Peter Carey’s Hidden History

Amnesia

by Peter Carey
Knopf, 307 pp., $25.95
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Peter Carey in northwestern Australia, circa 2015

It is not hard to see Felix Moore, the supposed writer of Amnesia, as an alter ego of the novel’s actual author, Peter Carey. Moore is a muckraking Australian journalist, but also a sometime novelist, most notably of the soon-to-be-filmed satire Barbie and the Deadheads. He is, throughout the book, a writer in search of a character, attempting to construct from vague and contradictory impressions a life that could inhabit his pages. He types on an old Olivetti, as Carey did in his early days. He even refers to himself, ironically, as a national treasure—a description that applies without the irony to Carey himself.

More importantly, Carey gives Moore aspects of his own biography. They seem to be roughly the same age (Carey is seventy-two). Both grew up in the wonderfully named Bacchus Marsh, a small, working-class town west of Melbourne. Moore remembers his father worrying about selling cars in his Ford dealership—Carey’s own father ran a General Motors dealership, which is reimagined as Catchprice Motors in the 1991 novel The Tax Inspector. Moore studied science, as Carey did in 1961, at the then newly opened Monash University in a Melbourne suburb, choosing, as Carey did when he rejected the much more high-toned Melbourne University, “a university with no cloisters, no quadrangles, no suck-up colleges, no private school boys.” Even the windowless hut in the rain forest, where Moore writes much of Amnesia, seems to recall the forest commune in which Carey himself lived in the mid-1970s.

And yet Felix Moore is something of a buffoon. He can, it is true, write a mean sentence: his rich friend Woody “peed so long and loud I knew he was showing off his prostate operation.” He declares himself “our sole remaining left-wing journalist”; “a socialist and a servant of the truth.” He takes pride in his mission “to be a shit-stirrer, a truffle hound for cheats and liars and crooks amongst the ruling classes.” He even hazards at one point a comparison of himself to Tolstoy. But it is obvious to the reader that Felix is an unreliable narrator, not least in his heroic self-image.

The high entertainment value of the wonderfully engaging opening section of Amnesia derives from Felix’s haplessness. He sees his “erratic and mostly unsuccessful life” as proof of his virtue in a society where only the bad are rewarded, but it also owes much to his infinite capacity to screw things up. At the beginning we find him losing a ruinous libel trial because he has, as he puts it himself, “reported a rumour” as fact. This enhances his self-esteem (“I was proud to be sued, reviled, scorned, to be called a loser by the rewriters of press releases”) but it puts the reader on notice: Felix’s hold on truth is tenuous—he is widely mocked as Felix “Moore-or-less-correct.” It is also…



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