Delicious descriptions – and other thoughts: Peter Carey’s Amnesia

CareyAmnesiaHamishOne of the pleasures in reading Peter Carey’s Amnesia comes from his language, so I do want to share examples of that, but first I want to say something about the style and structure because I didn’t get to discuss it in my review. One of the criticisms I’ve heard about the book is that it’s disjointed. Some really like the beginning but then find they lose interest. I didn’t find this, but it’s interesting because there is something about the structure of the book that might create this response.

Amnesia is divided into two very distinct parts. Part 1 is told first person in Felix’s voice. It’s here that the story is set up. We learn about the Angel Worm, we learn a little about the four main characters, and Felix starts to realise the import of the challenge he’s been set. Part 2, the longest part, is told third person as Felix, first in a primitive shack on the Hawkesbury River and then in a motel in Katoomba, listens to tapes in which Celine and Gaby tell their stories while he tries to fashion it all into a book. Carey switches between telling us what Felix is thinking, experiencing or up to, and letting us hear Celine and Gaby on their lives and how Gaby turned into the “hacktivist” she is. There is no set pattern to the switching between these three lives, so the reader does need to pay attention, but overall I found the transitions clear.

Why did Carey change to third person voice in Part 2? I’m not sure. Perhaps it’s to reflect that Felix is not master of his own fate, that he is the pawn, or client, of those who are moving him around, just as Australia is a “client state” of the USA. Is this too fanciful? Or, is it to do with the fact that the novel is not just about politics, but also about storytelling, about whose version is most real, most relevant, to be trusted? Who is editing whom, we wonder? Felix editing Celine and Gaby’s stories, or the mysterious publisher editing Felix’s version of the story? As we are told in the last few pages:

As always, the omniscient narrator had a very wobbly grasp of what was happening.

As much as I enjoyed the book, I must say that without a re-read, I will admit to also having a wobbly grasp of some of the novel’s finer points, but I believe I got the gist.

Anyhow, I wanted to share some of Carey’s writing with you, but what? As I look through the book, I find so many parts that I loved. Some work best if you know Melbourne, others if you know the political situation, and still others if you know the plot. This one though might work. It’s a description of Coburg, the working class suburb in which Gaby’s father buys a house, to her mother’s dismay:

The street had a snotty name but the trees were weedy, starved of love, survivors with hessian bandages. Gaby was shocked by the cracks in the concrete, the lonely quiet, the little houses shrunk inside their borders, alone, disconnected. They saw a malevolent cluster of boys like rats with mullets, operating on a Datsun 240Z, roaring, revving, sending oily smoke across the intersection. One lay on the mudguard, deep into the engine, his plumber’s crack shining at the sky.

This is a little – and comparatively straight – example, but I like it.

Peter Carey, Amnesia (Review)

CareyAmnesiaHamishSomewhere 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.

Peter Carey
Hamish Hamilton, 2014
ISBN: 9781926428604

* 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!

Peter Carey, The chemistry of tears (Review)

Peter Carey Chemistry of tears bookcover

Gorgeous bookcover (Courtesy: Penguin Group, Australia)

It may sound strange, but when I think of Peter Carey, I also often think of Margaret Atwood. Their works and concerns are very different, I know, but the thing is that both produce highly varied oeuvre. They take risks; they try new forms, voices and genres. This is not to say that I only like writers who do this – after all, I love Jane Austen – but I am always intrigued to pick up a Carey or an Atwood. Consequently, I was keen to read Carey’s latest, The chemistry of tears.

As a librarian-archivist who also worked with museum materials, I was engaged from the first chapter which introduces 40-something Catherine, one of the two protagonists. She’s an horologist and senior conservator in a museum, and the novel opens with her discovery that her (secret) married lover of 13 years, another museum employee, has died. She’s devastated. She also thinks their relationship has been a secret, but soon discovers that her boss, Eric Croft, knows about it. Aware of her grief, he allocates her to a project away from the main museum building. And, he provides her with an assistant, Courtauld graduate Amanda. Catherine has been a calm, rational creature but warns us that she is now “a whirring mad machine”. Hang onto that image. The date is April 2010. Hang onto that date.

The second protagonist is Henry Brandling, who is the author of the exercise books Catherine finds in the tea chests containing her project. This project is to reconstruct a Vaucanson style Digesting Duck which Henry commissioned for his consumptive son. Henry’s part of the story takes place in 1854.

