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.

Peter Carey's His Illegal Self

This is what Peter Carey does: He goes to the asshole of the earth and tells what he finds there. In his new novel His Illegal Self, Anna Xenos is a radical on the run in the early '70s. She fetches up in a commune near the town of Yandina in Queensland, Australia, where she decides to buy a rotting jungle acre. "Was she really going to buy these mad vines and raging wild lantana, palm trees, chaos, coffee," Anna wonders. "She might as well have bought an elephant—but you couldn't hide inside an elephant and you could certainly hide here. That was its single virtue, to place her up a dirt track at the asshole of the earth."

Carey, who was born in Australia and has lived in New York for almost 20 years, has written 10 novels, wildly various in subject matter. Two of them, Oscar and Lucinda and True History of the Kelly Gang, have won the Booker Prize; he is often hailed as the greatest living Australian writer. He does seem a little obsessed, however, with the hideout-in-the-bush book. While not all of his novels follow this model, the ones that do exert a peculiar allure and power.

Perhaps Carey's hideout-in-the-bush novel par excellence is the outback opera True History of the Kelly Gang, the story of real-life 19th-century Aussie outlaw Ned Kelly. As a young boy, Kelly becomes apprenticed to the bandit Harry Power and is amazed when he stumbles into a new life, one lived deep in the bush: "[Harry] had more boltholes than a family of foxes he had secret caves and mia mias and hollow trees. …" (This line is also a fine example of Carey's gun-slinging, badass punctuation.) In Carey's nonfictional 30 Days in Sydney, his old friend Sheridan is hiding out, not from the law, but from his wife, which is scary enough. He's got a cave in the Blue Mountains and then finds himself a secret squat high above Darling Harbour.

Who needs a hideout? Outlaws, and that's who Carey writes about. Anna Xenos is no exception. A former member of a Maoist faction of the Harvard SDS, Anna is conflicted about the movement: "She thought the student left were fantasists, yet when the Maoists told her she would be shot after the revolution, she was inclined to believe it was true." Unlike her fellow student radicals in Cambridge, she comes from a working-class, volatile, even violent background (the kind of criminal background Carey relishes). Since she already knows violence, the actions and arrests and jail time aren't an exotic adventure for her.

Anna, like the first-generation college student she is, wants to make a good life for herself. A budding academic, she has just gotten a job offer from the English department at Vassar when she receives a request from an old comrade. Susan Selkirk is underground, about to disappear on "vacation," meaning deep cover. Susan has given up everything. All she asks of Anna is that she help Susan have one last visit with her young son Che, who lives with his grandmother on Park Avenue. From the Upper East Side to bearing a child named after a guerilla revolutionary: Susan's is an exquisite '60s trajectory.

When she goes to collect the child, Anna finds a solemn 7-year-old who has been raised by his formidable grandma in isolated, Victorian splendor, protected from television and the papers for fear he'll hear news of his famous criminal mother. Anna heads to Port Authority to deliver him to Susan. There she receives word from Susan that she's to take the boy to Philadelphia. In a nod to the MOVE bombing of 1985, Susan's Philly hideout (there it is again) blows up, and Anna is left with the boy on her hands. The two of them hurtle into a series of bad decisions.

Suddenly, Anna really is one of Carey's crims: an accidental kidnapper on a plane to Australia, because that's where the movement—whose protection she now depends on, whether she likes it or not—says she's supposed to go. Her charge is snuggled at her side. He thinks Anna is his real mother. He calls her "Dial," her underground nickname. He thinks she's beautiful.

The story alternates between Anna's and Che's perspectives. Anna's point of view is more fluid and accessible, but Che's bewildered voice is essential to the way His Illegal Self explores the terror of the unknown. The two, hardly understanding where they are or what is happening to them, head north from Sydney, right into a Queensland hurricane. They meet up with a couple of ne'er-do-wells as scathingly weird and unlettered as any highway robber from True History of the Kelly Gang.

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?

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.