As the narrative voice shifts its allegiance, it seems to pick up tiny hints of the characters’ perspectives—the odd colloquialism, a stray exclamation—but never with any discernible rhythm or imaginative rigor. It’s hard to know, therefore, whether to blame Carey or his characters for all the bad writing: clichés (“tight as a drum”), awkward similes (“The kitten was afraid, his mouth as wide and pink as dentistry”), maddening vagueness (“His shoulders were sort of round,” “her eyes sort of soft,” “with the kitchen sort of behind them”), and a persistent lukewarm slush of lyricism (“his dense needy secret life”), slang (“dropped a dime,” “asshole of the earth”), and questionable tropes (“her titties like puppies fighting inside her shirt”). Even the child’s perspective—a venerable novelistic method of defamiliarizing the adult world, with roots in Dickens and Joyce—tends to manifest itself in the bland, minimalist, faux-naïve, “and”-heavy rhythms of knockoff Hemingway: “He would not shower but his skin was sour and he held his case of drawings and a hundred dollars in a single bill and Trevor and Dial walked with him down the slippery path past the place where the car had always been and now was nothing but a dark oil stain and down onto the road where it was still too dark to see the red and yellow pebbles in the road.”
Carey is no novice, of course, and the book’s aimlessness could very well be a virtue in disguise. The author is so strictly devoted to realism he’s unwilling to distort the plot for the sake of mere entertainment, to impose a specious order on essentially disorderly events. This is admirable but unsuccessful, since the intellectual pleasure of its disorder isn’t strong enough to compensate for the lack of page-by-page enjoyment.
Carey’s uncharacteristically awkward struggle with pace and style obscures what is really an appealing story of unorthodox love. Dial turns out to be a tragic figure: a young academic named Anna Xenos (Xenos, the narrator tells us, a little heavy-handedly, means “displaced person, stranger”) who has lost everything by doing a foolish favor for an old friend. And Che, with his frequent little-boy rages, his chronic dyspepsia (“The boy’s stomach tasted like the inside of a tuna can”), and his back pocket full of carefully organized “papers,” is a sympathetic protagonist. They alternately squabble and bond, and some of their moments are genuinely touching: “She thought how glorious it was to be loved, she, Dial, who was not loved by anyone. She felt herself just absorb this little boy, his small damp hand dissolving in her own.” By the end, even Trevor the animal gets in on the action.
At least two other new novels—Hari Kunzru’s My Revolutions and Susan Choi’s A Person of Interest—deal with the fallout of violent radicalism. I don’t know what’s behind the trendlet. Perhaps global politics over the last eight years have called up familiar radical feelings, and the novelists see an opportunity to reflect on the last great historical wave. Unfortunately, in His Illegal Self, this promising subject—the human cost of political violence—finds its way to the background, while what should have been a vivid background (the jungle) storms the podium.