The novel is narrated pretty much alternately in first and third person voices. The first person is Catherine relating her progress with her project, and with her pervasive grief, while Henry’s story is told in third person, based on Catherine’s reading of his exercise books. Henry’s is a pretty wild story that sees him travel from England to Karlsruhe, Germany, to find someone able to make the automaton and then on to Furtwangen to oversee its construction by watchmaker Sumper. Henry’s faith in himself and the somewhat enigmatic Sumper are sorely tested as the manufacture proceeds in a rather secretive and chaotic manner within a household that also includes the moody Frau Helga, her odd but clever son, Carl the Genius, and the silversmith-cum-fairytale-collector Arnaud.  Meanwhile, in 2010, Catherine’s progress is no less erratic, due partly to her own self-centred grief-stricken behaviour and partly to the not completely transparent actions of assistant Amanda.

There were times, I must say, when I wondered if Carey were pushing his plot too hard – when Catherine’s behaviour got just a little too irrational or paranoid, or when Sumper (if not Henry) became a little too obsessive – but these times were fleeting because he always managed to pull it back just as I thought he was going over the edge.

Carey uses a whole grab-bag of devices to tell this tale. I liked the obvious but not slavish parallels between grieving Catherine and her clever but a-little-too-independent assistant Amanda, and between worried father Henry and his rather independent watchmaker Sumper. These parallels encourage us to think more deeply about what is really going on in the two domains, to consider who is rational and who isn’t, or whether no-one is. Carey also uses humour and satire, some light foreshadowing, and effective imagery, in addition to the structure and voice I’ve already described. Looked at individually, none of these is particularly innovative, but in concert they result in something rather fresh and, more than that, something that is entertaining while also challenging the intellect.

If you know Carey, though, you will know that this novel is about more than two people resolving their respective griefs. Remember my instructions in the second paragraph to hang onto an image and a date? They are clues to the bigger themes of the novel. The date, April 2010, is the date of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. This is a serious and distressing issue for Amanda. And what caused the oil spill? Why, a big machine of course. Carey’s theme, however, is a little more complex than simply demonstrating the negative effects of industrialisation, that triumph of the 19th century, on our lives today. Enter the automaton story-line …

Automata, you’ll be aware, represent scientists’ attempts to imitate life but, as Henry recognises early in his quest, they are “clever” but “soul-less” creatures. Catherine also reflects on automata in her first chapter:

But really, truly, anyone who has ever observed a successful automaton, seen its uncanny lifelike movements, confronted its mechanical eyes, any human animal remembers that particular fear, that confusion about what is alive and what cannot be born.

The plot – well, the theme – thickens, because Henry and Catherine’s automata, the duck, isn’t quite what it appears to be. And here, Carey cheekily introduces and twists the ugly duckling story because, as we learn early in the novel, the duck is in fact a swan – and a swan, in reality and myth if not in fairytale, is something both “beautiful and pitiless”. Carey uses it to suggest that science may be taken too far … and to represent …

The other big theme of science versus belief, the paradox of scientific and industrial endeavour towards perfection versus the chaos of humanity. As Eric says to Catherine late in the novel:

Do you know, I find the notion that mysteries must be solved to be very problematic. […] Why do we always wish to remove ambiguity?

Is this Carey confronting us head on with our own paradoxes? With the fact that we are happy with, want even, our modern culture’s tendency to produce open endings, to recognise that not all can be neatly explained, while at the same time expecting science to push and push and push for answers. Accepting mysterium tremendum, suggests Carey, is the stuff of life.

Lisa of ANZLitLovers also liked this novel.

Peter Carey
The chemistry of tears
Camberwell: Hamish Hamilton, 2012
ISBN: 9781926428154

(Review copy courtesy Penguin Group, Australia)

Monday musings on Australian literature: Writers from Victoria

Coat of Arms of Victoria (Australia)

Victoria's Coat of Arms (Presumed Public Domain, via Wikipedia)

Over the course of these Monday musings have been occasional posts on writers from specific geographic locations in Australia – but I have not done our two most populous regions, the states of Victoria and New South Wales. The time has come to confront there two – and so, today, I present you Victoria.

