Peter Carey's His Illegal Self.

Reading between the lines.
Feb. 4 2008 1:49 PM

Outlaws in the Outback

Peter Carey's Australian secrets.

(Continued from Page 1)

These two seeming nutjobs circuitously lead Anna and Che to a hippie commune, where they settle uneasily. The jungle, the night, the kerosene lamps, the strident women, the swamp: Everything about the commune scares them. They, and we, have no idea what will happen next. This is a hallmark of Carey's writing. He plots so eccentrically that any guess you care to make will likely be way off the mark.

Though he's lived in the United States for two decades, Carey seems not to be able to leave these secret Australian places alone. These hideaways are, in fact, a kind of reiteration of the idea of Australia itself. The unknowability of Australia is built into its very name, taken from the Latin phrase terra australis incognita: unknown southern land. Carey understands all too well that the rest of the planet regards the continent as the ends of the earth. Here's Anna's response, when she's faced with the locals' hatred of Americans: "Oh God, she thought. … They hate us. We didn't even know they fucking existed and they've been down here hating us." Carey is asking this question: Is this really the loneliest place on earth, or does it just look that way to an American?

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Carey doesn't deny that Australia is far-flung and singular. In a much-quoted line from his 2003 novel My Life as a Fake, he writes, "Remember, this is the country of the duck-billed platypus. When you are cut off from the rest of the world, things are bound to develop in interesting ways." But in His Illegal Self, Carey wants to demonstrate that life does occur in off-the-map places, whether or not we turn our gaze upon them.

But there's more to Carey's project. It's not enough to make us believe that Yandina exists or to make us understand its politics—the other communards are struggling under Queensland's draconian law code—or to persuade us of its centrality. He wants to convince us it's a utopia. Earlier books have leaned in this direction; here, Carey—using beautiful, small details—more overtly romanticizes the wild. The book belongs to Che as much as it does to Anna, and with a child's resilience and adaptability he finds a kind of mucky, planty, jungly heaven in this rough Queensland corner. He sees quiet miracles: "[T]here were a couple of days of steady rain and the boy witnessed the silky pale green stalk of pea unfolding, pushing aside the crumbling soil." Once the privileged near-prisoner of his grandmother, he makes a gang with the kids from the commune: "The hippie kids were wild things with feet as hard as leather. They ran along the lacework trails. He made a divining rod from a wire coat hanger and then a map showing where there was gold and water. The gold he marked red, the water blue. As he drew it, he knew it would come true."

Over the last 10 years, we've had a handful of good novels about American radicalism: Susan Choi's American Woman, Sigrid Nunez's The Last of Her Kind, Dana Spiotta's Eat the Document, Philip Roth's American Pastoral. Is it a coincidence that in all these novels, as in Carey's, the radicals in question are women? Maybe it's because of what we might call the Patty Hearst Effect. There was no American militant whose image was more indelible. Beyond that, there's something about the notion of a female radical that makes us wonder immediately about the personal sacrifices that are made in the name of politics. I fear this impulse is a bit sexist, but there it is.

In the character of Che's mom, Susan Selkirk, Peter Carey gives us a glimpse of this more usual narrative: a woman dealing with the costs of her politics. Then, he sets that story aside like a cheap bauble and follows Che and Anna instead. Politics and New York and Harvard can't save these two. They are in the realm of pure feeling. They are in the jungle. It is in this realm that they find love, self, and some small redemption.

Ultimately, Carey eschews ideology in favor of the tingly stuff of the sensory world. He gives us more sensibility, and less sense, which is a curious achievement for a political novel. Carey masterfully evokes the strangeness of the love between Anna and Che, and the strangeness of Yandina. First, we palpably feel Anna and Che's fear of the bush, and then, just as palpably, we feel the fleeting sweetness of their life there. This is the beautiful trick of His Illegal Self: It turns an asshole into an Eden.

Claire Dederer is the author of Poser: My Life in Twenty-three Yoga Poses.

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