A left-wing journalist is recruited by a dubious property developer to write the biography of a hacker, who recently created a virus that released every prisoner in America and Australia. You’d think such a premise would lead to a cyber-thriller, but instead Peter Carey weaves around the concept a disjointed meditation on Australian political history, its resentful relationship with America and social alienation.
I call Amnesia disjointed because while there are many sequences that would make fine short stories on their own, as a whole the novel feels like a shaggy dog story. When I finished it, I thought to myself, ‘Sure, that was fun Peter Carey, but what was the point?’ My favourite sequence was the part where an Australian girl is impregnated by an American serial killer before the Battle of Brisbane. The last third of the book, which was a tense family drama a federal Labor MP, his bohemian wife and their hacker daughter, was also excellent. Narrated in first person, Amnesia is presented as the text written by the journalist as he tries to make sense of these stories and how he can use them to humanise the hacker. It is his subplot that is weakest, and it is Carey’s failure to give his story a satisfactory conclusion that undermines the novel as a whole.
About a third of the way through the novel Carey abandons the quotation mark completely. This begins when the journalist is listening to the tapes he’s meant to write a book about, so I’m guessing that the reason for their absence is that real life speech doesn’t include punctuation marks. Still bothers me. I like knowing where the dialogue ends and the narration begins.
You’ll get more out of this book if you’re Australian, particularly if you’re familiar with Gough Whitlam and the circumstances in which he lost power. Even more gratifying, the subplot about the MP’s family was set in a part of Melbourne with which I’m very familiar. Growing up on a steady diet of American and British media, I’ve come to accept that New York is a magical place where Spiderman swings from skyscrapers while London is attacked by aliens every Christmas. Meanwhile in Amnesia one of Carey’s characters runs down College Crescent, a street that I’ve actually walked on. Now that’s actually authenticity that means something to me!
If you’re some sort of overseas Aussiephile looking for your hit of Australiana, you might find it here. The journalist does most of his work in a shack in Bacchus March, and the narration takes note of the all the picturesque birds that live there. The part about the MP’s family is a fairly accurate portrait of Carlton. And the characters talk like actual Australians. But the main thing that this book will teach you about Australia is Carey’s opinion of the nation’s politics – you might find that interesting.
I’ve read The True History of the Kelly Gang, Exotic Pleasures, and now Amnesia, but so far I haven’t read any book that justifies Carey’s massive reputation. I enjoyed the last two books, so I’m still willing to give him another chance. Amnesia is a book for Australians old enough to remember Gough Whitlam, Zork fans and anyone smart enough to wrap their heads around the nested narratives of Frankenstein or Tristram Shandy.