Peter Carey’s Amnesia dives headlong into recent history
Morag Fraser, Sydney Morning Herald
Peter Carey, like John le Carré, has an uncanny knack of timeliness. Who, save Ossetian separatists or foreign policy wonks, had a clue about the ethnic tinderbox that was the Caucasus at the time le Carré published Our Game two decades ago?
Carey says he has been mulling over Amnesia, his epic of cyber-activism in the twilight of investigative print journalism, for years. Julian Assange began publishing Chelsea Manning’s revelations in 2010. Rupert Murdoch appeared before the Leveson Inquiry in 2012. The US Department of Justice charged Edward Snowden with theft of government property only in 2013.
Novelistic opportunism? Grabbing at the shirttails of the zeitgeist? Maybe. And why not? In the great tradition, novelists (Dickens included) do just that. They reconfigure life and times into provocative fictional form that we might better ponder who we are and what we might – or must – do next.
So Amnesia is a political novel in the way of E.L. Doctorow. It is also an Australian historical novel, a demotic panorama with the easy erudition of a Clive James, and a local street savvy that would earn Carey an A-plus as a taxi driver if we had a test as rigorous as the old London “knowledge”.
It is also a rambunctious cavalcade of Australian political and cultural “names” of the past half-century (check, you might be in there), reeled off with insouciance and conviction – as though these are characters you need to know, Antipodean actors of consequence, with human foibles you should understand, whether you are reading their exploits in New York, Beijing, Istanbul or on a Coburg tram.
But there is nothing generic (or predictable) about Amnesia. It could only have been conjured up by this man, this Peter Carey, who, at 71, writes as he always has, with the wide-eyed zest of a precocious innocent.
Carey does intellectual ambition with a comic hand, like the gangly smart kid at the back of the class who mucks around to drive you crazy but then turns in an essay at the end of term to prove he hasn’t missed a trick; he’s digested every skerrick of wisdom or experience you – and life – have put his way.
Amnesia begins with a feat of computer hacking, an “Angel Worm” that infects and opens Australia’s prison security system and, through strategic and corporate links – the kind Malcolm Fraser now warns us about – US systems as well. The hacker appears to be an Australian woman. Her name is Gabrielle (“Gaby”) Bailleux – blonde, young, beautiful, unlikely. The US retains a death penalty for cyber-terrorism. Will she be subject to extradition? Or rescued, through an exculpatory narrative typed (yes, typed, on an Olivetti) by a journalist/hack/novelist of the old, long-lunch school, Felix Moore.
Felix gets his assignment, his elusive source, and the wherewithal (an advance, a room and rescue from his creditors) from his old mate and patron, Woody Townes (“The Great Wodonga”), a Labor property developer (no longer an oxymoron, if it ever was).
Townes looms, magisterial and ambiguous, like a decadent cardinal, and Carey, in Felix’s voice, invests him with satiric bulk and a lineage: “I thought, not for the first time, that it is Melbourne’s talent to produce these extraordinary eighteenth-century figures. In a more contested space, life would compress them, but down south, at the Paris end of Collins Street, there was nothing to stop him expanding to occupy the frame. He was a Gillray engraving – indulgence, opinion, power.”
The novel is peopled with characters, such as Townes, who lean into the distortions of satire. Excessive, outrageous, sometimes sad, often bathetic. Many of them have a long history, links back to an earlier Australia, to World War II, with its friendly invasion of American GIs, and the consequent and still ingrained Australian resentment of American confidence, or “exceptionalism”.
Gaby’s grandmother, Doris, is raped by one psychotic American charmer in a scene that has its verso in Albert Tucker’s savage Victory Girls paintings of 1943 – grotesques of Australian women who “consorted” with America servicemen during the war. (The works are showing at Heide in Melbourne.) Carey’s characters recall the Australian-American rivalry that erupted into the destructive riots of the Battle of Brisbane. The extent of death and injury was suppressed.
What else has Australia forgotten, or refused to see, or condoned by inaction? Corruption. Abuse of power. Environmental degradation. The incarceration and vilification of asylum seekers. Corporate cover-ups of water contamination. The Whitlam Dismissal. (Felix reads the Angel Worm cyber attack as an inevitable retaliation, concluding a chapter of American interference that reaches back to 1975, and a CIA conspiracy to overthrow Australia’s legitimate government.)
Carey, through his culturally omnivorous narrator, also remembers much: Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane in the 1960s, and during the long, fraying aftermath of Left politics, moratoriums, Nimbin hippiedom, and the disaffection of children from their careless Baby Boomer parents.
Gaby’s mother, Celine (daughter of the raped Doris), and her sometime-husband and politician, Sando Quinn, love their daughter but leave her to make her own confused way while they pursue pre-selection, expedient housing, or lovers who appreciate the imperatives of self expression – and will bankroll them. Felix remembers being happy, sometimes, with his stalwart wife.
There is a romantic in Carey, and he peeks out, sometimes ruefully, in Felix’s feckless, redemptive longings and loyalties, and in Gaby’s adolescent passion – Juliet fierce – for her young hacker-mentor-boyfriend, Frederic Matovic. Think the young Chopin, but master of a different kind of keyboard, and with kohl ringing his eyes. What clever, insecure girl wouldn’t fall for the allure of his wit and his aura of danger?
The novel is a wild ride, told through an exhilarating, sometimes bewildering array of voices. Carey is Australia’s lyrebird master of dialogue, perfectly tuned to every nuance, or upward intonation, of successive generations of Australian speech. The writer who could sustain Ned Kelly’s high Irish rhetoric for the length of True History of the Kelly Gang revels in Amnesia’s dialects – from Labor matespeak, through outer-urban ethnic criminal to the impenetrable cyber-tongue of the novel’s youthful protagonists.
So there is much to delight, and not just for the readers who will recognise every name, and every drop of a name, (a Clifton Pugh portrait of Jim Cairns, painted at Cottles Bridge), every lexical flourish (“port” means suitcase in Brisbane, cheap fortified wine in Melbourne) and every twist of the satirical scalpel.
Carey shares Paul Keating’s genius for pointed vernacular reference. He is also effortlessly lyrical, whether noticing when “Flinders Street station turned to gold”, or in his evocation of a young girl’s defensiveness when dressing not to impress but to fit in. Delicate, Sympathetic.
The novel moves like a wildfire, constantly changing direction. Perhaps too constantly. There are moments of revelation – Felix’s hapless love for his wife – that evaporate in the heat of the narrative. Moments of promise that sharpen into satire and then are lost. Gaby is an elusive heroine, present at a remove, in taped words, reported actions – a character on the brink. And then the novel ends. Woody Townes moves in and out of focus. He could sustain a novel on his own. But not this one. “Fast forward,” writes Carey, often. An inevitable condition of our lives, or a cautionary incantation by a remarkable novelist? I wonder.