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!