I first read Peter Carey in 1988, when Oscar and Lucinda won the Booker Prize. I wasn’t sure I could say I liked him exactly, but I knew I was in the presence of a very special kind of talent. There was so much energy in the narrative, and the strangest mix of degradation and beauty. It seemed to me that a fierce and far-sighted imagination was at work, conjuring up characters who were riveted to an outrageous and fantastical dream. More than 25 years later, the essence of Peter Carey remains the same in his latest novel, Amnesia. Inspired by Australian-born activist, Julian Assange and his wiki-leaks, it is the story of present day computer hacking that sits perilously atop a long-forgotten history of animosity between Australia and America.
The opening salvo of the narrative is the release of the Angel Worm virus into Australia’s computerised prison system, opening the doors of institutions across the country and allowing hundreds of inmates to walk free. Unfortunately, the system is run by an American corporation, and so the same has happened in the United States. The perpetrator of this crime is a young woman, Gaby Baillieux, who has since gone into hiding, threatened with extradition to the US where the death penalty may await her. Only disgraced journalist Felix Moore (Moore-or-less-correct to his frenemies) has the chance of a lifetime to redeem himself by writing her story. Felix’s long-standing friendship with her mother, Celine, puts him in prime position to tell the tale, as does his relationship to his property tycoon patron, Woody Townes, who has bailed Gaby out and is prepared to bankroll Felix’s time. From the start, though, the situation is unclear and fraught with mixed motives. Celine, Woody and Felix all have their particular axes to grind, their own perspectives on a complicated and unclear situation. And Felix isn’t sure who he can really trust; particularly when his removal to a safe place involves his being kidnapped and thrust into the boot of a car.
But it’s Felix’s story and Felix’s take that we are presented with, as he types away at an ancient Oliveti, fuelled by upsettingly cheap red wine. Felix is convinced that at the heart of this internet terrorism lies old, festering wounds between America and Australia. The first half of the book recounts Celine’s origins, born from a night of violence in 1943 dubbed The Battle of Brisbane, when supposedly allied soldiers fought on the streets over who had rights to the women of Australia. Or maybe other motives were involved – that’s the thing about history; if it’s hard in retrospect to pin down, it’s even more impossible during the event itself. This flare up of rage and rivalry slumbered under the weight of years, only to awaken again when Celine gave birth to daughter Gaby in 1975, just as Gough Whitlam’s Labour government was overthrown, an event thought to have been orchestrated – or at least aided – by CIA involvement as revenge for Australian troops pulling out of Vietnam.
We were naïve of course. We continued to think of the Americans as our friends and allies. We criticised them, of course. Why not? We loved them, didn’t we? We sang their songs. They had saved us from the Japanese. We sacrificed the lives of our beloved sons in Korea, then Vietnam. It never occurred to us that they would murder our democracy. So when it happened, in plain sight, we forgot it right away.’
This is the amnesia to which the title refers, and Gaby becomes in its context a sort of return of the repressed. Only when we get to the second part of the book, which moves out of Felix’s first person narrative and into a dream-like third, as Felix stitches together Gaby’s history from a mess of cassette tapes recording herself and her mother speaking, this clarity of cause and consequence seems much less certain. Gaby’s story is one of teenage infatuation with a nail-varnished, long-haired geek named Frederick. Her first love occurs whilst her mother and father are involved in a bitter, slow-burning marriage bust-up, and Gaby turns to Frederick and his fascination with computers to escape her unhappy home life. The usual teenage disasters take place – forbidden assignations, petty law-breaking, school work ignored – and Gaby’s own activism grows out of displaced emotions of rage, hope, idealism and fear that belong in the family dynamic. Politics itself looks very different from this angle, not a neat story told from the outside, where conspirators can be sized up from a distance, but an upsurge of emotion married to chance circumstance and a longing to break out, fight, rebel and be seen.
Peter Carey has long been fascinated by transgression: My Life as a Fake, Theft; A Love Story, True History of the Kelly Gang, His Illegal Self… the way criminality makes his protagonists feel, or perhaps the way that his protagonists find themselves launched inevitably into lives of crime, remain a constant preoccupation. In this novel, that fascination overreaches itself a bit. All of his characters are engaged in energetic rule-breaking of one kind or another, which muddies the notion that America-Australian enmity is at the heart of the story. But then, there’s very little in the way of clarity here, not least in the style the narrative is written. Carey enjoys some grammatical anarchy of his own, removing quotation marks in the second part, skipping across different points of view, zooming around his story with only a few oblique signposts to guide the reader. For me, this whole notion of ‘amnesia’ worked much better with regard to the act of storytelling itself. Felix shows if nothing else how easy it is to ‘forget’ the sources of a story, how once that story comes together, it become an entity that is bigger and stronger than its component parts. The new story replaces and erases the many smaller stories it sprung from, though the ragged edges of Amnesia remind us where they lurk.
I don’t think Peter Carey is capable of writing a boring book, and this one is full of arresting images, gorgeous writing and intriguing ideas. It’s also a bit messy, confusing and not without its slow patches, especially in the second section. But just as I was wondering how on earth he would tie the second part up with the first, he managed a neat twist in a couple of pages to provide a clever ending. Not his finest book, perhaps, but provocative and worthwhile nevertheless.