His Illegal Self is characteristically Careyan. It has a distinctive voice – in this instance a very young boy – and a fractured chronology, looping and repeating, gradually adding layers of meaning, revealing truths, explaining the apparently inexplicable. Indeed, the story is premised on a lack of comprehension. The young boy, Che, is the son of 1960s American radicals left in the care of his grandmother but, when almost eight, whisked away by an acquaintance of his mother (and lover of his father) and transported to the rural depths of Australia. The boy knows nothing of his parents and yet craves knowledge of them, some connection to them. He mistakenly believes the woman who abducts him – a Harvard student called Dial – to be his mother. He clings to a bag of belongings, memorabilia, things which connect him to a past which is so tenuous it is almost mythical. Nothing is as it seems. Even the abduction is not truly an abduction, and Dial is a good woman who has the boy’s interests at heart. The people they encounter in Australia, a community of hippies, are seemingly hostile to the incoming Americans but, when a crisis emerges, they emerge as honest and decent friends. But nobody understands anybody else in this novel. Everyone has their own suspicions, and these suspicions frame their views of the world. Communication is a fraught and fragile commodity, too often forced to play second fiddle to dogma. Even Dial’s name is short for dialectic, the Marxist mode of communication through the exhange of ideas, a rhetorical device with its roots in antiquity but which, in the nineteen-sixties, became bastardised by the idiot left into a hideous form of bullying by loudness.
What emerges is that Che’s parents are fugitives on the run from the FBI for Weathermen-style terrorist activity. The abduction of Che unfolds when Dial picks him up from his grandmother’s to take him to his mother’s safehouse, only for the mother to blow herself up with a homemade bomb. Dial and the boy are at the railway station when the news is broadcast on television, along with their photographs, and suddenly Dial is a wanted woman. She turns to the boy’s father and his underground cell for support, and finds herself with the boy on a plane to Australia.
All of this is relayed in confused fashion, much of it through the bemused perspective of the uncomprehending boy. Of necessity, it leaves the reader perplexed as well. It’s a brave approach, to deliberately obscure and conceal on this scale, and Carey pretty much gets away with it. The trouble is, though, that the reader is constantly asking questions, in an attempt to make sense of the narrative; and eventually such questions lead the reader to consider the validity of the story’s basic structure. Do I believe in this novel? Do I believe in these characters? Do I accept their situation? Increasingly, as the novel progresses, the answers are no.
This is a pity because there is much to enjoy in this novel. Dial’s growing affection for the little boy is beautifully developed. We see Che grow and mature before our eyes. Trevor, the Australian hippy drop-out who befriends them develops into an engaging and oddly lovable character. It is an unusual menage a trois, three damaged characters in search of love and understanding, and it could have formed the basis for something beautiful. Instead, it is shackled by a premise which seems wafer-thin and contrived. But read His Illegal Self as an exercise in character and you will be richly rewarded.