His Illegal Self
by Peter Carey
Knopf, 288 pages, $24.95
His Illegal Self is Peter Carey's tenth novel. Two earlier ones, Oscar and Lucinda (1988) and True History of the Kelly Gang (2000), won the Booker Prize, the most prestigious and lucrative award for writers of fiction in English. Apart from Carey, only J.M. Coetzee has won that prize twice, and Coetzee got the Nobel not long after the second Booker.
Perhaps that's Carey's future, too, though I doubt it: He's not serious enough for the Nobel committee, which is not a criticism of him so much as of them. He is, in any case, among the more prolific and interesting literary presences currently writing in English: ten substantial novels, a dozen or so other volumes—nonfiction, short stories, children's stories—and much uncollected work in the three decades or so since he began publishing. Carey is no Pynchon or Gass, no writer's writer with a decade or more separating one massively earnest literary production from another; he's more like Trollope or Wodehouse or Oates or Updike, a man for whom writing is unavoidable and a matter of regular discipline. If you haven't read Carey before, this novel is an excellent place to start.
As His Illegal Self opens, it's 1973. A boy of seven, abandoned by his mother several years earlier for reasons he cannot understand, is in the care of his grandmother in New York. Their life is high-bourgeois bohemian, divided between the Upper East Side and an upstate lake house, and marinated in money. He, though he doesn't know it, is a merchant prince in the making; and she, even though she loves and cares for him in her own way, will not explain to him where his mother is or why he cannot see her. The boy, Che (named for Guevara), gets an account of these matters from an older friend. His parents, he is told, are somehow involved in the revolution; they are cool, radical, world-historical figures; they are in hiding, perhaps wanted by the FBI; and one day soon they will come for him, break him out of his bourgeois prison, and have him join them in their revolutionary work. Che finds most of this darkly mysterious and, the reader is given subtly to understand, misconstrues most of what he thinks he does appreciate.
Then one day a young woman, Anna Xenos (the stranger, the other, the displaced and homeless one—much is made of her name), comes for Che. His grandmother hands him over to her after an angry conversation he doesn't understand, and he assumes her to be his mother. The reader slowly—and Che even more slowly—comes to realize that she isn't, and a series of dramatic events ensues, including the reported violent death of Che's real mother, an agonizing meeting with a man who may be his real father, the joint flight of Anna and Che to Australia, and going to ground in a hippie commune deep in the bush. After that, events unfold more slowly: Anna and Che learn about each other and themselves, a picturesque cast of dropouts and locals is introduced, the squalor and beauty of living poor in the bush is lovingly painted, and a foreshadowed denouement is eventually arrived at.
This is the mise-en-scène of the novel. His Illegal Self shares with much of Carey's work an interest in depicting the world from its margins, from the viewpoint of those who are not fully formed by its norms and who are therefore often puzzled or frightened by it. In The Kelly Gang, for example, Carey did this in virtuosic fashion by representing, through the device of Ned Kelly's imagined journal, the viewpoint of a semiliterate Australian outlaw of strong character and opinions. The prose of that novel is almost entirely free of punctuation except for sparingly used periods, and the effect is mesmerizing and utterly convincing. In Theft (2006), the same interest shows itself in Carey's use of the first-person voice of a mentally and emotionally childlike man who must cope with the incomprehensible behavior of his half-mad artist brother; there, too, it works splendidly.
In His Illegal Self, the voice from the edge of the world is the seven-year-old Che's, and the purpose and effect are the same: quotidian adult actions made strange, and their violence, emotional and physical, made more obvious. And when those doings are out of the ordinary, as is the case in this book, they are intensified even more. Carey means to help us see the pain and beauty that belong to the human condition by showing us a life and a world from a perspective we cannot recall occupying.
This is not an easy thing to do convincingly. The world must be made strange but not so strange that it ceases altogether to be recognizable. The reader must be permitted to see what the child sees, and to see both more and less than what the child sees—and this must be done without the writer explicitly signaling what should be seen. A delicate authorial touch is needed, and for the most part Carey has it.
Readers will, for example, realize long before Che does that Anna is not his mother, but we do not do so at once and are not explicitly told so until after everything is clear to all the novel's characters. This triple-exposure effect—what the ordinarily attentive reader concludes from what is written, what the child in the story is depicted as concluding, and what the relatively undamaged adults in the novel are indirectly depicted as knowing—permits the emotional skewing and intensification.
