A slippery, shifting story from Australia’s master novelist
FELIX MOORE, the anti-hero of Peter Carey’s bracing and abrasive new novel, “Amnesia”, is an Australian journalist, “an ageing breadwinner with a ridiculous mortgage” who nevertheless remains “a socialist and a servant of the truth”. His working life, books and columns have all been dedicated to exposing “the traumatic injury done to my country by our American allies in 1975”.
Any reader wondering what that injury is could also be a victim of the “Great Amnesia”, as Mr Carey calls it, which gives the novel its title. It was in 1975 that Gough Whitlam, Australia’s Labor prime minister, was dismissed at a stroke by Sir John Kerr, the governor-general and representative of the country’s head of state, Queen Elizabeth. Whitlam called it a coup and alleged that those who opposed him were funded by the CIA. Mr Carey takes this part of Australian history personally, and has previously spoken of Australia being, throughout its history, “a client state”, first of Britain and then of America.
One day Felix hears about the Angel Worm, a virus devised to disrupt the computerised systems that control the locks on prison doors. In Australia, where security has been designed and sold by American corporations, the worm sets a multitude of inmates free—just as it does in Texas, Afghanistan and Kurdistan.
The instigator of the attack is a young Australian, Gabrielle Baillieux, who has been drawn into activism. Felix is convinced that the Angel Worm is a modern-day act of retaliation against the events of 1975: the circumstances of Gabrielle’s birth at the very moment of the government’s collapse are central to Felix’s tale.
Having been found guilty of defamation, Felix is rescued by an old friend, Woody Townes, who gets him what looks like a good gig: writing up Gabrielle’s story. (Felix, it transpires, had once known her parents; her mother was a successful actress, her father a Labor member of parliament.) This process, however, turns out to be rather more agonised and difficult than Felix could ever have imagined. There are echoes here of the unfortunate ghostwriting collaboration between Julian Assange and Andrew O’Hagan. Mr Carey has said in an interview that he too was approached to work with Mr Assange, a fellow Australian, but he turned the job down because he thought, “Two control freaks? It wouldn’t work.”)
This, then, is a novel about the new American empire and its repercussions around the world, about technology and, most movingly, about family. It is slippery and compelling, written with the vivid precision that marks Mr Carey’s best work. It appears at first as though he might, like Thomas Pynchon in “Bleeding Edge” or Dave Eggers in “The Circle”, be attempting to recreate the constantly shifting virtual world in the fixed text of a novel. But humanity, not machinery, lies at the book’s heart: Gabrielle’s Angel Worm is as much the result of her parents’ marital break-up as of her fascination with computers. Felix writes his account of Gabrielle’s life by listening to tapes she and her parents made: the voices bleed together, tell their versions of their stories, make excuses. The reader decides whom to believe. Felix writes about himself in the third person, too, noting in his final pages that “as always, the omniscient narrator had a very wobbly grasp of what was happening” —a contradiction and a challenge, both.
Mr Carey, who has already won the Man Booker prize twice, for “Oscar and Lucinda” (1988) and “True History of the Kelly Gang” (2001)—should be in with a chance for a third prize next year. His Australia is no isolated continent; the country’s vanished history casts a dark cloud over the present, indeed over all the world.