Queensland in the early 1970s was, according to the narrator of Peter Carey’s new novel, ‘a police state run by men who never finished high school’. This intriguing throwaway remark turns out to be not much of an exaggeration. For twenty years from 1968, Queensland was controlled by the corrupt, gerrymandering state governor Joh Bjelke-Petersen, variously described as the Hillbilly Dictator, a ‘bible-bashing bastard’ and – by himself – as ‘a bushfire raging out of control’. The son of a poor Danish Lutheran pastor, afflicted with a lifelong limp by childhood polio, Bjelke-Petersen sought divine guidance daily, accepted huge bribes, banned public protests, ignored endemic malfeasance in his police force and civil serv-ice, prevented the purchase of land by aborigine groups and claimed that Desmond Tutu was a witch doctor.
None of this is particularly relevant to Carey’s new novel, though Bjelke-Petersen is name-checked once. It’s worth mentioning only because it’s the sort of detail that his brilliant and uneven talent usually thrives on. One of the joys of reading Carey, for a British reader, is that he inhabits and illuminates interesting pieces of Australian history: whether it’s the treatment of the aborigines in Oscar and Lucinda (1988); the life of the transported convict in Jack Maggs (1997), his Magwitch-centred rewriting of Great Expectations; or the Ern Malley hoax of 1944, which is rewritten in My Life as a Fake (2003): two disgruntled anti-Modernists created a fictional poet in order to humiliate Sydney’s avant-garde, and unwittingly created a cultural icon, whose poems are, to this day, among Australia’s best-known. Better still, there is his True History of the Kelly Gang (2001), which describes Victoria, circa 1880 – ‘a colony made specifically to have poor men bow down to their gaolers’ – so vividly that one would swear the author had actually been there.
Carey writes fiction on the grand, nation-building scale: by his own admission, nearly everything he has ever written has ‘been concerned with questions of national identity’. As a rule, he presents Australia, if not Australians, in a very unflattering light. The country comes across as a rough, small-minded, land-grabbing settler culture, based on self-serving fictions and violence, forever dogged by feelings of inferiority towards Europe and America. As one of the characters in his last novel, Theft (2006), concisely puts it, ‘We Australians are really shit. We know nothing. We are so bloody ugly.’ Carey likes to blow the whistle on his country’s hidden historical crimes (Ned Kelly begins his account by announcing that he knows ‘what it is to be raised on lies and silence’, and intends to defy them). He has specialised in creating disreputable Australian heroes – convicts made good, bushrangers, self-inventing fraudsters – who tend both to embody and to transcend the small, bigoted towns and ‘hateful and life-denying’ suburbs they come from. To quote from My Life as a Fake, he sings ‘the song of the autodidact, the colonial, the damaged beast of the antipodes’. Bjelke-Petersen would make an excellent Carey character. Unfortunately, we are offered nothing nearly so vital in His Illegal Self.
On the face of it, the new book sounds of a piece with Carey’s back catalogue. Set in 1972, it tells the story of a young boy, brought up in New York by his wealthy grandmother because his militant student activist parents are unwilling or unable to look after him, who is kidnapped by his mother’s comrades, and ends up living in a commune in the Queensland rainforest, hiding from the law. Carey’s ultimate theme has long been the attempt to carve out a life in Australia’s inhospitable terrain, and he has consistently written about outlaws and orphans. In interviews, he has explained this by saying that his country’s ‘great historical trauma’ matched his own personal one: Australia was ‘a country of orphans . . . our first fleet was cast out from “home’’’; while he, as a young boy, was sent away from the small town of Bacchus Marsh, Victoria to the elite Geelong Grammar School (after Rupert Murdoch and before Prince Charles, as he likes to say). Another long-term concern has been what he sees as the tortured relationship between Australia and its English-speaking relations: one of his first short stories, ‘American Dreams’, is about a small Australian town and its dreams of ‘big smooth cars’, huge refrigerators, ‘women like Kim Novak and men like Rock Hudson’.
The eight-year-old protagonist of His Illegal Self is called Che Selkirk, so named by his parents, part of a Weathermen-style offshoot of the Students for a Democratic Society. At the deliberately disorienting beginning of the novel, seen from the boy’s point of view, he is being handed over by his rich and unsympathetic Park Avenue grandmother to a young woman carrying a khaki backpack and wearing Hindu beads: his ‘illegal mother’, it would seem. ‘Can I call you Mom?’ he asks her, as they arrive at the bus station, en route to Philadelphia, where he thinks he’ll meet his father too. ‘You can call me Dial,’ she replies.
