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His Illegal Self by Peter Carey
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His Illegal Self

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His Illegal Self by Peter Carey
Paperback $14.95
Feb 10, 2009 | ISBN 9780307276490

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    Feb 10, 2009 | ISBN 9780307276490

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  • Feb 05, 2008 | ISBN 9780307268549

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“Magnificent. . . . Alluring, unexpected, and intensely moving.”
The Boston Globe

“Exhilarating. . . . Reading this novel is like peering at the human heart. . . . An adventure story for the modern, tormented soul.”
The New York Review of Books
“A beautiful new novel. . . . Carey’s stark language imbues the narrative with suspense, and his characters feel absolutely real. He’s crafted an unconventional love story that’s a striking portrait of the counterculture’s dregs.”
“Enthralling. . . . His close portrait of the relationship between one benighted woman and the child who depends on her is exquisite.”
The New York Times Book Review
His Illegal Self develops the kind of emotional impact that renders it enriching and satisfying . . . Carey is still the master . . . The genius of the novel is his portrayal of Che.”
Washington Post Book World
“Carey’s often beautiful novel, one of his best recent works, has the bruising tang of all his fiction . . . The result is brilliantly vital . . . On the second page, we [are] caught by a voice, and held for the next two hundred pages . . . Funny and forlorn.”
—James Wood, The New Yorker
“Carey once again proves himself to be a master of perspective . . . Visceral and beautifully written . . . Carey reminds us of a time in America when people risked everything for a cause, for the dream of a better country. Ultimately, though, His Illegal Self is a love story—one between a young boy, longing for a love from his past, and a woman whose unexpected love for a boy forever alters her fate.”
San Francisco Chronicle
“Carey is a prose Pied Piper, a dazzling stylist whose work possesses mythic elements. Once he launches into a tale, he’s always worth following . . . Carey enters fully into the character of Che, who is neither snarky nor cloying [but] utterly compelling . . . The story moves along at a thriller’s pace.”
Miami Herald
“Reading this novel is like peering at the human heart, at the world itself, through the distorted precision of a magnifying glass—one carried in the pocket of a seven-year-old boy . . . One of the wonders of Carey’s work is that his great, urgent narratives, so turbulent, so dark, so grand, are at the same time animated by such conscious and playful craft, as well as by a profound comic awareness . . . His Illegal Self, like his other work, is an adventure story for the modern, tormented soul.”
—Cathleen Schine, New York Review of Books
“Carey is a thoroughly modern writer, smashing genre boundaries, ranging in tone from wild comedy to grim tragedy, viewing the past with a decidedly contemporary eye and firmly placing late 20th century adventures in social and cultural context. This breadth of experience and abilities enriches Carey’s latest novel.’”
Los Angeles Times Book Review
“Carey has a matchless imagination. His novels are hallucinogenic in their visual intensity and breathtaking in their Dickensian plot twists . . . The supreme gift to the reader is Carey’s portrait of a scared little boy who becomes brave. [It’s] the best reason to pick up this novel, sit down and not get up until it’s done.”
Seattle Times
“Carey’s gift for creating voices is so real that we can almost hear the words. This gift adds to our deep involvement with his characters, who are among the most sympathetic collection of ruffians, losers and damaged human beings in contemporary literature . . . He has once again created an elegant, touching and often funny story.”
—Cleveland Plain Dealer
His Illegal Self [left] me brimming with admiration . . . What’s evident right from the start here is how vividly, and tenderly Carey has inhabited his central character . . . There are times when his ability to empathise with a small child recalls, and comes close to matching, David Copperfield . . . The result is a richly absorbing novel which can be relished for the beauties of its prose and the pertinence of its themes, as well as for the progressively taut pull that it exerts on the emotions.”
Sunday Telegraph (U.K.)
His Illegal Self is a wonderful novel, full of hard-won truths, which nevertheless leaves you with a warm and fuzzy feeling of immense satisfaction .”
The Evening Standard (U.K.)
“Che is as convincing a child as any I have found in the pages of a book: beady as a boy scout; innocent and yet so knowing; brimming with watery nostalgia for states he has never even known.”
The Observer (U.K.)
“Carey seems to invent himself fresh each time he publishes, finding a different (but always compelling and deeply idiosyncratic) narrative voice, filling each sentence with charm and skill, and utterly sucking a reader in. Here, he has done all that again . . . Carey’s achievement here, though, is of a larger order as well, in the way he identifies, creates, rounds out and refines for us the character of Che.”
Canberra Times (Australia)
“A beautiful and emotionally compelling novel . . . There is in this book a fascinating and deeply intelligent evocation of late ‘60s, early ‘70s period detail, but at its core His Illegal Self is an ancient and magnificently eerie fairy tale, about a child wise beyond his years, stolen away to the forest, undergoing every kind of mortal trial, and surviving, in a surprising state of luminous grace.”
O Magazine
“A psychologically astute and diabolically suspenseful novel . . . Carey has a gift for bringing to creepy-crawly and blistering life Australia’s jungle and desert wilds. His latest spectacularly involving and supremely well made novel of life on the edge begins in New York [and] ends up in Australia . . . Carey’s unique take on the conflict between the need to belong and the dream of freedom during the days of rage over the Vietnam War is at once terrifying and mythic.”
“Peter Carey is one of the great writers in English now. This book is further proof, a book in which he’s created a little boy who is neither too precious nor too wise, a little boy on a sad hard trip with his eyes wide open, watching everything and everyone around him. He makes you think of your own past life and all you felt when you were a kid being played upon and moved about by the adults of the world. This book is another triumph, among Carey’s other wonderful books. The man can write. He seems capable of anything.”
—Kent Haruf
“Carey’s mastery of tone and command of point of view are very much in evidence in his latest novel, which is less concerned with period-piece politics than with the essence of identity . . . This isn’t the first fictional work to explore the militant radical underground of the late 1960s and early ’70s, but it may well be the best.”
Kirkus Reviews (starred)

Author Q&A

Q: HIS ILLEGAL SELF takes place in the early ’70s amidst the radical politics and social constructs of the time. What drew you to write about this period?

