The novels of Peter Carey have a kind of dualism about them. This can manifest within individual books in protagonists (Oscar and Lucinda; Parrot and Olivier) or parallel narratives (The Chemistry of Tears), but it also appears across the body of his work: in his American novels and his Australian ones; his playful, surreal voice compared with his more realistic one; and his historical novels and those set in the present. Mostly, this enables a kind of conversation within each novel. It makes them dynamic and spirited, multifaceted and complex. The two sides, though, must speak to each other as a coherent whole.
Amnesia, his 13th novel, feels instead like an arranged marriage between two thin stories that have nothing stylistically or thematically in common.
In part one, the narrator is Australian Felix Moore, “our sole remaining left-wing journalist”, disgraced and bankrupt due to a damages judgement for defamation, and estranged from his family after setting fire to their home while making a ceremonial pyre from his remaindered books. “Was this not hilarious,” he says, “that my puce-faced publisher, with his big house in Pymble, had gone to the trouble and expense of having boxes sent to my humble door?” Felix is “overweight and out of breath but I was proud to be sued, reviled, scorned, to be called a loser by the rewriters of press releases”. He has a long history with the volatile actress Celine Baillieux and the shady and brutal property developer Woody “Wodonga” Townes. “The Great Amnesia” referred to in the title is Felix’s view that Australia has conveniently overlooked the removal of the Whitlam government in a CIA coup.
Felix is a brilliant character: witty and paranoid with a Carey-esque backstory. He’s also from Bacchus Marsh, where his father sold cars, and he too was an early student at Monash University. When a young Melbourne hacker named Gaby Baillieux, the daughter of Felix’s old friend, releases a worm that infects the computer systems of detention centres, black sites and rendition jails worldwide, thousands of prisoners, asylum seekers and those held without trial are released. Gaby is arrested and the US government wants her extradited to face the death penalty.
Felix believes her actions are retribution for Whitlam’s removal, for the figurative (and a literal, in case we miss the point) rape of Australia by the US. He’s hired by the scary Townes to write her side of the story.
Part two, mostly snippets from Gaby and Celine’s audiotapes that Felix listens to while hidden away writing, could be from another book entirely: “This might have become a family story if there was a proper family anymore.” But that’s just what it is: a domestic drama about the collapse of Celine’s marriage, Gaby’s adolescent loves and the rise of her obsession with hacking. This story can’t help but seem distant, told by taped voices with Felix as the reader’s intermediary. He wishes his subject was there in the flesh, that “he had been trapped with her in her stinky dugout, quietly noting how, say, she used her lip chapstick obsessively. Stuff like that.” So do we.
There’s a reason the second part is written like this, but it’s still incongruous. There’s even an environmental subplot at the end that further undercuts the central question of part one: is Gaby a game-playing innocent or an anti-US cyber-warrior? Amnesia could have been inspired by real events (and Carey recently revealed he’d been asked to ghost Julian Assange’s book and declined), but as it turns out, his interest in global politics and surveillance
The hyperlocal settings reveal the same split focus: glorious descriptions of suburban Australia, interspersed with easy name-dropping. In Coburg, “Bell Street High School was rotting, neglected, faction-ridden, falling apart. In heavy rain the power points exploded, sending extraordinary blue sheets of Pentecostal fire dancing above the pupils’ heads.” Or this, where “the house was twelve feet off the ground ... and all the latticed houses glowing like golden lanterns in the honeysuckle air, and if you shut your eyes and hid the trams and the pub and the shunting train and the drunk peeing by the lamppost you could almost think Woolloongabba was beautiful”.
On the other hand, Gaby loved Carlton “for its unlocked doors and open windows, for Macarthur Place, for Lygon Street, for its Lebanese hashish in Johnny’s Green Room, its sly-grog shop in Chummie Place, the welcoming Italian families, the intense and clannish Greeks, the intellectual pubs and radical politics and fabulous cappuccinos and Readings books and Professor Longhair’s record store of loving memory”. Will referencing one of Australia’s best-known booksellers by name help sales of Amnesia?
The heights of Amnesia are that glorious Carey way with language: Townes “peed so long and loud I knew he was showing off his prostate operation”; Felix was “the son of a man who would stand in a muddy potato paddock all afternoon if that was what it took to sell a Ford”.
The lows include an ending wrapped up so quickly it was as if Carey’s laptop was about to be repossessed, and the book’s overall intrinsic lack of logic. Characters keep knowing things they couldn’t possibly know. Amnesia also recycles one of the world’s best-known Jewish jokes as an actual event. You’ve likely heard it – it ends with: “Our Captain Cohen, he don’t make no mistakes.” This isn’t playful. It’s lazy. Dual Booker Prize-winning authors are supposed to care about things like this.
They’re also supposed to make decisions about what book it is they’re writing. Over a long and glorious career, Carey has always dripped with talent. With discipline and care, Amnesia might have been one of his best. LS
Hamish Hamilton, 384pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 25, 2014 as "Peter Carey, Amnesia". Subscribe here.