Somewhere sometime ago I read that serious reviewers should read the book they are reviewing at least twice. I think this is good advice, but I admit that with so many books I want to read I rarely follow it. Peter Carey’s latest novel Amnesia is one that well warrants rereading. It assaults you with ideas and action that aren’t easily assimilated on the first read. However, time marches on, so to write this review I am going (or, to be honest, I’m choosing) to rely on the notes I took, supported by a quick flick through. Please read my review in this light!
Amnesia is a satire, and satires can be pretty tricky to read. They’re slippery. They can be funny, but not necessarily. They tend to be about ideas or issues, so their characters are created to serve that end and may not be fully developed or particularly sympathetic. This can make satires tricky to engage with, particularly if you’re the sort of reader who loves to engage with characters. Amnesia presents the reader with some of these challenges. It’s a romp, a thriller, a drama – but in the end it’s all about activism, cyber security and journalism, about politics and the relationship between Australia and the United States of America. I enjoyed it, though the pace was so cracking at times I found it hard to keep up.
The novel starts with a worm, the Angel Worm, which infects the computer control systems of Australian prisons, releasing their locks. Because Australian prison security was designed by American corporations, the worm also infected nearly 5,000 American prisons. Prisoners of all sorts, including asylum seekers, were freed. The U.S. is not amused. As the story breaks, our protagonist, Australia’s self-described “sole remaining left-wing journalist” Felix Moore, is being tried in court for defamation. He’s “grateful for a story big enough to push me off the front pages”. Unfortunately, in the sort of irony typical of satire, he soon finds himself out of the frying pan and into the fire, because, of course, the parents of one of the Worm’s creators are old university friends, Sando Quinn and his wife Celine.
So here’s the set up. Felix is destitute. His book is to be pulped, and his wife has kicked him out. To his rescue comes another old university friend, Woody Townes, who pays him a lot of money to write a book about worm-creator Gaby. Felix soon learns though that this book is not going to be his book expressing the truth as he discovers it, but a book that says … well, let’s just say that here the adventure, romp, thriller, drama, whatever you want to call it, begins.
What then is being satirised? Let’s start with the four main characters, Felix, Sando, Celine and Woody. They met as students at Monash University and became friends. They were radicals and activists who believed they could change the world. They organised marches and protests, they voted in Whitlam and the Labour Government, and they were affronted and angry by Whitlam’s dismissal in 1975. But, who are they now? One of Carey’s targets is this: what happens when radicals grow up? Woody turns capitalist property developer with hints of something worse; Sando is a politician who tries to keep the faith but discovers the compromises he has (or wants) to make; actor Celine sees herself as Bohemian but becomes seduced by the “finer” things in life and doesn’t want to mix with the working class; and journalist Felix sees himself as the tell-it-all saviour but recognises that in the process he has “become an awful creature”. It’s not a pretty picture.
Underlying this is a thread exploring Australia’s relationship with the USA. There’s the Battle of Brisbane (a two-day fight and riot between American soldiers and locals during World War 2), discussion of US involvement in Whitlam’s dismissal, and, fictionally, fears of what might happen if the US extradited Gaby. (Julian Assange anyone?) Early in the novel, Felix agrees that Woody has a point regarding the extradition risk:
Everything we knew from life suggested that America would do what it liked and Australia would behave like the client state it always was.
Carey also satirises journalism, particularly the sort that prides itself on exposés in search of the truth. Felix becomes the pawn in a game to produce a story that suits the person who gains control of him – by whatever method they can, by money, say, or by abduction. Woody suggests at one stage that Felix make things up to put Gaby in a positive light, but Felix, who believes there’s “no such thing as objective journalism” argues that this doesn’t equate with making things up! Through the course of the book Felix moves (or, more correctly, is moved through mysterious mechanisms) from a classy high-rise in Melbourne, to a remote primitive shack on the Hawkesbury River, and thence to a motel room in the Blue Mountains. All the while he doggedly listens to tapes of mother, Celine, and daughter, Gaby, talking, talking, talking.
Their story of life in Melbourne, from when Gaby was born, significantly on 11 November 1975, is great reading. Melbourne-born Carey knows the city and captures its life, rhythms, and diversity beautifully. The writing is gorgeously descriptive at times, and often funny, but can also be biting.
I think, too, that there’s an element of Carey sending himself up. I’m not suggesting, despite some obvious similarities between character Felix and creator Carey, that Amnesia is intended in any way to be autobiographical. But, in several of the references to writers and writing, I detect digs at some of the criticisms that have been levelled against him. How about, for example, Felix’s comment at the end that:
For the crime of expressing pleasure that my book would be available to future generations, I was judged not only immoral but vain and preening …
Oh Peter, I thought!
To conclude, though, what is all this satire for? Well, the title says it. There’s a reason Gaby was born on the day of the dismissal, and that she becomes the next generation of activists (or hacktivists) – and the reason is that Carey does not want us to forget. He wants us to “maintain the rage”*, to remain aware and vigilant of what is happening, and of whose fingers are in which pie. It’s not subtle, but then what satire is, and it perhaps tries to pack too much in, but it is both an entertaining and a provocative read. I’d be more than happy to read it again.
Hamish Hamilton, 2014
* I drafted my review and then trawled the net, and what did I find but an interview with Carey in The Australian that says just this. I didn’t steal it, promise!