A: I had very fond memories of living in what you might call a hippie community—in tropical Queensland more than thirty years ago. This was a radical place, although not in the sense your question suggests. I was drawn back there because I wanted to inhabit that space, that rainforest, that lovely humid fecund air. Of course my main characters—Che and Dial—are from New York and Boston and they won’t like that environment at all. But that’s their point of view, not mine.

For me it was a strong desire to reinvent a magical place. So that’s the first step towards His Illegal Self.

Q: Did particular experiences there inform the book?

A: Yes and no. I found my story by worrying at some things that really did happen long ago but they are not in the book at all.

There was a young Texan who came to live in the community. He had no idea where he was. It must have seemed like the end of the earth to him, and we subsequently discovered that he must have been hoping it was—he was on the run for a drugs charge. What he didn’t understand was that he had come to provincial Queensland, where we suffered under a famously corrupt government and a very bent malevolent police force. It was the last place to hide. There was a terrifying police raid to catch him which only increased our general paranoia. We truly believed that our phone calls were listened in to.

These were basic elements from life—the American who doesn’t know where on earth he is, the police raid, the pervasive paranoia, trying to shove twenty cent pieces in a call box to make an international call. But I didn’t want to write about a drug smuggler. This is a very different story.

Q: What was the starting point for the novel?

A: I began with the vision of two fugitive Americans, this hippie mother (as I thought of her), Dial, and this little boy, Che, walking along a Queensland road. There is a huge scary storm coming. All the cars are coming the other way, their lights on in the middle of the day. These hitch-hikers have no idea of where one earth they are.

Q: Well the relationship between Dial and Che is…

A: …more complicated than I at first imagined. At the start I was not even sure what they were running from. How did they get into this mess? I didn’t know.

Q: In the book, Che asks Dial, "Why is bad to be American, Dial?"As an Australian living in Australia at that time, what were the prevailing feelings towards Americans? Are there are any parallels between then and now?

A: The simplest answer is: the times are similar. Australia had troops in Vietnam like we do in Iraq. We were a client state. We had a colonial habit of fighting other people’s wars. Australian boys were conscripted to fight your war in Vietnam. There was a huge anti-war movement. 70,000 people marched in Melbourne alone. So there was, amongst a majority of the population, a colossal hatred for American imperial power, but all of this was complicated by our admiration and affection, not only for the American anti-war movement, but for all those great artists who made up a broader cultural resistance.

Q: Che carries papers with him wherever he goes. Why?

A: Some kids with very safe and ordinary lives—and Che is not one of them—are like magpies about their "stuff." Che needs his "stuff" more than most of us. The things he carries stand for people he loves, parents he’s lost, fragments of happiness he will not relinquish.

Q: In the book, you write a conversation between Dial and Che:

"Che, talk to me."

"I’m Jay," he said. He did not have many ways to hurt her.

Throughout the novel, people are disguised, names are changed, and identities confused
Che comes to be called simply "the boy" at certain points. Were you interested in how labels and names come to define identity, and how they can be played one against the other?

A: I found myself doing this instinctively. If it works in just the way you say, that supports the powerful logic and order of what we call intuition.

Q. Trevorone of the feral hippies that take Dial and Che in, for a priceDial, and Che have a complicated relationship that runs from derision to love and a sense of connection. Were these adoptive and seemingly strange parental relationships between the intended to make a statement about the notion of family?

A: My friends read the book this way. For myself, I was heading towards a moment in Che’s life where he would know, without any doubt, that he was deeply and fully loved.

Q: How did you come to the voice of a seven-year old boy from Park Avenue?

A: Don’t want to sound too woo-woo about this, but voices do come to me. They are not the result of observation or study, but—like Hugh in my novel Theft for instance—come from some place that one might describe—if it did not run the risk of sounding self-congratulatory—as magical. But also we have all been children so it isn’t hard for any of us to see the world from that point of view.

Q: Kirkus Reviews, in a starred review, said the following of HIS ILLEGAL SELF: "This isn’t the first fictional work to explore the militant radical underground of the late 1960s and early ’70s, but it may well be the best." Why do you think many readers feel you captured the essence of the time and movement, when there’s little discussion of the actual politics or radical views of the time?

A: What we call a "time" is the water the society is swimming in, the political air it is breathing. It is not the models of cars, or music or fashions. It is the earth we are standing on, the great slow tectonic plates of historical change. If I do my work properly and have my characters REALLY living in the seventies then the values, the conflicts, the ideas, the radical movements will be contained in the very molecules of their breathe.
And yes, readers do say I have captured the essence of time and movement. God bless them. Writing a novel is a slightly mad and very risky thing. It is so pleasing to feel you might possibly have succeeded.

Q: You now direct the MFA program in writing at Hunter College. Howif at allhas teaching and advising students changed either your writing or your approach to writing?

A: I work with all my students very closely. I inhabit their stories and novels at the level of the line, the sentence, the paragraph. I do this not in order to make them write like me, but in order for them to be most effectively themselves. I have to become almost a part of their blood stream. In doing this, in becoming ‘them’, in also questioning every sentence, every word, in looking, with them, for what is false, inauthentic, overwritten or just not the point, I have made myself a better writer. One word cut from a sentence makes a better sentence. The removal of dead wood can reveal the most gorgeous jewels. I aim for work which is unlike anything, where all is new, nothing is superfluous. Same for them. Same for me.

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