Peter Carey’s talent is a vine in constant search of a trellis. In order to reach its full leafy abundance, his art needs to wrap its tendrils around some stabilizing foreign construct—the rough life and diction of a nineteenth-century outlaw (True History of the Kelly Gang) or the untold backstory of a canonical Dickens novel (Jack Maggs). Once he finds a suitable trellis, Carey thoroughly overruns it, weaving his work inextricably into its slats, unleashing wave after bright wave of exotic blooms, and littering the ground beneath him with strange Australian fruits. Rarely has an artist been so liberated by constraint. When he’s in top form—as, for instance, in his masterpiece about Ned Kelly—Carey seems determined to obliterate any distinction between vine and trellis, organism and synthesis, growth and support, source and text.
Carey’s new novel, His Illegal Self, seems to grope toward yet another promising constraint. The book opens in the midst of a thoroughly disorienting family crisis, which the narrator makes even more disorienting by clinging to the misinformed perspective of a child. Seven-year-old Che Selkirk has no memory of his mother or father; he only knows, based on rumors and the evidence of his silly first name, that they are infamous sixties radicals who’ve been forced into hiding after perpetrating some anti-government violence. Che’s sentient years have been spent in the custody of his uppity upper-class grandmother, who’s raised him in a doting, antisocial, televisionless cultural quarantine split between upstate New York and the Upper East Side. As the novel begins, this privileged bubble is abruptly burst when—in some combination of jailbreak, kidnapping, and reunion—a woman Che assumes to be his mother arrives to take him away. Hand in hand, they ditch his grandma outside of Bloomingdale’s and run down into the subway—its ceiling “slimed with alien rust,” the train “painted like a warrior.” (The novel is largely a contest between up and down: uptown Manhattan apartments and pastoral lakes versus the subway, downtown Philly, and the aggressively inhospitable Down Under of the Australian jungle.)
The woman asks Che to call her not “Mom” but “Dial,” which he does, unfortunately, approximately 34 times a page. (I realize this is a trivial complaint, but the novel rivals the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings series in its mind-numbing capacity to repeat ridiculous names—there’s also a minor character named Jean Rabiteau whom the narrator insists on calling “John the Rabbitoh.”) In a series of rapidly escalating missteps—including what is either the most suspiciously coincidental explosion in the long history of homemade bombs or a totally unexplained suicide—Che and Dial flee to Philadelphia, Seattle, and finally Australia, thereby proving that it takes Carey (a native Aussie obsessed with the geographical metaphysics of his home continent) only 23 pages to make a novel that has nothing to do with Australia entirely about Australia. Eventually, they settle, way off the grid, among a community of hippies in the Queensland rain forest—a “world beyond the Clorox stairs” in which everyone speaks like elves or hobbits or like they have “ground beef in their mouths.”
But what seems at first to be the novel’s sustaining imaginative trellis—the sharply limited perspective of a confused boy suffering the painful fallout of violent radicalism—collapses about 30 pages in. This leaves the irrepressible vine of Carey’s talent to wander, without restraint, all over the fictional garden, where it smothers nearby growths, gets tangled on old rusty shovels, and finally meanders off under the deck to drop its underripe fruit in the dark. Although the book’s plot sounds, in the abstract, like the kind of thing that would keep you reading for solid unblinking days—kidnapping, fugitives, revolutionaries, cyclones, explosions, jungle survival, police raids, robberies, treasure hoards, and attacks by two-inch-long bull ants—in reality it manages only a few short bursts of legitimately page-turning momentum. The novel becomes inexplicably obsessed with the mundanities of life in the hippie compound, in particular their draconian no-kitten policy, and its narrative energy is slowly strangled by the lush lyrical laziness of the Australian jungle. Sometimes it feels less like a functional plot than a painfully thorough thought experiment.
Carey has proved himself, many times over, to be a brilliant mimic, and by now he’s clinched a prominent spot in the Ventriloquizing Novelists’ Hall of Fame. But here he seems to have come down with a bad case of narrative laryngitis. The novel’s voice is boringly noncommittal; it whips around like a kookaburra in a hurricane, leaping suddenly from Che to Dial and back again, drifting neutrally through expository chapters, and turning, for a couple of jarring paragraphs, to a sinister naked hippie called Trevor who seems to be on loan from Animal Planet (he is variously characterized as “a mole, vole, pit bull, otter, seal,” “a mouse, a cockroach,” and “sleek as a porpoise”).