In Peter Carey’s novel His Illegal Self, seven-year-old Che Selkirk has been living with his grandmother since he was two, because his politically radical mother was charged with a bank robbery and has been fleeing the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) ever since. To shield him from knowledge of his outlaw parents, Grandmother Selkirk keeps the boy in her isolated home on Kenoza Lake in upstate New York, only occasionally staying at her Upper East Side apartment. There, one day, a tall blond woman named Dial steps off the elevator, and Che mistakenly believes her to be his mother. He willingly accompanies her and his grandmother on a brief shopping trip to Bloomingdale’s, after which Che is to meet secretly with his mother and then be returned to his grandmother. Things, however, go terribly wrong. The arranged meeting in New York is changed to Philadelphia, then canceled when Che’s mother is killed planting a bomb. In a panic, Dial essentially kidnaps the boy, taking him to Seattle, where he fleetingly sees his father, then finally to Australia, where the rest of the novel takes place and where Che and Dial endure physical, emotional, and relational trials that change their lives profoundly.
Carey’s thirteenth novel, like those before it, ventures into experimental territory, though with characters less strange, idiosyncratic, and fantastic than appear in many of his previous ones. The method, however, bears the Carey trademarkrapid cutting between scenes, flashbacks, an occasional flash forward, and above all the highly original style and voice. Somewhat more conventional, too, is the form of the novel, which at times verges on the picaresque, at other times on the “foundling” genre as exemplified, for instance, by Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews (1742). There are echoes, too, of Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist (1837-1938).
Carey’s free-indirect point of view vacillates between the two main characters, Che and Dial, and out of the often-conflicting viewpoints of this pair comes much of the novel’s emotion and appeal. Seven-year-old Che presents problems for Carey, because the boy cannot seem too wise for his years, especially because he has led an extraordinarily sheltered life, deprived even of television for fear he might see news reports and photographs of his “most wanted” parents. His tenuous connections to the outside world are provided by Cameron, the sixteen-year-old neighbor expelled from Groton who supplies Che with bits of information about his infamous parents, including a Life magazine photograph of his absent father, which Che carries along with other scraps as talismans of a family that might have been. It is Cameron who predicts, “They will come for you, man. They’ll break you out of here.” Then, too, there is Che’s starchy and willful grandmother, who secludes him at Kenoza Lake and in her posh apartment, ensuring that the emotionally starved boy will bond immediately with Dial, who seems the fulfillment of Cameron’s prophecy.
So nicknamed because “she said dialectic had been invented by Zeno,” Dial comes from a solidly working-class background. Her father, a real revolutionary for Greece in 1945, employed her nights and weekends in his South Boston sausage factory while she attended Harvard. With her five feet, ten inches in height, good looks, and hippie clothes, she was “an SDS goddess” (although one who lacked commitment to the movement), and she was headed for an academic life. Her meeting with Che proves fateful, however, as his enthusiastic embrace and instant bonding fill an unrealized need.He looked at her adoringly, little glances, smiles. She thought how glorious it was to be loved, she, Dial, who was not loved by anyone. She felt herself just absorb this little boy, his small damp hand dissolving in her own.
It is a short while after this tender moment, however, that life suddenly becomes surreal for Dial and Che. Exploiting Che’s sketchy understanding of places and events, Carey sends the pair to Philadelphia, then Oakland, then Seattle, then (paid off by the movement) to Australia. Carey’s technique is designed to answer a reader’s obvious question, “Why doesn’t she simply return Che to his grandmother and go on with her planned academic life?” Panic might be one answer, fear of arrest another, since she has obviously if unwittingly “kidnapped” the boy. For Dial, who has time in airplanes and motels to consider her situation, her move to Australia seems more than a little improbable.
Improbable or not, Australia is the setting for the rest of the novel and the struggle Dial and Che face to survive while dodging the authorities...
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