But in Philadelphia, there’s an abrupt change of plan. Dial hustles him to a scuzzy motel. There, flickering on the TV screen, Che sees a photo of himself. ‘Something very bad had happened. He did not know what it could be.’ Suddenly, they’re on the run, first in Oakland and Seattle, then in Australia, by the side of the road in Queensland, en route to a ramshackle commune. The novel then tracks back to explain things. Dial is a nom de guerre, short for dialectic. Her real name is Anna Xenos; Che’s mother is Susan Selkirk, a contemporary at Harvard. A hard-up scholarship girl from South Boston, Dial had worked as a nanny for Che when he was younger. Not so long ago, it emerges, Dial accepted a job teaching literature at Vassar. On a whim, returning from the interview, she calls Susan in her underground safe house, and is unwillingly talked into acting as a go-between. The grandmother, Phoebe Selkirk, has agreed that Che can briefly meet his mother. Dial is to take the boy to the rendezvous, and return him in an hour. But the plan changes. First, Dial is instructed to take the bus to Philadelphia. Then she learns that Susan has blown herself up with her group’s bomb-making equipment. The ‘Movement’ gives Dial money and spirits her away to Australia.
It’s at this point in the novel that the reader starts to ask questions to which there are no very good answers. First, why has Dial agreed to Susan’s request? Carey writes that en route to the rendezvous she ‘stood . . . wondering why, of all the extraordinary things she could do in New York, she would waste her time this way’. She is pleased to see the boy, whom she had once thought she loved – but it’s not that. Susan has told her to do it ‘for the Movement’, which apparently gets her ‘every goddamn time’. This despite her contempt for these rich student radicals. She knows that Susan ‘could not make a bed, let alone a revolution’. She despises the Movement groupies who appear to give her orders: their attempt to dress like a ‘depressed portrait of the unhappy working class’ is betrayed by their ‘perfectly straight teeth’ – and in one case, a cashmere sweater. The novel displays no sympathy at all for the Movement, nor does it give any depth or power to their portrayal as fucked-up rich kids, in the way, say, Philip Roth does in American Pastoral.
Second, and far more troublingly, why does Dial then go on the run with Che, sacrificing her job and her life, and his too? When Susan blows herself up, why doesn’t Dial just return the child to his grandmother? ‘She could have just left him outside a police station,’ we learn later – only ‘she could not leave him anywhere.’ Except, towards the end of the novel, she suddenly decides to do exactly that. It all makes very little sense. Third, why does she go to Australia? The boy is the subject of a nationwide kidnapping appeal. Why does she risk flying halfway round the world, to a place where she knows no one? Why doesn’t she just go to Canada, with all the draft-dodgers?
Oddly enough, these sections of the book, despite weaknesses that would alienate all but the most credulous readers, turn out to be the highlight. Carey’s novels tend to be almost destructively inventive. He is stronger on voice, character and atmosphere than on plot, and his storylines are often precipitate and slightly out-of-control. They seldom seem as impressive at the end as they do halfway through, but one thing they never have been is boring – until now. As his new novel reaches Australia, where Dial buys into a commune near Yandina, it becomes strikingly, and very uncharacteristically, dull. This is all the more surprising, given a storyline which features an abducted child, a runaway radical, redneck policemen and ‘feral hippies’ living in the jungle.
The mood is dreamy, and the plot is often hard to understand. To some extent, this is clearly deliberate: the defamiliarised perspective is meant to represent Che’s confusion about his new surroundings. But as a child’s point of view, it doesn’t convince: he is far less homesick and horrified by being plunged into this dirty, dangerous, foreign world than one would expect. In general, the characters behave in ways that seem to have more to do with symbolism than with psychology. In one episode apparently freighted with significance, Dial puts up cheap wood panelling inside their squalid wooden hut, though she knows it will warp and shrink. Meanwhile, both Dial and Che form strong but erratic attachments to another hippie, a damaged ex-Barnardo’s boy called Trevor, who has built a hideout, camouflaged and protected by explosive charges, in the bush. The general message is clear. They are all strangers looking for a home (as Dial’s surname, Xenos, unsubtly suggests), and one suspects that they are forming some sort of alternative family. But the choreography is always obscure. The plot eddies into baffling backwaters. In one particularly puzzling episode, Dial beats Trevor with one of her wood panels; Trevor accepts this remarkably placidly. Dial also fights a long-running battle with their hippie neighbours over the cat that they have brought to the commune, that is killing large numbers of local birds:
I’m sorry about the cat, said Dial. I really am. But you know while we’ve been sitting here arguing about this, Nixon is bombing Cambodia and Laos. Do you want to think what that is doing to the birds?
Carey treats the commune in a way that falls just short of satire. Its occupants say things like ‘I don’t want to lay some authority rave on you’; there is an ‘organic lawyer’ who handles their legal matters. Yet they are treated with a surprising solemnity. It often seems as if Carey wants to play his hippies for laughs, but for some reason reins himself in. Comedy, like much else, has been sacrificed to produce the prevailing mood, which is meditative, slow and full of a slightly strained poetic wonder: ‘The wind blew and schools of eucalypt turned like silver leaves above her head.’ The writing is often heavily overwrought: ‘When Trevor charged at them she had nothing to protect herself against the tumult of his fatty orphan’s heart, the saline, mucous, the awful sac of grief so big it burst itself wide open.’ The portentous tone seems unearned, and at odds with the sketchy characters, particularly as the novel jerks to a crassly sentimental conclusion.