A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Whenever I read a Peter Carey novel, I know there’s going to be unusual characters, whose quirks can be aggravating or endearing. And all of those uncomfortable moments in life will be scrutinized and reverberate. There will be metaphors,too, at once amusing and poetic. This time it’s: “the crushed-glass stars spilling across the cooling sky” and “they were like marsupials running down into the subway, laughing.”
Carey’s latest is set in the very late 1960’s and centers on Jay, a boy of seven, whose parents are in hiding because they are revolutionaries in the SDS organization. He lives with his wealthy grandmother in New York City in a sheltered, but loving life. One day a lovely woman, Dial, appears to take the boy somewhere (it’s not completely clear where) and instead of bringing him back at the appointed time, runs away with him, “on the lamb” as Jay says, ending up in Queensland, Australia. They settle at a hippie commune there, not with a bunch of tie-dye wearing Beatle types, either, but grungy, disorganized dopers who are extremely paranoid, though the last is not without reason. Living there begins to change them; Dial, from a driven young woman to a rather rudderless one. And Jay to an angry, disillusioned orphan. The Queensland jungle feels oppressive to him and it represents the emotional changes he’s experiencing, much as the Blue Mountains did for Oscar in Carey’s splendid Oscar and Lucinda. With Jay, however, the wilderness imperceptively changes into something more benign, and spreads to other parts of the commune.
The core feeling of this book is confusion; the first part is seen from the boy’s viewpoint, so it’s understandable. There’s also Dial’s indecision, the frantic flight across the globe, the garbled news reports of the missing boy and other events, until the sense of confusion is overwhelming. It never really clears, so there’s an almost unpleasant feeling while reading. This has to be deliberate, as none of Carey’s earlier books was like this. Flashbacks explaining the backstory are jarring notes in the first half of the book, but that is a minor annoyance compared to the jumbled atmosphere. The ending, while somewhat satisfying to the reader, seems to ignore the reality of the situation for the characters.
Carey has always written about outcasts, those who “do not fit”, but in his last several books he has added the question of authenticity, in that he explores perception vs. actuality. How much does the veneer match what is behind it? How do the characters manipulate and react to it? He has moved away from the large tapestries of Illywhacker into stories with smaller casts, all tied to varied degrees of a single emotion, bitterness in Theft, chaos in His Illegal Self. Love in its many guises is always the foundation of a Peter Carey book and one of the things I like best about them. I look forward to seeing where he finds it next.
Knopf 2008 272 pp. ISBN 978-0-307-26372-8