You could be forgiven, in reading the back cover of Peter Carey’s latest book, that you were going to be reading a radically different kind of Peter Carey novel. On the back cover, there is talk of computer viruses, malware, cyberwar, terrorism, hackers, radicals, activism. It sounds more like a William Gibson novel at cursory glance. But it isn’t a William Gibson novel. And neither is it a radically different Peter Carey novel. “How did a young woman from suburban Melbourne become America’s Public Enemy Number One?” Wow. Sounds Thrilling, eh? Sounds like a William Goldman novel. But it isn’t a William Goldman novel either. It lacks the propulsive narrative of His Illegal Self, the last Carey novel to occupy a similar space, choosing instead to marry the picaresque quality of a book like Parrot & Olivier in America to a contemporary backdrop. If, like me, you’ve ever been frustrated by Carey’s more boorish narrators, or more meandering plots, Amnesia is unlikely to make you see what his fans see. You may even be somewhat infuriated by the back cover’s attempt to suggest this is a different kind of book.
Let’s have a quick wander through the plot, shall we? You’ll have to forgive a small handful of spoilers, but then no-one (I’m sure) reads Carey for the surprising twists and turns. This is a book that is badged as the story of a young hacker-activist who releases a virus that opens up prison doors in both Australia and the US, thereby rendering her an international terrorist the US wish to extradite, who goes on the run. What this book is actually about, for the most part, is a journalist called Felix Moore who we first meet as he emerges from court, in apparent disgrace (much like Mikael Blomkvist at the start of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), ruined, soon to lose his wife and burn down his shed. “I had published several books, fifty features, a thousand columns,” he tells us.
“I was an aging breadwinner with a ridiculous mortgage. I had therefore been a screenwriter and a weekend novelist. I had written both history and political satire, thrillers, investigative crime. The screen adaptation of my novel Barbie and the Deadheads was workshopped at Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute.”
At which point he is approached by his ‘old mate’ Woody “Wodonga” Townes to tell the true story of Gaby Baillieux, the aforementioned hacker-activist, in order to get the Australian public on her side and somehow stop the US authorities from getting their hands on her. Only Woody doesn’t know where she is. And neither does Gaby’s mum Celine, who Felix knew back in the day. 26 pages to get to the set-up, you might think. Okay. That isn’t so bad. Let’s crack on then, eh? Ah but no. First we need a couple of chapters in which we learn how Felix and Celine came to know each other (he loved her for a bit, from afar, she was interesting, of course). Felix is set up in Eureka Tower in Melbourne, Australia’s tallest residential building (and we wonder briefly if the book is going to follow a similar path to Tim Winton’s recent Eyrie – it doesn’t), where he drinks a lot, spazzes out a bit about the view from his window, flirts with Celine, thinks about playing Ornette Coleman and wonders just how Gaby can get in touch with him. Felix talks to one of her old teachers. He studies the extradition treaty between Australia and the US. Woody tells him to write something and he complains that he has nothing to write about (because it’s p50 and he hasn’t met Gaby yet). He falls asleep. Is woken by hail at the window. Sees Woody and Celine reading his notes. Learns they don’t actually know where Gaby is. Again. Then a guy called George sticks him in the boot of his car and drives off with him. 45 km from Melbourne he meets Celine again. Then we have three chapters about Celine’s grandmother. I kid you not. P100 comes and goes. We haven’t met Gaby yet.
Along the way, there are moments where you spy affecting bits of writing, like this:
“November was a lovely time of year in Brissy. The tram had open sides and swayed and snaked towards the city and the girl sat up straight with her hands in her lap, seemingly unaware that she was beautiful. No-one dared to speak to her.”
More often, however, you think for fuck’s sake, man – get on with it. Roundabout 130 pages in, we meet Gaby for the first time and are introduced to a news story (what Felix tells us is ‘the obsession of my erratic and mostly unsuccessful life’) that is probably unfamiliar to UK audiences, how the US effectively dismissed the Australian government in 1975 and used the media to tell the story they wanted telling. There is maybe a 12 page section in which in which Carey makes the case: ‘It is therefore not insane to write about [Gaby]’s life and activism in relation to this long-forgotten history.’ It kind of is, the reader thinks. Or it’s a stretch. But hey, it’s Peter Carey’s book. He’s set out his table. Let’s see where he takes us eh?
Where he takes us is twelve hours north of Melbourne, first in a Corolla and then in an aluminium dinghy, ‘past the crouching beast of Lion Island’, ‘barrelling and bluffing up across what is called Pittwater’, before ending up on ‘the southern bank of a creek, or was it the eastern bank,’ at a one room hut. Here he is expected to work through a bag of tapes, recorded by Gaby and Celine, that tell the whole story – and that is what we get from this point, Celine’s story and Gaby’s story, intercut with Felix’s story, as he struggles without alcohol in the hut, typing away, with odd visits from the likes of Woody. If you’ve arrived at this point in the review and you’re thinking, blimey, this sounds cracking, mate, then you’re in luck because the book actually does pick up a little here (not to the extent that Andrew Motion felt it did in his – let’s be generous – excitable review in the Guardian recently – Mr Carey is not Mr Dickens, Mr Motion, no matter how many times you repeat it – which is every time you review a new Peter Carey book for the Guardian, just about, isn’t it?). Celine and her old man, a Labour MP, don’t really rub along, and Gaby is her daddy’s girl for a bit until she isn’t, essentially. Even good men get corrupted, it seems – or good men realise that you have to be pragmatic and accept certain sacrifices if you want to accomplish some good.
By the time you get to p333, which is almost the end, Gaby has her enemies in clear sight and Carey appears to be drawing similar conclusions to Owen Jones’ recent book, The Establishment, which are good conclusions to be drawing, and exactly the sort of stuff that fiction should be addressing – but it’s taken 333 pages to get to this point and we can’t help but think, you know what, if this is the way that you lean politically, you are far better off reading Owen Jones than Peter Carey. You could also watch Kelly Reichardt movie, Night Moves, which is tremendous and, again, does something similar to what Peter does but doesn’t take so goddamned long to do it. Not that I imagine he cares a jot, but if Peter Carey, or his publishers, are interested in what we think, he should maybe try his hand at a short book or two. Fasten his kite to a plot with wheels and take us somewhere. Go lean. Go dense, if you must, too. Just jettison the boors and the bores. We’re done with them. This horse has been well and truly flogged. You’ve shown in His Illegal Self that you can rein yourself in. So rein yourself in again. Rein yourself in more than you ever have before. Tell us a story. Leave the technique at home. We’ve all seen your tricks. You’ve won awards. Now settle down a bit and write something that people may actually want to read.
Any Cop?: A chore at times, if we’re being honest, and quite possibly – you never know – not for the likes of us. But we’ve enjoyed Peter Carey books in the past (we have), and we possibly could again, but our patience isn’t infinite and we’re not going to go on reading books like this. No sir.