His Illegal self – Peter Carey

28 March 2009
Chapters 1-13
Wherever we are with this novel, it’s not where we think. In the first four or five chapters Carey gives us a headlong narrative of surprise journeys and changed plans, told from the point of view of a 7-year-old boy. A woman he recognises as his long-lost mother has picked him up from his grandmother’s in New York, where he’s been living in well-heeled isolation. It’s the early 1970s and he’s been shielded from television and the other temptations his grandma is suspicious of – we don’t quite know why yet – and ‘Dial’, with her long skirt and other hippie accoutrements seems to represent a different world.

She’s taking him somewhere where there‘s to be a ‘surprise‘. Then they’re going somewhere else. Then they’re on a plane to Australia, then they’re hitchhiking in the middle of nowhere. The boy has no idea what’s going on, and neither do we. Then they’re picked up by Aussie hippies….

After all this predictable, rather stale-sounding stuff, it’s time for surprise No 1. Dial is a newly appointed professor of English – bet you didn’t see that one coming – with six months on her hands before she starts her new job. And she’s not the boy’s mother, only acting as a courier. And it turns out she’s been taken for a ride by the patrician bohemians she turned her back on years ago. Yes, she knows Susan, the boy‘s mother. Yes, she’ll phone her, yes she’ll bring the boy to her. Carey lets us know that Dial will survive: she re-treads these moments thousands of times in a different time-continuum – a similar one that has the boy, as an adult, re-living the journey with his analyst. She wants to be helpful to her posh friends – and that’s what they knew she‘d do: it turns out they’re manipulating her for their own ends.

We get the story of the journey re-told, this time from Dial’s point of view. It’s not a difficult trick, but it makes for some neat moments when the boy’s faith in the woman he thinks is his mother is shown to be devastatingly ill-founded. She’s been stuffed: Susan wanted the boy for something to do with her political activities – she‘s a member of a weird ’movement’ into violent action against the state – but the first Dial knows of this is when she sees the news item on the coach station tv: Susan has blown herself up – and the police are after the woman who kidnapped the boy. Oh dear.

There’s more bad stuff to come. The Aussie hippies are unreliable, there’s a hurricane that tumbles Dial and the boy around in a caravan…. And once Carey’s got us used to the two points of view he can move back and forth. Sometimes we’re still in the States with Dial, finding out how she’s been shafted by the activists and the upper-classes – the two cadres she was never really a part of – and sometimes we’re in the Outback and we’re suddenly in a Sensurround movie. It’s quite enjoyable really – except I wonder why a 21st Century writer is bothering with a relic of political activism from a generation and a half ago. Maybe it’ll become clear.

One last thing. The boy’s idiot parents called him Che – but his grandma calls him Jay. Dial’s with the grandmother on this one, and who wouldn’t be?

31 March
Chapters 14-35
Maybe two-thirds of the way through, and… if the first bit of the book was a headlong trajectory, the middle part is all about crash-landing like the spaceship from Krypton in the first Christopher Reeve Superman movie. They’re buried so deep it looks as if they’ll never get out. Good job Carey’s already let us know they survive all this….

My problem with it all is that we’re to believe that Dial is a complete idiot. She needs to hide from the American authorities – so she buys a worthless hovel in the middle of nowhere with most of the US dollars she has left. (Don’t even ask what happened to the 26,000 the hippies found on her after the boy’s near-feral cat conveniently rips her skirt.) Trevor, one of the unreliable hippies, is their neighbour. He’s shit-scared of the authorities as well, and has Swiss Family Robinson-style plans for fighting or escaping. But… he’s capable, kind to the boy, kind to the stupid American babe (his word) who gets absolutely everything wrong. We get some of his story as he talks to the boy. We even get a half-chapter here and there from his point of view. (This might only have happened once, but I get the feeling Carey wants us to be interested in this bloke.)

We’ve had more back-story, filling in some of the blanks about how the counter-culture’s underground managed to whisk Dial out from under the authorities’ noses. We get further inside the boy’s head, feeling his desperation as they end up a million miles from where he wants to be. Dial doesn’t want to be brutal, and even manages to snatch moments of reading aloud to him like she did when they were first on the run and the boy saw it all as a stupendous adventure. (A ‘Maoist’ babysitter has let him know that his parents would probably take him back from the bourgeois grandma.) But the Australian landscape Carey so lovingly describes is not what the boy wants…

…and in the chapters I’m on now, things are going badly wrong between them, largely because Dial seems to have no resources to draw on. Ok, she’s an academic – but she’s not from a middle-class background, she didn’t have servants. Shit, she was the one who looked after the boy when his activist mother was too busy. So why does she steadfastly refuse to accept anybody’s advice? Ok, Trevor can’t read, and he mispronounces words. But her stubborn refusal, for instance, to listen to anybody about the green wood she wants to line the hovel with… well, it‘s merely irritating. I‘ve been fed up with her stupid company since she bought the stupid shithole they now live in.