19 thoughts on “Peter Carey, Amnesia (Review)”
Dear Whispering Gums, last night we discussed Amnesia in our book group and this morning your review arrived. serendipitous. It’s an excellent review. Initially I was put off by the cynicism and in the afterglow of reading Middlemarch which I had just finished my sensibilities were not really prepared for Amnesia,Not a lot of exploring of the inner life a la Middlemarch.
thanks, I appreciate your thoughtfulness in your blog
kind wishes Clara
Thanks Clara. It’s s great book for a reading group I think. As you say, you really have to be in a different head space when you read it. And you have to realise what sort of head space you need to be in, don’t you?
I am not too sure if I am a fan of Peter Carey or not. I haven’t liked all his books, but The True History of Ned Kelly Gang I loved, and Amnesia was a great read. I do like Carey’s satire, and I will suggest Amnesia at my next book club meeting for us to read in August. You have solved a problem for me with your excellent review.
Thanks Meg. I’ve noticed that Carey does attract a lot of strong and mixed opinions. I thought this book provided a lot to think about, from different angles. I’ve enjoyed most of his books that I’ve read.
Hey Sue, I loved Carey’s earlier works so much I’ve not dared to read his latest handful (does that even make sense?!?) I think this might be the one to bring me back into the fold, as it were. Thanks for the great review. John
Yes, that makes sense John given he’s written a few handfuls! I’ve read, probably, 2/3 of his books, including the last three. Would love to hear your opinion if you do read this one.
I just finished Amnesia, what a happy coincidence! I’ve read most of Carey’s books and love them all pretty much equally but this one, for me, was a bomb. I found it disjointed – I think I never really recovered from the sudden change in narrative after the scene was set so strongly in Felix’s voice at the beginning. I found the ‘taped’ stories kind of mundane and a bit tiresome after a while. By the end something that started out with such a dramatic and interesting premise, turned out pretty underwhelming, both in content and execution. I appreciate your insights though, and perhaps on second reading (one day) I’ll form a different opinion!
Interesting 36views. I usually discuss structure in my reviews and I started in this review talking about part one being in Felix’s 1st person voice, but then realised I hadn’t talked about part two, so I deleted my reference to part one,me cause I was just inning out of time. I was surprised to see the shift in the second part but once I accepted it I rather liked it. I really enjoyed the story told in this part, ant the tape playing motif, but I haven’t quite worked out why he did it that way. I didn’t really find it disjointed but I know several who did!
I haven’t read Amnesia but is it possible the stories on tape are a nod to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale?
Good question, Glenda. I hadn’t thought of that. It could be, though these tapes have been produced expressly for the purposes of Felix’s book rather than having been produced some time in the past.
Like Meg I am ambivalent about Carey but as I enjoy satire this one sounds appealing – I could be tempted even to suggest it to my book club.
I was surprised that Carey described the Battle of Brisbane as ‘a pub brawl’ – it was, truly, a battle which lasted many many hours between servicemen of both armies with a few civilians joining in. One Australian soldier was killed and many from both sides injured. It was, I think, largely the result of simmering hatred of the ‘Yanks’ held by the Diggers who believed the ‘Yanks were oversexed, overpaid and over here’. Another bone of contention was the fact that segregation was practised in the US Army and their negro servicemen were restricted to Brisbane’s south side, something the non-racist Aussies resented on their behalf. I am not sure what brought the hatred to such a boiling point; I was a teenager living Brisbane in 1942 and the memories of the ‘Yank occupation’ of Brisbane are still strong.
Sorry LL, you’re right. Peter Carey mentioned a pub at the beginning but he did describe it as you have, including that description of the “Yanks” as you’ve given. I’ve altered my description.
I wonder if your group would like it. Worth suggesting though I’m not sure. Not everyone seems to get the satire.
A terrific review, WG, the missing second reading or no. Along the lines of what was said earlier, I found the first half of the book mesmerising, but after a while as we got into Gaby it dragged for me, probably because I’m a child of my time and lived through the Dismissal at close quarters. Also because, like Carey, I never believed for one moment that the Yanks didn’t have a hand in it, as was repeatedly insisted at the time and is ever since. As for the Battle of Brisbane, my uncle, a kid of 18, was stationed in Brisbane and billeted there and never forgot the experience. When I was moving to Australia in 1958 he warned that it was a strange place, where the people never ate vegetables, but only used them for table decorations. On a very micro level, this just shows how little the Aussies thought of us Yanks.
Thanks Sara. I wondered if you’d read it, and am interested in your response as a reader. There was certainly a shift from part 1 to part 2 but in a way I really enjoyed the second part with Celine’s and Gaby’s perspectives being set off against each other.
As for “you” Yanks, I suspect it was and maybe still is a love-hate relationship!
Never ate vegetables. Oh dear. I do know a Queenslander like that (one male, anyhow). But I also knew an English gentleman like that too. I’d put it down more to gender than geography!
I did enjoy the Celine and Gaby part. But what dragged for me was the part when he got into the hacking. I know that hacking is very much today’s issue (or at least one of them) but I was much more interested in the past, a failing on my part, I admit. (As is an excess of ‘parts’.
Ah, I understand your comment now, Sara. I can certainly understand that. I was certainly less interested in the technical detail of the hacking too – more interested in the story of the characters and their relationships.
Sounds fantastic Gummie, so thanks for the review. Hadn’t heard of this.
Sounds great! I like a good satire. I just watched a 2009 movie called In The Loop that stars Peter Capaldi that is a satire of the US and Britain and the “intelligence” used to start the war in Iraq. It was cutting and hilarious. Now this book sends up the US and Australia, I’ll have to put it on my list!
I haven’t heard of The Loop Stefanie. Sounds great. Amnesia is not hilarious like some satire is, but it has its funny moments and OTT situations. I’d be interested to hear the reactions of Americans to it.