I’ve only ever read one Peter Carey novel before, the sublime Oscar and Lucinda. Unfortunately, Amnesia, Carey’s 13th novel, is nothing like Oscar and Lucinda. Amnesia is a magnificent disappointment.
The central character, Felix Moore, is a veteran of the Australian press corps, reporting on politics for most of his chequered career. Set against the backdrop of backroom intelligence shenanigans around the dismissal of the Whitlam government in 1975, and against the foreground of a colourful and somewhat unethical property developer, this book should have been right up my alley. Through the first third of the book, references abound to various shady activities that may or may not have occurred in real life, but which are chronicled at length in John Pilger’s A Secret Country. Not to mention the many references to high-profile players in Australian politics in 1975. By at about the one-third mark, the set-up was perfect, and I was expecting fireworks. Sadly, it was a complete fizzer.
At the start of the book, we learn that a computer worm has been unleashed into the system of the company that runs Australian and US prisons. Cell doors are unlocked, and prisoners escape. Around the halfway mark, the book takes a sharp turn, and turns into a reminiscence, told through Moore, of Gaby, who is suspected of unleashing the worm and is now in hiding. It tells of her teenage years, her crush on a computer nerd, and how they discover hacking. It tells of their years of schoolyard ostracism (born of their own feelings of superiority, I think), which inexplicably lead up to political ‘hacktivism’ in the form of exposing an agricultural chemical company, which has been illegally dumping chemical waste into a sewer.
So there’s a fair amount of good material in the mix – the 1975 bits, the teenage angst bits, and the activism bits. But I felt these three elements had been inelegantly mashed together, and none of them are brought to any satisfying resolution. Some of the very best literature seamlessly weaves interconnected storylines together, but in this case, finesse was left at the front door.
This novel should have been a complete page-turner, but I had to force myself to finish it. By the time the meaning of the book’s title is revealed, right towards the end, I no longer cared, and I wished I had amnesia.