It also hovers, however, on the edge of sentimentality, of the evocation in the reader of a condescendingly empathetic spine-tingle; Carey does not always avoid this and, I suspect, does not want to. Having concluded that Anna is not Che's mother, we want anticipatorily to hug Che to our collective readerly bosom to show our knowing solidarity with a mistake we know we are beyond making. And, in wanting this, we may veil the intensity of Che's agonies. These sentimentalities are especially evident in Dickens' use of the child's viewpoint ( David Copperfield, Great Expectations), and he is among Carey's acknowledged masters. In 1998, Carey published Jack Maggs, an extended gloss on Great Expectations, with Magwitch as protagonist.
His Illegal Self is not only about the abandoned Che, and not only written from his point of view. It is also, and almost equally, about Anna, another stranger to the world. She, self-made, intelligent, emotionally paraplegic, has just been offered an academic position at Vassar when Che's real mother, in hiding, clandestinely asks her to bring Che for a visit. Anna's acceptance of this commission leads, because of her apparent complicity with the mother's crimes and violent death, to an exile in the Australian bush for which she is unprepared but that teaches her things she would not otherwise have been able to learn—not least that she would like to be a mother almost as much as Che would like her to be one. Here, too, sentimentality lurks, but it is kept at bay by Carey's characteristically precise and often comic attention to physical and emotional squalor. The Australian commune is both beautiful and revolting, and Carey's depiction of the unpleasantness and naiveté of the hippie experiments of the time is unsparing and funny.
In this novel, as in many, Carey carefully uses history as backdrop. In The Kelly Gang, it was the record of Ned Kelly's exploits in nineteenth-century Australia; in Theft it was the worldwide business of faking pictures at the turn of the millennium; and here it is that strange period of American history from the mid-1960s to the early 1980s, in which amateurish and inefficient homegrown revolutionaries and terrorists seriously thought they might bring down the government and thereby initiate the worldwide collapse of capitalism. The Symbionese Liberation Army and the Weather Underground lurk just behind Carey's story, and some of the headlined stories of that time, creatively transformed, weave their way through his pages, though never by way of anything more than allusion and the throwaway line.
Che, perhaps, is inspired by Chesa Boudin, the son of Kathy Boudin and David Gilbert, quondam members of the Weather Underground and the Black Liberation Army who were given long-term prison sentences for their involvement in a 1981 bank robbery in which several people were killed. Boudin had left Chesa, then one year old, with a babysitter while she took part in the robbery, allegedly to fund revolutionary activities, and was in prison for the entirety of Chesa's childhood, being paroled only in 2003. Chesa was raised by Bernardine Dohrn and Bill Ayers, now academics but then also active in the Weather Underground—and perhaps there are distant echoes of Bernardine Dohrn in Carey's depiction of Anna Xenos.
And yet Che and Anna are not stand-ins for particular failed revolutionaries of the period. Carey uses these events as backdrop, I think, because they permit him some interesting effects. Most striking among them is that Che sees that his mother and father's illegal revolutionary activities as no more strange than most adult doings. Carey's readers, by contrast, are likely to see them as strange indeed: Not many of us have mothers who abandon us for their revolutionary work and are then dismembered in an accidental explosion while manufacturing bombs. But for Che, this is just one oddity among many, and in so depicting it Carey destabilizes our (ordinary, adult) judgments of what's normal and what's not.
This is not to say that His Illegal Self serves as an apology for the Symbionese Liberation Army or the Weather Underground by assimilating them to the everyday. Carey is a novelist, after all, not a moral philosopher, and what he does here is what good novelists are supposed to do—depict a world, not teach a moral lesson. The world of this novel is one in which there is great beauty, great pain, and, above all, great puzzlement; it is a world not easily comprehensible to the inquiring eye and one in which human beings mostly don't know what they're doing, why they're doing it, or how what they do will affect other human beings.
It is, in short, the world after the Fall, the one in which things are not as they should be but in which there is still the deep and beautiful trace of the divine gift to which we naturally respond. I doubt that Carey thinks in these terms. But the world so construed is the world he depicts; and his capacity to depict it in prose of considerable beauty, and thus to deepen our response to it, is itself evidence of the world's true nature.
Paul J. Griffiths holds the Warren Chair of Catholic Theology at Duke University's Divinity School.