Now Victoria is a special state – not only does Mr Gums Jr live there, but its capital Melbourne was the second city to be designated as a UNESCO City of Literature! That’s a pretty impressive achievement. I have written some literary road posts on Victoria, which have mostly focused on writers and works from the past, so in this post I will, as I have done in other regional posts, list (in no particular order) five of my favourite current writers from Victoria – some were born there, some migrated there.

Helen Garner

Garner is one of our most controversial writers – and has been, really, since the publication of her first novel, Monkey Grip, which some critics argued was simply her writing her own life. They meant by this that it had no creative merit, no literary value. This didn’t deter our Helen though, and she has gone on to become one of our significant writers – of both fiction and non-fiction. She has also written some successful screenplays. She writes about relationships and the things that cause disconnects between people, no matter how much they wish it might not be so. As regular readers of this blog will know, I don’t always agree with Garner, but I am always happy to read her because the woman has style. I’ve read too many of hers to list here, but if you’d like a recommendation, please ask!

Elliot Perlman

You may not have heard of Perlman, particularly if you are not Australian, because he is not particularly prolific. The first novel of his that I read was the multiple point of view Seven types of ambiguity (which makes a sly reference to literary theorist William Empson‘s book of the same name). It’s a good, thoughtful book about love and obsession, and the ambiguities therein! I then read Three dollars which explores the question of what happens “when bad things happen to good people” and how consumerism challenges (compromises) our values. It was adapted for film, starring the gorgeous David Wenham (aka Diver Dan if you are a Sea Change fan). Both these novels are set in Melbourne. According to Wikipedia he has a third novel out this year.

Arnold Zable

If you have been reading this blog recently, Arnold Zable will need no introduction. His focus is human rights, with a particular interest in the migrant experience. I’ve read two of his novels – Cafe Scheherazade and The sea of many returns – and will happily read more. His prose is lovely, his attitude warm and generous. I’m looking forward to reading his new novel, Violin lessons.

Beverley Farmer

I’m going to throw in a somewhat forgotten, I think, writer here. Way back in 1988 when my reading group started, we focussed on Australian writers, particularly Australian women writers. One of those was Beverley Farmer. We read her collection of short stories Milk and not long after I also read her second collection of short stories, Home time. Both these were published in the 1980s. She has also written novels, and one of those writers’ notebooks, A body of water, in which she documented her ideas and thoughts over a year, the books she was reading, the people she met. I was drawn to her because of the evocative way she conveyed her experience of being a young Australian wife in a Greek village. Like Perlman, she’s not prolific, but in 2009 she was awarded the Patrick White Award (for writers who “have made a substantial contribution to Australian literature but … may not have received adequate recognition for their work”) which says something about the quality of her work.

Peter Carey

I’ll conclude on another controversial writer. People, it seems, either love him or hate him – and I fall more in the first camp. He is one of only two writers to have won the Booker Prize twice. I have by no means read all of his books but I like the fact that he takes risks in his writing. I think his Oscar and Lucinda is a worthy contender for the Great Australian Novel (should we take that notion seriously). His True history of the Kelly Gang makes a significant contribution to the Ned Kelly myth by attempting to tell the story in Kelly’s voice. It is not all “true” in the factual sense, but it contains a “truth” that Carey thought worth exploring. His most recent novel, Parrot and Olivier in Americatook more risks – in voice and subject matter. Carey, as many of you will know, now lives in New York, but he was born in Victoria – and that’s good enough for this post!

So there you are, five Victorian writers. Now’s your chance to tell me what Victorian writers you like – or simply whether the writers I’ve listed here interest you.

Peter Carey, Parrot and Olivier in America

Alexis de Tocqueville.

Alexis de Tocqueville (Presumed Public Domain, via Wikipedia)

It’s not surprising, really, that after living in America for two decades Peter Carey should turn his pen to it. Having lived in the US twice myself, I well understand the fascination of trying to understand that large and paradoxical country. In Parrot and Olivier in America, then, Carey sets out to explore America through the eyes of two men from early nineteenth century Europe: Olivier Jean-Baptiste de Clarel de Barfleur de Garmont, a French aristocrat whose parents had barely survived the French Revolution, and John ‘Parrot’ Larrit, a poor Englishman who had been brought to France as a boy by another French aristocrat.

