Monday, November 17, 2014

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books

“AMNESIA” by Peter Carey (Penguin / Hamish Hamilton, $NZ40)

In many of his thirteen novels so far, American-resident Peter Carey (now aged 71) has reflected on his native Australia in ways that mix realism with myth (or magical realism) the better to bring out major themes in Australian history. I’m one of those unpatriotic New Zealanders who think that Carey’s Illywhacker (1985) was a much stronger novel than the New Zealand contestant the bone people, which won the Booker Prize in the same year that Illywhacker was short-listed. Carey, however, has subsequently won the Booker twice with novels that have nineteenth century Australian settings, Oscar and Lucinda (1988) and (my favourite Carey to date) True History of the Kelly Gang (2000). The first of them deals, in mythic terms, with the “gamble” that Anglo-Australians took in coming to Australia; the second with the rebellious and “larrikin” Irish contribution.  Then there was another strong Carey, Jack Maggs (1997), which took Dickens’ convict hero Magwich and told his story without the Dickensian euphemisms and in a way that made his Australian experience more central.
Given that Carey has lived in New York for the last two decades (and has dual Australian-American citizenship), I’m surprised that he hasn’t reflected more often on America in his novels. The last Carey I read was Parrot and Olivier in America (2010), which is essentially a fictionalised version of Alexis de Tocqueville’s 19th century observations of the United States. Otherwise, Australia is Peter Carey’s mental and imaginative home.
In Amnesia, however, Carey puts Australia and America in collision. He takes a big and imaginative swipe at the matter of Australian-American relations in a style that is part satire and part allegory, and relevant to the age of cyber-hacking.
Pardon one of my inevitable part-synopses to set things up.
Rumpled old left-wing Australian journalist Felix Moore has just been dumped on by the courts for libel and has been ordered to have his latest book pulped. Financially ruined, he is ready to accept any project that will pay, so long as it accords with his political beliefs. And he is handed a beaut. His old wide-boy and property-developer chum Woody Townes, who rolls in money, commissions him to write a biography of a young woman called Gaby (Gabrielle) Baillieux. She is charged with releasing a virus, the Angel Worm, into the federal computer system, which controls Australia’s jails. Hence jail doors have sprung open all over the country and prisoners have walked free. But the security systems of Aussie jails depend on American technology, which the computer virus has also affected – so American jail doors also spring open. Gaby is now denounced as a secret-spilling traitor by both Australian and American security services, and has been whisked into hiding by supporters. (Think Australian Julian Assange… or American Edward Snowden).
Woody Townes (a very ambiguous character, because we are never sure if he is really Felix’s friend or foe) says he wants Felix to write a book that will make Gaby look good and swing public opinion her way.
Of himself and his commission, Felix Moore remarks:
I had not, previously, been thought of as the kind of writer who might make a difficult character loveable… As a journalist it was my talent to be a shit-stirrer, a truffle hound for cheats and liars and crooks among the ruling classes. These pugnacious habits had served me well for a whole career…” (p.134)
Felix has a backstory with Gaby’s mother the actress Celine Baillieux, who is the daughter of an Aussie woman raped by an American soldier during the Second World War. (Historical brawls between Aussie and Yank soldiers are referenced). Here’s a clear symbol of the Australian love-hate for America as the country that saved Australia during war, but that has subsequently sought to dominate its destiny. And there’s a second big symbol. Celine gave birth to Gaby in 1975, on the very day of the “coup” that took Gough Whitlam out of power. Many on the left in Australia (including Carey) believe Gough Whitlam’s removal to have been a CIA-organised plot, for which the Murdoch and Packer press acted as cheerleaders.
Everything we knew from life suggested that America could do what it liked and Australia would behave like the client state it always was”, remarks Felix Moore (p.50), who also characterises Australia’s security service ASIO as “the CIA’s bum boys”. He knows that the young woman whose life he is researching will as likely, if caught, end up in an American jail as an Australian one.
Amnesia. The very title suggests a reminder not to forget what has happened in the recent past to shape Australia. So, as Felix Moore sets about researching, and as he recalls episodes in his past relationship with Gaby’s mother Celine, and as he is hustled for results by the ambiguous and sinister Woody, we think we are in for a highly political novel satirising Australian-American relations.
And so we are – but not quite in the manner we expect.
Carey is a master of the unexpected switch, after all. The first third Amnesia is narrated in the first person by Felix Moore, ever ready to spout his political views. Thereafter, it switches into a different mode, with an omniscient narrator mingling with the voices of mother Celine and daughter Gaby as they emerge through the documents and recorded interviews that are Felix’s research materials.
Having set up the issue of American cultural colonialism in Australia, Carey warns against a different sort of amnesia – the sort that would forget what political Australia is really made of in the first place. For in Gaby’s parents, radical leftie actress Celine and middle-of-the-road Labor Party hack Sandy Quinn, Carey ruthlessly dramatises the disunity and political impotence of the Australian left (a bit like the New Zealand left at the moment). Celine is almost “radical chic”, resenting the fact that she has to live among real working class people in the Melbourne suburb of Coburg. “She would rather die than have a backyard, or a Hills Hoist or a barbecue or a privet hedge” remarks the omniscient narrator (p.171). She rows endlessly with her husband Sandy; and Sandy in turn is appalled that their daughter Gaby is sucked in by utopian greenies who don’t know the reality of politics. Alienated from both parents much of the time, Gaby draws closer to the guy who teaches her how powerful a tool computer hacking can be.
And as Gaby’s fate unravels (with a couple of powerful twists en route), Carey paints a hard, bitter picture of a hellish life in the poorer Australian suburbs, sometimes mingled with the rage of the daughter who feels both her parents have let her down. Her thoughts turn apocalyptic and destructive as when she observes:
 The stupid magpies went on carolling and the stupid sky was a cloudless blue and the stupid Sydney Road continued to carry its trucks and cars north across the dreary bluestone plains made in days when volcanoes vomited across the future suburbs, and streams of lava ran like toffee, pooling in the hollows up to sixty metres deep. Liquid basalt spewed from her chest and rolled down the Merri Creek, boiling eels, and sending blazing wallabies to spread fire through bush.” (p.211)
It is characteristic of Carey to start at one point and proceed to take you somewhere quite unexpected. In Amnesia, having registered his protest at Australia’s inability to control its own fate on the world stage, he proceeds to pick apart the weaknesses of Australians themselves.
This is one of his best novels, as funny as it is tragic (especially in the figure of dogged and put-upon Felix Moore), surprising, and hard-nosed in its details even when it is taking the piss.

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