All kinds of skulduggery are afoot in Booker winner Peter Carey’s novel
Peter Kemp, The Sunday Times
When you open a new novel by Peter Carey you’re never sure what’s going to leap out at you. Over a 40-year fictional career that has seen him publish 12 novels and two short-story collections and brought him the Booker prize twice, central figures in his books have ranged from a 139-year-old con man to a lipless midget with club feet, a skeletally thin Victorian clergyman who’s a demon at gambling, the bushranger Ned Kelly, a schizoid teenager with angel wings tattooed on his back, re-imaginings of Charles Dickens and his convict Magwitch from Great Expectations, art forgers, a museum conservator who specialises in antique clockwork artefacts, and a heavily pregnant tax inspector. Settings – from the Australian outback to post-revolutionary Paris and present-day London, Sydney and New York – have been matchingly various.
Behind this dazzle of diversity, persisting themes can be discerned. One is fascination with outsiders: felons, fugitives, misfits. Another is anger at political skulduggery: in particular, covert American machinations in Australia. In his new novel, Amnesia, they coalesce.
Before this book, Carey’s most extensive fictional response to undercover American interference was The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith (1994), an extravagant fantasia in which Voorstand, a superpower skilled at manipulating other nations to its own ideological and economic ends, was seen holding antipodean Efica in a surreptitious imperial grip. Amnesia roots its return to the subject in gritty fact. Felix Moore, its dishevelled, drink-loving hero, is a crusading left-wing journalist whose special subject is the “traumatic injury” done to Australia “by our American allies in 1975”. The CIAengineered coup that overthrew Gough Whitlam’s popular, progressive Socialist government in that year has, Felix laments, shamefully “passed from mind” and become part of Australia’s “Great Amnesia” about its relationship to America. What re-awakens interest in that relationship is the release of a virus, the Angel Worm, into computerised security systems in Australian and American jails, freeing swarms of prisoners. Unexpectedly, Felix finds himself pulled into the subsequent firestorm of fury. Charged with terrorist offences against the United States, the hacker turns out to be Gaby Baillieux, the daughter of friends of his from university days – Sando, now a Labor MP, and Celine, his actress wife. To help Gaby, currently on the run, a wealthy acquaintance of theirs commissions Felix to write a sympathetic book about her.
The commission proves the startingpoint for another of Carey’s bravura zigzag narratives. Hustled away in the boot of a car, Felix is transported by devious routes to a shack hidden in a mangrove swamp. Here, sorting through the jumble of papers, tapes and cassettes he has been given, he assembles an account of Gaby and her family history. Swerving vigorously around in time, it covers widely varied territory. At its centre is what Felix regards as long-continuing covert conflict between Australia and America. Celine, he learns, was conceived as a result of happenings during a hushed-up bloody battle between Australian and American troops in Brisbane in 1942. With further symbolic neatness, Gaby was born as the Whitlam government was toppled in 1975.
Uncovering a plethora of past and present political and corporate malpractice in Australia, the novel sizzles with indignation. But this isn’t its only mood. Often rumbustiously funny, it has an almost Dickensian zest for colourful characters. Scenes of the cyber-underworld and its bizarre obsessives buzz with fascination. Cameos of bohemian posturing glint with irony: “Celine loved the country… but her love involved a lot of glass, one to hold the wine, the other to make a window that would keep all the nasty bugs outside.”
Metaphorical vitality pulses through Carey’s prose: even underwear ballooning from a saucepan in which it is being boiled turns into “shivering dome-like tents suggestive of soap bubbles and the Sydney Opera House”. Australia’s natural beauty – “stern khaki bush slashed with verticals in pink and white and grey… impasto yellow limestone glowing ecstatically in the morning sun” – is as sensuously celebrated as the treacheries and lies he sees infesting its politics are scathingly portrayed.