Che is a precocious young boy raised in isolated privilege by his New York grandmother. Yearning for his famous outlaw parents--radical 1960s activists who are now among the FBI's most wanted--he's denied all access to television and the news. But he takes hope from his long-haired teenage neighbor, who predicts, "They will come for you, man. They'll break you out of here." And one afternoon, the prediction appears to come true. Soon Che, too, is an outlaw, fleeing with the woman into the subway and pitched into a journey that leads them to a hippie commune in the jungles of tropical Australia. Here, Che slowly, bravely confronts his life, learning that nothing is what it seems.
It may be premature at this point to suggest that Carey think about preparing more room on his trophy shelf. Yet whether it wins any awards or not, the fact remains that his newest novel, His Illegal Self -- a brilliantly unsentimental fiction about trust, love and dishonesty -- is a spectacular return to form after the uneven duo of My Life as a Fake and Theft.
His Illegal Self primarily concerns itself with two characters, Che and Dial. Che is a privileged seven-year-old in 1970s New York, raised by his grandmother in a repressive atmosphere of isolation, kept away from radios or televisions for reasons "as tangled as old nylon line, snagged with hooks and spinners and white oxidized lead weights."
The rationale soon becomes apparent with the arrival of Dial (short for dialectic), a seemingly freewheeling spirit Che automatically assumes is his mother come back to claim him. This error only becomes one of many, as the pair soon discovers themselves on the run, victims of misunderstanding, misinformation and plain bad luck.
Their convoluted path eventually leads them to Australia, specifically Queensland, "a police state run by men who never finished high school." Taking up residence in a dilapidated area of farmland, Che and Dial come up against the triple terrors of punishing climate, anti-American attitudes and each other's convoluted feelings toward the other.
To give away more would be to destroy much of the pleasure of Carey's tale, a wide-ranging chase story that nevertheless achieves a shivering intimacy. Che and Dial, two intriguing literary characters, are a pair firmly entrenched in Carey's adoration of misfits and outsiders.
Che may be one the finest characters Carey has yet created, and one of the most fully realized representations of a child in quite some time. Innocent and bright, stubborn yet never precocious, nervy yet uncomprehending, Che firmly belongs in the pantheon of great fictional children.
After the somewhat constrained Theft, Carey feels loose and invigorated, wielding his command of storytelling with elation and deftness. His deceptively muted language, "some words as plain as pebbles, many more that [hold] their secrets like the crunchy bodies of wasps or grasshoppers," is a joy to read.
Despite this newfound release, HIs Illegal Self never loses control and becomes a showcase for Carey's cleverness. He keeps an even hand on the more bizarre turns, and even as the narrative flows into disquieting tragedy and tears, the emotional knot of Che and Dial remains the novel's touching core.
His Illegal Self is a wonderful novel, Carey's best since The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith. If, as hinted throughout the pages, there is more to tell about Che's life, Carey had best take his time on the sequel. His Illegal Self is too good to soil with a lesser followup.
They will come for you, man. they'll break you out of here
his neighbour predicts, referring to the boy's parents, famous student radicals on the run from the FBI.
When Dial arrives one day at the apartment Che shares with his grandmother in New Yorks Upper East Side, he recognises her immediately, and soon the pair are on the run from the law and with financial and, with tactical help from the activists, eventually skip the country and find themselves on the run in Australia. Is she his real mother though?
Now I must confess that I found myself frequently scratching my head in the first part of this book, struggling to find out exactly what was happening. I felt as if I were watching a film through frosted class - I couldn't quite get the picture into focus and I felt distanced. Most of the pieces do fall into place later in the novel, but still there is still a need to suspend a fair old bit of disbelief.
For me the book really began to pull together once the pair move into a hut in the inhospitable Queensland wilds, and find themselves part of an equally inhospitable hippy community (based on a commune Carey had once been part of) guaranteed to knock any residual nostalgia for the good old '60's and 70's firmly on the head.
(I must add a note here while I remember that I am thinking of founding a society for the prevention of cruelty to fictional animals, because the incident with the cat was totally uncalled for, I thought.)
The great strength of the book is in Carey's ability to create characters we can fully believe in and want to root for. His portrait of the watchful, needy Che is pitch perfect. We sympathise deeply with Dial, torn between regret for opportunities lost (she was due to start a new career as a college when she found herself drawn into her friend's mess) and her fierce love for Che whom she took care of for a time when he was a baby. The narrative is told at times from her perspective, at times from his, and I very much like the way that sometimes the same event (most notably the actual abduction) is viewed through both sets of eyes to show the differences in the child's and the adult's perception.
There's also Trevor, their neighbour in the commune is just the kind of wily rascal that Carey excels at creating, who gradually assumes the role of a father figure to Che and lover to Dial.
It's a sort of modern adage that there are two kinds of families, those we are born into, and those we struggle to create. In his novels, Carey frequently draws characters who are in some sense orphaned as these three are. The love that grows gradually between them is earthy and real. So real in fact that I wanted to spin the last few chapters of the book out for as long as possible, though when I got there, the life-affirming ending had me cheering.
So in the end, yes, I was a satisfied reader, although I didn't feel as strongly for the book as I have done for most of Carey's other novels, notably The True History of the Kelly Gang, and Theft.
8 year old Che, son of SDS underground parents is taken by associate Ana/Dial to visit his mother. Tragedy ensures. Ana/Dial must make Che safe and brings him to hippie commune in Australia.
Heart renching beauty and story between guardian/boy/hippies.
