A very special relationship: Amnesia
Review: The United States is definitely not the good guy in Peter Carey’s latest novel, a satirical burlesque that seethes with benign rage
Gough Whitlam: dismissed as Australian prime minister by a governor-general “acting on a nudge” from the US. Photograph: Graeme Fletcher/Keystone/Getty
An efficient computer virus is the modern equivalent of a plague, showing no mercy. One such virus, released by a most unlikely criminal, sets off a chain of events in the lively 13th novel from the Australian magus Peter Carey that will leave the mind reeling. It is tremendous fun, a satiric burlesque as fast as a speeding car, barbed as only Carey can be, seething with benign rage and as black as reality.
This is the contemporary world of computer culture. It is also further evidence, as if it were needed, that Carey is an intellectual magpie. Not much escapes the cerebral writer’s notice, and this novel could as easily be called Reminder. And remind it does.
It also retrieves an unsettling amount about Australia’s history since the heady days when Gough Whitlam was a reforming prime minister who introduced free university education and used his power well. But then it all went wrong, and his government was dismissed by a high-handed governor-general, Sir John Kerr, acting on a nudge from “our American allies in 1975” – subtext, most likely the CIA.
The United States is not the good guy in Amnesia. Far from it; one of the major themes is what Carey sees as Australia’s national amnesia concerning its passive relationship with a heavy-handed US. He even refers to the old wounds inflicted during the Battle of Brisbane in 1942, when Australian and American servicemen brawled two nights running in the streets, the Yanks having so much more ready cash to lure the local girls.
Despite a preoccupation with misfits and outlaws, the displaced inhabiting the margins, Carey – whose finest novel, True History of the Kelly Gang (2001), would appear to be the summation of those themes – somehow never writes the same book. His inventive unpredictability is part of his appeal. The narrative energy of Amnesia is impressive, as are his brilliant handling of the many voices and his always fluent prose. Yet lurking in the background is his futuristic picaresque The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith (1994), with its various nods to Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy.
Carey’s Tristan, born to an actor, has many difficulties. Imprisoned in a mangled body, he finds expression, like his mother, through acting. He lives in a colony called Efica, which is beholden to Voorstand, a creepy brave-new-world superpower. The Australia of Amnesia shares a similar plight, but this time the master comes in the form of American influences and control.
When the unleashed virus destroys prison security systems in Australia and the US, filling TV screens across the world with images of freed inmates, the culprit must be found. Initially described as a “male Christian fundamentalist”, the terrorist turns out to be a sweet-faced 30-year-old girl, Gaby, who is the daughter of a politician and his wacky, increasingly estranged actor wife.
Vivid interaction There is a story to be told, and the task falls to Felix Moore, a discredited left-wing journalist, who as the action begins is already in court dealing with existing problems. Aside from his faltering journalistic career – telling the truth is seldom
popular – he drinks too much and has debts, and a promised film version of his sole novel never happened.
While trying to burn copies of another soon-to-be pulped book, he sets his house on fire. His loving wife finally announces she has had enough. Moore, one of Carey’s most likeable characters, is tossed a lifebelt when a swashbuckling old pal, a tycoon, appears and commissions him to write a favourable biography of the young hacker.
Moore reflects on his buddy Woody “Wodonga” Townes: “I considered my loyal friend’s exposed white calves, his remarkable belt, his thick neck, the high colour in his cheeks and I thought, not for the first time, that it is Melbourne’s talent to produce these extraordinary eighteenth-century figures . . . He was a Gillray engraving – indulgence, opinion, power.”
It takes a while for Moore to realise “I had signed a contract with a property developer and not a publisher . . . It took only a minute for me to discover that he had locked his temperature-controlled wine cellar and left nothing but a can of Foster’s in the fridge.”
The interaction between the characters is vivid, fluent and often misleading. Moore may not be the most reliable of narrators, but his motives are worthy and he tells his tale well, bringing to life the task of foraging through lies, documents and tapes.
He is the personification of opinionated if beleaguered journalists everywhere, and there are some hilarious scenes of his fighting to protect his copy, hiding it in black plastic sacks, fearing subeditors, trying to make sense out of all the confusion and wondering if he is going to get killed.
Central to his confusion is Celine, the actor, a former beauty known to Moore since his besotted youth. She is also the mother of the hacker.
Carey has always been a gifted ventriloquist, and the dialogue in this fast-moving narrative gives the impression that the speakers are in the next room. We don’t so much read the dialogue as overhear it. Amnesia contains some of the sharpest characterisation Carey has written; his portrait of Gabrielle Baillieux, Gaby the hacker, clever and insecure, is a convincing study of a young girl intent on love. She is oddly affecting.
Carey has always been a clever, entertaining writer with an adroit grasp of how things work, as well as a subtle feel for the political in everyday life, but this time he has created characters that are unnervingly human. These hackers conceal their codes in copies of The Lord of the Rings.
Blunt and funny
Yet the subject to hand is never far away, and the characters share in the mood of improvisational intrigue and bewilderment: “So Wodonga is an American spy? Jesus, Celine. You never mentioned this before.” And her reply is typical of a chaotic but well-executed narrative of twists: “Calm down. I never thought of it before. Remember the photos on Woody’s office walls. How does a Melbourne property developer get to play golf with the US Secretary of State?”
Carey’s timing is eerily apt. Whitlam died on October 21st, aged 98. As Moore remarks: “We were naive, of course. We continued to think of the Americans as our friends and allies. We criticised them . . . Why not? We loved them, didn’t we? We sang their songs. They saved us from the Japanese . . . It never occurred to us that they would murder our democracy. So when it happened, in plain sight, we forgot it right away.”
Amnesia is blunt and funny, brave and outspoken, as is its main narrator, Moore, the resourceful reporter who, holed up to write and in the absence of a washing machine, boils his underwear in a saucepan, and compares the spectacle to “shivering dome-like tents” that bring to his mind the shimmer of Sydney Opera House.
Carey says a great deal in an entertaining, provocative novel, weighty with polemical intent, yet he never forgets to tell a story that is as large as life and as exuberantly complicated, and, as regards setting the record straight, long overdue. If fiction can summon the now, this novel has.