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”).
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.
For a fiction writer, Peter Carey has an unusually strong background in business. His parents owned a General Motors car dealership in Bacchus Marsh, Australia, and Carey worked for almost 30 years in advertising, on accounts ranging from Volkswagen to Lindemans winery. Some critics have advanced ad-centered theories, one going so far as to say, “It is commonly agreed that his distinctive mode of narration developed from his involvement in this modern medium.” Carey remains a skeptic: “The business of advertising … You would think it must have done something, but I’m damned if I can see that it did.”
• Q&A With Peter Carey
His Illegal Self
By Peter Carey.
Knopf. 272 pages. $24.95.