And, in Chapter 35, she’s just whacked Trevor several times with a long piece of two-by-four because… because he’s kind to the boy and she’s an idiot. And she didn’t like the way he’s worked out she isn’t the boy’s mother – and said so. The real problem for her is that the boy heard, though neither of them knew he was hiding nearby…. Oh dear.

Another last thing: identities. First there are names. Dial is really Anna, Che is Jay, the Adam she bought the smallholding from is really Jimmy…. Then there are other disguises. Dial is not Che’s mother, the man who hosed the boy down while they were on the run is not his father – even though, for some obscure reason, Dial pretended he was for a time. Dial is not really a hippie, although she’s careful to look like one – and there are other hidden truths. Trevor can see Dial/Anna for who she is – but she can’t see that the only person who is going to save her and the boy is the illiterate barbarian she takes him for. And if that sounds a bit obvious, well, maybe it is. As for the boy… well, what selves has he got? The little rich kid that Dial often finds herself resenting? The little boy way out of his element (‘I’m only seven!‘)? Or the illegal self, the one he quite likes the idea of?

2 April
Chapters 36-48
I’m seven-eighths of the way through. The two main characters and Trevor are all finding things out, but Carey deliberately makes it hard, for them and us. The narrative won‘t stay still, or smooth: we continue to get the back stories of all of them – and if we follow one of them on an adventure – like the boy’s attempted escape (tell you in a minute) – well, the story will double back later to show it us from a different angle. The boy – Carey almost always uses that phrase to refer to him – runs away with an impossible plan of somehow getting back his old life in America. He lets himself get caught, then – if Dial’s lesson in Freud for kids is to be believed – wants the police to find him. But he doubts this, and anyway, he’s the hero now, having survived (he lies) a night in the bush. The other hippie kids, the ones he’s never really met before because everybody hates Dial so much, all want to be in his gang… because, reader, they’re not real hippie kids at all, just on holiday. When the summer’s over, they go back to school – so that’s what the boy wants as well.

I hope they can go home soon, because I’ve learnt enough about them now. It’s one of the novel’s deliberate ironies that Dial is at least as mixed up as the boy: her intellectual snobbery – she never does manage to get past Trevor’s illiteracy, and routinely refers to the hippies as the Mumbo-jumboes – seems to mask a deep class insecurity. Her Turkish/Greek background, with a working class father who only ever gained nominal esteem for her from the Movement, and her mother who was basically in service, have left her a bit of a mess. She’s the brains of the family and, as she complains, look where it’s got her. ‘Australia is a police state’ runs the local hippie mantra – and the police start to make life awkward. Not that they know a thing about her, obviously.

Trevor’s important. Maybe we always knew he would be. He didn’t steal Dial’s dollars all those chapters back, he was looking after them. And, despite the boy’s deep distrust of him – and the man’s blatant failings – he’s the only father figure Che’s ever had: it turns out the indifferent hippie who hosed him down really was his father. And Trevor never retaliates for the bad treatment he’s got from the two Yanks, just carries on doing things to get them out of the holes they keep digging. Hmm. There’s nothing sentimental in Carey’s presentation of him but, despite his shoplifting habits and his almost childish fear of the authorities, he’s a good bloke. Not a genuine Aussie hero, surely?

3 April
Chapter 49 to the end
We leave them as they’re about to get out. Earlier, like an idiot (yawn), Dial sends the addled lawyer who’s been offering her third-rate advice to act as a kind of emissary to the States. There’s never any doubt what will happen to him. In fact, Carey semaphores it so unmistakably with the man’s comedy zoot suit and comedy telegram (it’s a relief Carey doesn’t do comedy more often) that there’s no surprise at all when Dial phones him and gets a cop at the other end of the line. Then we get Dial in truly idiot mode when she phones the boy’s grandma instead. All her insecurities and resentments result in her saying every possible wrong thing to the old woman. Fine, that’s all those bridges burnt, then.

So, no high-level diplomatic engagement. The lawyer sings, the Aussie cops arrive – but Trevor (of course) has foreseen this and they don’t get caught. But the cops trash the place, and all the other hippies’ places, and I’m wondering how 21st Century Australians feel about Carey the uberliberal ex-pat trashing their culture like this. It all seems a bit easy: police brutality – police barbarity, basically – is simply a given. Yawn.

And now it’s all getting a bit plot-bound and linear: no more to-ing and fro-ing, except for the very occasional brief mention of the boy‘s memories of all this once he‘s grown up. Basically, Carey has to get the kid out, because he wants to focus on his ambivalent feelings. In fact, some of the best writing in the book takes us inside the boy’s head as he tries to come to terms with leaving a place he now realises he loves…. So there’s another plan. The boy is taken to a pick-up point and left there. The end. Except… it’s not the end. Carey hasn’t finished with the triangular relationship that has formed over the months as Dial and Trevor, in Trevor’s spectacular Vauxhall Cresta, sweep him away so they can all face the music. Together.

Still not the end. The last few sentences focus on the little nugget of something the boy feels as a result of this. Carey tries out words – a pearl? Something more… what? – to describe what it is he feels for this woman who isn’t his mother and this man who isn’t his father. He might not know, but we do, don’t we, reader?


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