Peter Carey's latest novel, Amnesia, provides further evidence he will never forget where he came from. By Jan McGuinness.

The persistence of memory

Peter Carey
Credit: Heike Steinweg

The foyer of Melbourne’s Sofitel swarms with noisy, milling Jehovah’s Witnesses who seem to be holding their international 100th anniversary conference right here in our midst. But Peter Carey could not be more relaxed, affable and undisturbed as we settle in for a chat about his new novel, Amnesia.

How different to Adelaide Writers’ Week back in 2008 where the heat, the crowds, and the assumption he was somehow responsible for hosting his mates and famous fellow festival guests Ian McEwan, Paul Auster, Siri Hustvedt and Patrick McGrath, turned him into a right grump.

Besides, he was promoting His Illegal Self that year and his visit was preceded by reviews describing it as a “jerry-built narrative” (The New York Times) and “weirdly dull” (The Guardian), which set the local tone.

“Basically you’ve been thinking about people in Australia reading the book, so when you come back and they don’t like it or think you should have been writing about something else, it tends to make you grumpy,” he says. “But this is a very pleasant trip in that sense.”

Australian reviews of Amnesia have been largely glowing. The book is yet to be released in the United States and early personal letters to Carey from British publisher Carmen Callil and academic, literary biographer and reviewer Dame Hermione Lee were so enthusiastic that excerpts ended up on the book’s cover.

And apart from being the week that 70,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses descended on Melbourne, Carey’s promotional visit coincided also with Gough Whitlam’s death – a public relations bonus given that the amnesia of the title refers to Australia’s collective ability to digest and forget major upheavals, including the 1975 dismissal of the Whitlam government.   

Carey hasn’t forgotten the Dismissal. He was upset then and still is, not so much with Malcolm Fraser and the Liberal Party but with the US, which his novel postulates conspired to be rid of a government that no longer danced to its tune.

“Someone in Whitlam’s cabinet called them mass murderers over the bombing of Cambodia, we withdrew our troops from Vietnam, Jim Cairns became deputy PM and they thought he was a communist, and Whitlam outed the guy in charge of Pine Gap as CIA when the Americans had always denied any government involvement in the CIA. They’re not used to that and they get hysterical.”

The US, Carey points out, has interfered with the elected governments of Italy, Greece, Iran and elsewhere. Why should Australia be any different?

It is a theme he first visited when he followed his second wife, Alison Summers, to New York in 1990 and became a full-time writer.

The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith takes its emotional engine from these events,” he says of his novel, which ponders the effects of imperialism on the imagined region of Efica, colonised for generations by the much larger Voorstand.  

“No one really got it. Well, the Canadians got it, but the Americans didn’t understand. They thought they were the small country.”

But Amnesia is about much else and stems from his publisher’s suggestion that Carey should write Julian Assange’s biography.

“I said of course not. But what struck me about Assange was that he was an Australian and the Americans were calling him a traitor. Excuse me? He’s an Australian citizen. I knew he grew up in Queensland and his mother was a hippie to the left of the ALP in the ’70s, so he was someone who’d grown up with all that rage of the Dismissal. It was interesting to write about someone like that, whose whole motive was payback for 1975 – and of course the US wouldn’t recognise it.”

Amnesia is indeed a sort of backstory for an Assange-like character. Except that in Carey’s version she is a girl named Gaby Baillieux, a cyberterrorist who, though born into a Labor background, is primarily interested in the issues of the day, such as the environment and asylum seekers. Felix Moore is writing her story to evoke sympathy and avoid extradition once she and her boyfriend have unlocked prisons throughout Australia and the US via their computer worm. Felix is a journalist, a composite of every boozy, failed romantic who ever plied the craft, and the one who really obsesses over the Whitlam conspiracy.

Like Felix, Carey hails from Bacchus Marsh, a country town west of Melbourne where his father ran a car dealership. But unlike the knockabout Felix, Carey boarded at Geelong Grammar School, then characterised by cold showers, dormitories on unenclosed balconies and the cane, all far from the institutionalised Club Med-like experience of today, replete with wellbeing and dressage centres and something called “positive education”. 

Preceded by his older brother, Paul, Carey says he knew there was no escaping grammar school life and decided to be a happy camper. Six years later, and having failed matriculation English literature, he emerged with a desire to study organic chemistry, inspired by a notion “that in some weird way the structure of things affects their outward behaviour”. He also graduated with written advice from legendary headmaster Sir James Darling not to become a narrow-minded scientist, and a lifelong trauma about pronunciation. “To this day I alternate between dance and dahnce and cassel and castle.”

