Peter Carey is a celebrated Australian novelist and has won the Booker Prize twice, the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize twice and the Miles Franklin Literary Award three times. None of those awards were in relation to Amnesia and for good reason. It’s not of a standard that would attract the attention of even the most lenient reputable literary judge.
The blurb tells the potential reader that Amnesia is a story about Gaby Baillieux, a hacker who releases malware that causes prison doors to spring open across Australia and the US, and about Felix Moore, the journalist fresh from losing a defamation case who is asked to write the hacker’s biography.
I’ve written previously about books that use writers’ tricks and there’s one on prominent display here. Gaby Baillieux doesn’t appear until page 127 when chapter 24 begins. She sticks around for exactly one chapter and then disappears again, not re-emerging until chapter 38 on page 370 – which is the second last chapter. And she’s not in the last chapter either. Throughout the rest of the book she appears only on cassette tapes being listened to by Felix Moore as he attempts to construct her biography from his subject dictating her life.
So what is supposed to be a story about Gaby Baillieux is, in fact, a story about a story (the biography) about a story (on the tapes). And for most of the novel, the story on the tapes is about a selfish, boring, whiny, thinks-she’s-going-through-something-no-one-else-has-ever-been-through-before teenager in a mundane love affair with an eyeshadow-wearing, uncommunicative, what-does-she-see-in-him, I-swear-he’s-not-autistic girl-boy (not my description) who suffers from nothing more than a criminal father and a stoner mother.
In Gaby’s defence, she admits she’s selfish and unlikeable frequently and Felix, as her biographer, seems to agree. He writes her biography anyway, despite being kidnapped twice (it’s not always clear by who), solely by listening to the tapes and using a typewriter so the sensitive material can’t be accessed except by those who know where he and the reams of paper are. Felix is just as unlikeable and as he morphs from a Sydney journalist into a bedraggled, bearded, hygiene-deficient hermit, he only becomes more so. In fact, there’s not a single likeable person in the entire novel.
Weaved into the narrative are a few select incidents from Australian history, including the Battle of Brisbane (two days of gunfights between visiting US soldiers and the Australian diggers sore over girls choosing the Yanks to be romantic with) and the 1975 dismissal of the Australian Whitlam Government (which was actually, apparently, a coup engineered by the US Government).
As Felix writes, his pages are confiscated for “editing” without his input and this feels like Peter Carey’s dig at the relationship he has with his own editors. I wondered if maybe they gave him his wish with this novel and just left him to it because for a literary novel, this was one of the worst edited pieces I have read. It is full of missing commas, missing full stops, typos and sentences that make no sense.
Most of the novel feels like a lecture being shouted at the reader about how we should be able to see the grand conspiracies going on around us and that pretty much everyone is in on it and those that aren’t in on it aren’t doing enough if they aren’t hacking and releasing malware. The result is a bloated, pretentious, confused, perspective-shifting, unnecessarily vague book filled with unrealistic, stereotypical characters, a boring plot (if you can even call it that – the supposed story, about the malware that causes all the doors to the prisons to open, is never explored and in the end blatantly ignored) and dialogue where characters talk at each other, essentially having two separate conversations at once, without revealing anything or moving the story forward. There is such an obsession with history and how everyone is connected in the past that the present never really has a chance to be discovered. You almost wonder why the author bothered with the prison storyline apart from the fact that it gave him the opening that results in the rest of the story.
This is the first Peter Carey book I’ve read and I’m willing to be generous and say perhaps I started with the wrong one. But I’m a little surprised that this novel came from someone who has received as many awards as he has. Not recommended.
*First published on Goodreads 15 October 2015