Politics and fiction collide to ill-effect in the latest offering from two-time Man Booker–winner Peter Carey
Since Peter Carey’s 1988 novel Oscar & Lucinda is one of my favourites (it was also the first of his books to win the Man Booker, followed by 2000’s True History of the Kelly Gang), I was very much looking forward to his latest endeavour, Amnesia. I read a spiral-bound advance copy that offered no clue as to the storyline but the opening pages were promising: a computer virus is released, unlocking the doors of jail cells across America, resulting in the sudden liberation of thousands of prisoners — a feat apparently coordinated by an internet genius known only as Angel.
Journalist Felix Moore — fresh from the courtroom, where he was standing trial for defamation — gets roped into this controversial case to tell the hacker’s tale in an effort to save her from extradition to the United States. Why? Turns out the hacker is a young Australian named Gaby Bailleux, and Felix has known her actress mother Celine for years — intimately, in fact. Looming about flashing wads of cash to lure Felix into doing the job is shady property developer Woody Townes.
What was Gaby’s motivation for the massive jail break? How did sweet girl turn notorious hacker? What was the relationship between Felix and Celine? Even more crucially, why is wily Woody tossing money around to save Gaby? Who has he ensnared in his schemes and exactly how nefarious are those schemes? All very promising. Plus, while Felix comes off like a shambolic cad, he’s an engaging and endearing one in many ways (I can’t help but picture Bill Nighy playing him in a movie version).
But — and it’s a big but — Carey loses the focus of the novel early on by devoting large segments of it to Australian politics and the 1975 constitutional crisis involving America. Clearly, he’s trying to establish the back stories and motivation for several characters, but with facts plunked in rather than well-integrated, the effect is that of slogging through high-school history texts. What had been established as fast-paced, intriguing fun slackens to deadly dull duty in parts.
Eventually, Felix is spirited off to a remote isle to write the book in enforced isolation — he’ll never get it done otherwise, it seems — pounding away on an Olivetti typewriter, with just a dog to keep him company, along with the voices of Celine and Gaby on a series of tapes they made to provide the background to the hacker story. Here, the novel’s theme of amnesia emerges most strongly — with shards of memory doled out in frustratingly random fragments, and Felix attempting to thread them together and form a story, or inaccurate interpretation at best.
Also emerging is Gaby’s storyline, but despite Carey having placed any number of pieces in position to show why she might have felt unloved and unsupported as a child — and while it’s true teen girls will often do anything for love — he doesn’t quite succeed in bringing her fully and truly to life, and her decisions lack true conviction. Carey’s decision to portray her through the fractured filter of Felix’s storytelling contributes to the problem: Her story is a secondhand one, seen in flashbacks blurred by the mists of time. So, while Felix snaps into sharp focus, full-colour and vibrant, Gaby remains a mere pastiche, a shadowy, black-and-white figure lurking at the edges of the frame.
I’m still determined to read more Carey. I’d particularly love to read The Chemistry of Tears, which sounds fascinating and just my sort of thing. But I was sadly disappointed with losing time on this one.