Book review: Amnesia (2014)

Amnesia.Amnesia by Peter Carey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve long been a fan of Peter Carey’s work, so I was pleased to be given Amnesia as a birthday present. I was further pleased to discover that, though the work is flawed, he’s created here one of his more memorable characters – Felix Moore, a weakling, a drinker, a leftie and crucially, a journalist.

Having worked in the industry for years, the portraiture is remarkably accurate. There’s a quote in it,

“I had a lifetime of hard-won technical ability but was my heart sufficient… Did I have the courage for something more than a five-column smash and grab?”

which pretty much encapsules the mind of the jobbing journo in a few scant lines.

What’s interesting is that Moore, with all his failings (and his increasingly castaway facial hair and tendency to write the story he wants to, not the story he’s hired to write) is a stand-in for Carey to a certain extent: he came from the same place (Bacchus Marsh) and has similar forebears. It’s a neat little observation on the obsessiveness of creativity, even where history is concerned.

History is, of course, a Carey hallmark. Here, he turns an excoriating eye on Australian-US relations, on World War II, and on the history of our government – particularly the 1975 dismissal of the Whitlam government. There’s more anger here than I’ve heard in his work of late, and it’s great – the true sadness and frustration over missed chances by Labor, the regret of getting fucked by your allies, and the terrible way politicians are hamstrung by process.

I’ve read a bit of criticism that the blurb on the work doesn’t reflect what’s within. Given the vagaries of publishing marketing, it’s a bit of a stretch to lay this at Carey’s door; some PR wonk latched on to the terrorism implied in Gaby’s actions and used it to flog the work. But anyone who’s read any of the author’s work would surely be able to tell you that “techno-thriller” is not his stock-in-trade.

(Also, fuck the blurb. Read something – or a selection of reviews, even – and make up your own mind, goddamn it.)

As it is, this isn’t a techno-thriller, though technology does play a large role. The basic story of the work is that Gaby Baillieux releases a computer worm which opens prisons worldwide. Shady developer Woody Townes pays her bail, and hires Felix to write her story to turn the tide of public opinion. What results is a meditation on Gaby’s youth, and on Felix’s, particularly with reference to politics, the birth of online communication and programming. You’re probably not too interested about ZIL, the language used to create the interactive fiction classic Zork, but Carey’s characters are, and the research and presentation is solid. There’s a mix of programming language and teenspeak that’s evocative and appealing.

People complaining about the Australian idiom and floral namechecking in this work obviously haven’t read much of Carey’s work. Even though he’s a resident of NYC (and has been since the early 1990s) it’s obvious he’s still very much here, spiritually. The difference here, perhaps, is that there’s the addition of ’80s teenage cant to the mix; it’s not just the Struth Generation that’s mined here for verbiage. Is this offputting to non-Australians? Maybe. But then they won’t get the references to the Cosmic Psychos, either, but I don’t know that this is a reasonable enough reason for shitcanning an otherwise enjoyable and interesting work.

Amnesia is worth a read. Is it Carey’s best? No, it’s not. It’s confused, and the blurb probably sets people up for something Tom Clancy when this author is anything but. It’s best appreciated by someone who knows a little about Australian history (or who is prepared to do a bit of research) and about Australian personalities of the business and arts world. (Woody is basically Kerry Packer with concrete instead of printers’ ink for blood, a reference which probably makes no sense unless you know about media holdings and alleged shiftiness in the Australia of the 1980s.) So in that respect, the barrier to enjoyment is quite high. The book fragments and loses its train of thought, and though it might be a bit much to say that this is a reflection of its written architect, Felix, Carey’s canny enough to have written it that way.

The book isn’t boring, as some would have you believe. You just have to be speaking the same language. It’s not Oscar and Lucinda, but what is?

My Goodreads profile is here.

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