On the simplest of levels, the book is a super fast-paced race across the globe as Che and Dial attempt to hide from the police and carve an existence for themselves. The plot is propelled by both the readers own dislocation as they come to grips with the distortions between the two narrative voices. Both Che and Dial are presented as equals – joint narrators in this story, but their stories aren’t identical. The reader is put in the uncomfortable position of being between them, unable to discount either the intensity of Che’s needs, or the combination of confusion and desire which motivates Dial. Both need one another, and continue to work together at avoiding the truth and avoiding the law, at the same time they find themselves removed from their usual lives, and co-opted for causes they don’t believe in.
As in so many of Carey’s novels, real love and visual artifice become the two forces that move the narrative along. It’s a search for a truth that isn’t nearly as obvious as one might think. It’s about the way love crisscrosses us – marks us, makes us whole, and hurts us at the same time.
Carey handles it all very subtly, weaving privilege, pain and damage together into a beautiful tapestry. Nothing seems stable, and yet there’s something solid growing – that “sharp searing pain that didn’t hurt” – something real, absolutely true, and physical that stays with us through life’s changes.
There are no fireworks in this book – the prose is light and smooth, but looking closely, each sentence is wrought with meaning and intensity. Che is “gooseflesh, head to toes” as he realizes how helpless he is. When dial hears a girl calling for the lost Che, she recognizes this “dreadful sympathy.” The hippy landscape of Nambour, from the home grown vegetables to the scruffy undergrowth is almost lovingly depicted.
Like even the blackest of Carey’s novels (and for me, it’s tempting to almost see this novel as the antidote to The Tax Inspector), there’s a strong undercurrent of humour. Dial is subsumed in the small-mindedness of Australia, and yet she holds onto desperately to her status: “Her mother would have died to see her genius in a dump like this.” (36) She was an “SDS goddess”, the Alice May Twitchell Fellow – an assistant professor at Vassar College, stuck in the backwoods of Australia where, as with any commune, the pettiness is all pervasive. She puts up shelving for lentils, lines the house with crooked boards, and tries to procure the services of a Zoot-suited lawyer to argue her case back in America so Che can go home, but her ignorance is obvious enough to the hippies whose commune she joins.
Trevor tells her at one point “You’re American. You wouldn’t know if you were up yourself” (70). She begins to know whether she’s “up herself” as the book progresses however. Dial’s painful learning curve is part of what makes this novel work.
In an act of remarkable self-control, Carey leaves the story open, suggesting a long and complex history which the reader isn’t privy to. This last sentence so changes the story that this reader at least went back and re-read it in its entirety, taking in the rich linguistic power which Carey has become famous for. Che is believable, both as the 8 year old boy struggling to find himself, and as the older, wiser narrator he becomes by the end of the book. One can imagine many other landscapes, or books growing out of this boy. But for now, there’s only the reader’s imagination, which Carey has kickstarted with this moving novel.
What is the aesthetic theory behind the current practice of omitting quotation marks in written dialog? I know what the effect is. It usually distances me from the characters and focuses my attention on the craftsman behind the words. The quotation marks signal my brain that people are talking, and it's time to jump in and play with my imaginary friends. It may be that writers of modern literary fiction do not want readers to make imaginary friends with their characters. I wonder why.
Oddly, the lack of quotation marks in The Road bothered me not at all.
Che has grown up quite secluded, with his very wealthy grandmother, whom he loves, and in constant anticipation of seeing and being with his mother and father whom he does not even remember, having been separated from them at an early age. The word precocious barely does justice to Che, but beneath his intelligence and his maturity, he is a seven year old boy desperate for the love of his mother, and one that must undergo a further, wrenching metamorphosis when he discovers that his mother is dead, his father doesn’t care, and Dial is not, as he has thought all along, his mother.
This is a novel about love and how it can grow unbeknownst until its loss threatens and then the tentacles that have grown into the heart become apparent; it is about finding peace within oneself and with another; it is a fine novel with well-drawn characters working out their lives amidst the emotional struggles that we all face and all deal with in our own ways.
Yet it’s hard to say whether the star of the show here is Carey’s beloved overgrown outback, or the wonderfully delicate and fluid relationship between mother (or not) and child. Che moves from a sense of rescue and blind devotion, to a questioning rebellion to a growing sense that if a way is to be made, it must be he who makes it. Anna moves from her sense of strict duty to a realization that she needs the love of this boy as much as he needs a mother.
Just when Anna is about to leave her old radical life behind and settle into the mellow arc of an academic career, her past comes a’callin’. One last debt she owes her former comrades. And the fateful tug at her sleeve changes her life forever. Deeper and deeper into Australia she goes, and further underground - literally. She finds herself amongst a bizarre collection of Aussie hippies, a dilapidated yet fecund commune that’s a cross between Lord of The Flies and Huckleberry Finn.
This is a realm that Anna and the boy are forced into for their very survival. By the end of the novel they’ve found not only safety, not only anonymity, but a sense of a new life, an empowerment to make their own way, under their own terms.
Both Anna and the boy Che grow to a certain place. Interestingly, Che grows faster and swifter than Anna, whose pace of life has slowed. Ultimately, they end up embracing their mutual future together as one.
Dial's character emerges throughout the novel, as bits of her history are revealed and as she copes with her unexpected circumstances. A scholarship student from Southie, who should be starting her career at Vasaar, she is yanked back into the politics of the 60s by Susan Selkirk, her college friend, a revolutionary, an outlaw. Susan asks Dial's help in arranging a visit with her son Che, who has been put into his wealthy grandmother's custody. But events go terribly arry and Dial and Che are on the run... all the way to Australia, where they take uncomfortable shelter in a commune. Che (or Jay) struggles to cope with events he does not understand, with an identity that has been hidden from him.
This is a powerful novel with constantly developing and shifting characters and a plot line that is both tense and tender. I will defintiely want to read more of Peter Carey's books!