A big literary beast's descent into incoherence

A review of Amnesia, by Peter Carey. It comes across like a preliminary draft

8 November 2014

9:00 AM

8 November 2014

9:00 AM

Amnesia Peter Carey

Faber & Faber, pp.378, £18.99, ISBN: 9780571311187

Something odd happened between the advance publicity for this book and its printed appearance. Trailed as addressing the troubled history of Australia’s relationship with the USA, it is actually about the troubled relationships between a cat’s cradle of everyday radical folk and set almost entirely in the suburbs of Melbourne.

A washed-up old left-wing journalist, Felix Moore (keep an eye on the names), is employed to write an account of how and why Gabrielle Baillieux, a rebellious young computer hacker-cum-ecowarrior, devised and hatched a virus — or ‘worm’ — to open all the prison cells in the United States and Australia. She has been arrested and bailed and gone on the run.

Gaby is supposed to help Felix by making herself available. Instead, he is given boxes of tapes made by Gaby and her mother Celine (with whom Felix had been in love when they were students), describing the events of Gaby’s childhood and adolescence during the 1980s. From these tapes the journalist fashions a story. A novel really, because he obviously makes the details up. Either that or both women have an astonishing memory for dialogue.

Peter Carey is a big literary beast, and observers have watched his clever eye turning towards the United States as the source for his stories. However, despite a scandalously misleading blurb that promises some kind of international techno-web-thriller, this is another novel which will best be enjoyed by an Australian readership. It is full of references to Australian history, but such is Carey’s genius for invented worlds that one cannot be sure whether they are real or not. I did look up ‘Jim Cairns’, who really did exist, and is a Michael Foot-like hero for the Australian left.

While the first page of Amnesia is worthy of a Lee Child story, the thrills that follow have more to do with grubby lies and deceptions rendered with literary craft than with the knightly heroics of a Jack Reacher.

Most of the book, far from being about amnesia, consists of remembering. There is one chapter describing rather drily the details of what Felix, and apparently Carey too, reckons was a CIA-engineered coup to depose the late Gough Whitlam in 1975. Felix thinks Gaby’s worm, released in 2010, was an act of vengeance (of which he approves). We never find out the true motive. But it doesn’t matter, because this is background noise to the foreground dramas enacted between Gaby and her mother, her mother and her father, her mother and Felix, Felix and dodgy property tycoon Woody Townes, and, easily most interestingly, Gaby and her on/off boyfriend Frederic, genius geek. This is more or less all told on the tapes. Remembered.

These relationships are full of treachery and deception, and I suppose in this sense echo the blurby descriptions of the book; but the intriguing betrayal here is not America’s of Australia, but the baby boomers’ of their children: the radical actress doing commercials, the Labor MP compromising his principles. Life interfering. This might have made a strong central theme, but instead we are asked to buy into Felix’s desire to address ‘the Great Amnesia’ — Australia’s collective decision to forget the 1975 ‘coup’ — and that’s rather slackly done.

Having, possibly, disappointed scholars of international diplomacy, Amnesia will delight professors of literary theory. It is an immensely teachable book. For it is not a straightforward read. The presumably clever rhetorical switches of narrative voice and tense are irritating. There are multiple narrators, and the person changes from first to third with a fluidity available only to a very confident writer. The voices, however, are not sufficiently distinct, despite Gaby’s occasional faux teenage neologisms.

For the less academic it is hard not to read this as a preliminary draft. It is full of backstory. Interesting details are given to peripheral characters who are easily dropped, and there seems to be a gaping hole between 1990 and 2010. There is plenty of evocatively rendered place — Carey has plundered from his own childhood memories — and the writing itself is never less than enjoyable: ‘His big head was like a mallee root and his feet were ugly, even in his socks.’ You don’t need to know what a mallee root is; you can imagine it because you know his feet were ugly. (It’s a tough gnarled desert tuber.)

I imagine that this will be a very different read for a historically literate Australian of liberal bent, but I felt a contempt for the reader in the book’s incoherence, its unwillingness to decide on itself.  Towards the end Carey — or is it Felix ? — writes: ‘As always, the omniscient narrator had a very wobbly grasp of what was happening.’ I suppose this is a joke, but my reaction was, well he’s not the only one, mate.

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