank robber, bushranger and the Australian Robin Hood.
My Life as a Fake (2003)
In Malaysia, a London poetry editor, Sarah Wode-Douglass meets the
Australian poet Christopher Chubb, and discovers the sordid,
fantastical tale behind a real-life literary hoax - the fake poems of