As he told The Paris Review in 2006, “no one could have guessed that the experience would finally produce an endless string of orphan characters in my books”, although Carey says he didn’t feel he was being exiled or sent away at the time. 

Being engaged with physics and chemistry “in a way that made no sense at all”, Carey proceeded to fail first-year science at Monash University in 1961 and segued into advertising because that’s what his girlfriend’s brother did. His first job was alongside novelists Barry Oakley and Morris Lurie, who worked in advertising to support their families, and under their guidance his real education began. Carey started “to read, all sorts of things in a great huge rush”. Armed with ignorance and undeterred by experience, he figured that if Oakley and Lurie could write, so could he. Besides, it sounded more redemptive to his university friends to be working on a novel, so by 1964 he was writing all the time, at night and weekends.  

Success finally came 10 years later with the publication of the short-story collection The Fat Man in History. In the 40 years since, Carey has published 19 books and numerous articles, essays, screenplays and short stories. But the man who gave Australians two Booker Prize-winning novels (Oscar and Lucinda, 1988 and True History of the Kelly Gang, 2001) also gave us the “fish John West rejects” and “You make us smile, Dr Lindeman” ad campaigns. These and others also mopped up numerous awards and prizes, according to Carey’s former colleague and business partner Bani McSpedden. 

“I’ve worked with some of the best in advertising and Peter was in a league of his own,” says McSpedden. “He was simply outstanding, and it puzzles me that in the advertising halls of fame he is not better recognised. In the period he was operating he ranked among the top three award-winning creative directors. He’s an incredible thinker and I don’t believe I learnt as much from anyone else.”

Certainly, in terms of both literary and advertising achievements, the ’80s reads like an enormously productive period on Carey’s CV. But he doesn’t remember it that way and dismisses advertising as a means to an end. 

“The whole focus of my life was on writing short stories at first and then novels, and that was my true obsession,” he says. “At the same time I was young, I had tons of energy, hated losing and wanted to get my own way, so we produced some terrific work in advertising, which was sort of necessary. But I think of my serious work at the time being Illywhacker [1985] and Oscar and Lucinda and I wouldn’t ever equate the two in terms of their meaning to me.”   

Carey is equally dismissive of any suggestion that his ability to capture the vernacular of this and any Australian era, as displayed again in Amnesia, or his flair for condensing the zeitgeist and conveying it back to us as fiction owes anything to his copywriting skills. Ad men, he says, know nothing of prevailing norms and are concerned only with showing off to and competing against each other, as was he. In those days he covered himself by being one of the first to subject his ideas to focus groups. These days he relies on extensive background research by himself and others to ensure his novels are authentic.

So although Carey attended Monash University in the ’60s and lived in Carlton until 1973, it is not solely his memory for these times and places that is on display in Amnesia. The services of a local researcher, much reading and many phone calls to Australia filled in the gaps, while in New York he spent time with those expert in cyber language and the dark arts of computer hacking.  

Having dealt with the ghost of his commercial past, the international writer, at 71 dressed head to toe in Melburnian – or in his case Manhattan – black, fights his way through throngs of Jehovah’s to take a nap before fronting another promotional gig.             

Then it will be back to New York after a night or two in Bacchus Marsh, where his older brother and sister still live, before resuming his routine of writing in the morning and shopping in the afternoon for the dinners he cooks in anticipation of an evening’s conversation with his third wife, publisher Frances Coady. Teaching is Carey’s other commitment as executive director of the MFA program in creative writing at the City University of New York’s Hunter College. How did he come to teaching?

“It’s complicated,” he says. “I’m a man with a very expensive divorce.”

“But it’s something I’m very, very proud of,” he adds, counting among his students recent graduate Phil Klay – whose short story collection, Redeployment, won the 2014 US National Book Award for fiction – whose work has been well reviewed in The New York Times.

Between writing and teaching, and despite many temptations, Carey says he tries not to have a social life, confining activities to about eight close friends. That leaves time to ponder yet more ways of redefining his country – which always was and will be Australia, the country for which he writes.

“You can’t write for an international market,” he says. “Literature has to belong somewhere.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 6, 2014 as "The persistence of memory".

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Jan McGuinness is a Melbourne journalist and author.