Olivier was born in 1805, the same year that French writer and historian Alexis de Tocqueville was born. This is not a coincidence as the novel is Carey’s loose re-imagining of Tocqueville’s trip to America, with a friend, to study American prisons. Like Tocqueville, Olivier undertakes his trip with the support of the July monarchy, but Oliver’s companion is not an equal. Rather it is Parrot, servant-class and twice Olivier’s age. An unlikely pair, really, but perfect for Carey’s purposes …

… which are to pry into, poke at, and peer under that great American experiment, Democracy. Through having two protagonists of such diverse backgrounds and perspectives, Carey is able to explore the issues from different angles, that of master and servant. And through choosing the picaresque as his form (or style), he is able to do so without being ponderous. In other words, the tone is comic, as befits a picaresque novel, and the narrative comprises a series of adventures in which our “heroes”, Parrot and Olivier, meet a range of characters along the way who test them and their ideas. The novel is told in alternating, and well-differentiated, first person voices – starting with Olivier and ending, very even-handedly, with Parrot. It is basically chronological, but there are flashbacks to fill in gaps and frequent overlaps caused by one telling a story followed by the other giving his version.

That’s the nuts and bolts of it, but how does it come across? Well, in a word, exuberantly. That’s not to say it doesn’t have its serious side, but just that it’s rather fun to read. At least, it was for me, though that could be because of my personal history with America. Here, for example, are some of the observations which caught my attention:

On not needing government (Parrot talking with a tradesman):

‘When there is enough for all,’ the nail-maker said, ‘there is no need for government.’
‘But what of the poor.’
‘No man who will work can be poor.’

A little myopic methinks – but an idea that seems to be still entrenched in America?

On the focus on money and trade (Olivier):

No matter how strong their religious sentiments, or their passion about the reform of criminals, the Americans quickly revealed themselves to be obsessed with trade and money … They had got their hands on a mighty continent from which the least of them could, by dint of some effort, extract unlimited wealth. There being so much to be extracted it scarcely mattered how they were governed, because there is no need to argue when there is plenty for all.

For all, that is, if you are able to work, are not black and not indigenous! Even aristocratic Olivier noticed some of these contradictions.

On the ability to be self-made (Peek, the banker, to Olivier):

‘Experiment,’ he cried, laughing too violently for my taste. ‘There is no experiment. We make this transformation every day. It is called rags-to-riches …’

And on the possibility of art and culture in a democracy (Olivier):

… They [paintings in Philadelphia] made me think that the taste for ideal beauty – and the pleasure of seeing it depicted – can never be as intense or widespread among a democratic as an aristocratic people.

Hmm…Peter Carey is on record as expressing concern for the survival of culture. He said in his closing address at this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival that ‘We have yet to grasp the fact that consuming cultural junk … is completely destructive of democracy’. In other words, Olivier/Carey question whether “high” art and “total” democracy are mutually exclusive? Somewhat related to this is Carey’s ongoing interest (see My life as a fake, and Theft: a love story) in authenticity in art. He explores it here through Olivier’s love of art, and the artistic endeavours of several characters, including Parrot and his mistress.

As for the story itself, there is a lot to enjoy. Olivier and Parrot have a complex relationship that develops from mutual disdain to a cautious friendship as the novel progresses. For all his attempts to be open-minded, Olivier never totally accepts the notion of equality between “men”, but Parrot, from both his early training and a generous nature, manages to tolerate and even accommodate this. Besides these two, there are characters from all strata of society: aristocrats, printers, bankers, land-owners, artists, actors, and so on. And, of course, there are romances, with Olivier’s playing out to a rather ironic conclusion.

One little demur, though. The book did not really engage me emotionally – something I tend to expect in longer novels – and I wonder whether this is partly due to the picaresque genre whose episodic and comic nature can have a distancing effect. Is this a failing? I think not, but it was noticeable, and means that the writing and ideas have to be powerful enough to carry the reader along. And mostly they do here, largely due to the novel’s pacing.

So, what is Carey’s conclusion? Well, it’s pretty even-handed, with both the aristocrat and the servant summing up their experience of America. But, in a twist on Tocqueville, the last words are Parrot’s. As a reader who always looks to see if structure informs the meaning, I wonder if this tells us something. Then again, there could be an element of irony in it. However you read it, there is no real answer to the question in the epigraph:

Can it be believed that the democracy which had overthrown the feudal system and vanquished kings will retreat before tradesmen and capitalists? (Alexis de Tocqueville)

Prophetic words, eh.

Peter Carey
Parrot and Olivier in America
London: Faber and Faber, 2010
ISBN: 9780571253319