Vulpes Libris

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His Illegal Self by Peter Carey

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

Links
Jackie’s Review of Oscar and Lucinda
The Best of The Booker Shortlist
Guardian podcast of Peter Carey talking about His Illegal Self

6 comments on “His Illegal Self by Peter Carey

  1. Pingback: His Illegal Self by Peter Carey : www.literaryagenda.com

  2. RosyB
    May 19, 2008

    Sounds like you had mixed feelings about this one. I find what you say about an ending satisfying to the reader and ignoring the reality of the characters intriguing.

  3. marygm
    May 19, 2008

    I’m ashamed to admit, Jackie, that I haven’t read anything by Peter Carey but your previous review of Oscar and Lucinda made me determined to go out and get one. I bought Theft (not sure why I chose that one) but somehow stopped after about 10 pages. I’ve been meaning to get back to it but your use of the word ‘bitterness’ to describe it isn’t doing anything to encourage me. Should I persevere?

    I enjoyed your review of this book even if it sounds like you have to already like Peter Carey to appreciate it.

  4. Jackie
    May 20, 2008

    Oh dear, “Theft” is probably not the best one to start with. O&L, “Illywhacker” or “Kelly Gang” are better to begin with. “Theft” does capture a lot of the essence of being an artist, so I liked that about it, but I really didn’t like the characters in the book, so it wasn’t a favorite. There is a reference to O&L in it though, at the beginning a puppy drowns in the Bellinger River. It was a Carey touch; troubling, symbolic and unflinching.
    Jackie

  5. Moira
    May 20, 2008

    You definitely had mixed feelings about this one, didn’t you?

    I have to admit I’ve always struggled a bit with Peter Carey. He writes beautifully, it’s just that I don’t much like what he writes. I thought O&L was tremendous, and that’s probably the problem … it would take a stupendously good novel to better it.

    Can’t see me picking this one up. I really, really don’t like to be THAT confused.

    Thought-provoking review, as always.

  6. marygm
    May 20, 2008

    Your review makes me think of John Irving. Like PC, he has a cast of off-the-wall characters and a very particular style that I think you either love or hate. I used to love all his books but ‘A Widow for One Year’ started the rot and then the one about Piggy Sneed finished him off for me.
    Moira has clinched it; I’ll put Theft to one side and go and get O&L.

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This entry was posted on May 19, 2008 by in Entries by Jackie, Fiction: general, Fiction: historical and tagged , , , , , .

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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