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 inadequate. The writer who appears at the start of Amnesia as the subject of the tabloid headline “Pants on Fire” will admit at the end that “as always, the omniscient narrator had a very wobbly grasp of what was happening.”
Untrustworthy narrators are, of course, nothing new in Carey’s novels. The prodigious liar Herbert Badgery, who spins his outlandish family saga in Illywhacker in 1985, is prefigured by the advertising puff merchant Harry Stanthorpe Joy in Bliss (1981) and followed by the hoaxer Christopher Chubb in My Life as a Fake (2003). But Felix is much more ridiculous than such figures—where they delight in fabrications, he is sincere in his image of himself as a brave truth-teller, even when he is revealing himself to be a liar and a coward.
Carey, moreover, goes very far in establishing Felix as a fall guy. In the opening pages, he is financially ruined by the libel trial, rendered unemployable by the exposure of his tendency to make up quotes, made homeless when he drunkenly burns his house down while following the court’s order to destroy all copies of his offending book, and loses the wife he adores when her exasperation at his serial screwups finally trumps her love of his quixotic risk-taking. Thereafter, and for the rest of the book, Felix is bought, bullied, humiliated, manipulated, used, and kept in the dark. We encounter him drunk, dizzy with vertigo, locked in the trunk of a car, imprisoned in a motel, burning his hands, falling down a cliff.
All of which raises an obvious question: Why does Carey make the alter ego to whom he gives so many aspects of his own life such a hapless character? Because he needs Felix as a shield against his own earnestness. Carey seems acutely aware that Amnesia is, or threatens to be, a kind of novel he hasn’t written before. It is not, at heart, a fable or a fabrication or a staggering act of historical ventriloquism like True History of the Kelly Gang (2000). The dazzling inventiveness that characterizes his best work is not attempted here.
Carey seems drawn, rather, toward an almost polemical book, a kind of hidden history of Australia in his own lifetime and, in particular, of the relationship between Australia and the United States. Two things seem clear about Amnesia—that Carey wants to write a directly political book and that he hesitates to do so. Hence Felix Moore—a kind of Peter Carey with some of the views that Carey wants to express but a figure of fun who is not to be taken quite seriously. Felix embodies an ambiguity that is implicit not just in his character, but in his creation.
Ostensibly, the political subject of Amnesia is very much of the moment. On the day of Felix’s humiliation in his libel trial, another prisoner is granted bail in another court in Sydney. Gaby Baillieux, the thirty-year-old daughter of a famous Melbourne actress and her estranged husband, an MP for the Labor Party, has been charged with a sensational act of computer sabotage. She is thought to be “Angel,” the super-hacker who inserted a worm into the control systems for Australia’s prisons, opening all the locks. Because the Australians were using American software, the worm also acts on thousands of US prisons and jails and on black sites in other parts of the world where rendered prisoners are being held. Because of this, Gaby is apparently in danger of being extradited to the US where she might face the death penalty. (The House majority leader, we learn, has called for her execution.)
Felix, now down and out, is approached by his old friend and “fan” Woody Townes, a wealthy property developer and veteran supporter of left-wing causes, with an enticing proposition. Woody will pay him to write a quick biography of Gaby Baillieux. Its aim will be, as Woody tells Felix, to “Australianise” her:
His role will be to properly educate the Australian public who are naturally inclined to believe the Americans are over-reaching again. Once Felix writes the story, she’ll be Gaby from Coburg. She won’t lose any points for pissing off the Yanks. No-one will want to hand her over.
This is an offer Felix can’t refuse. It comes with a juicy advance, which will repair his financial losses. The exclusive story will make him relevant again. And if this were not enough, he has been enraptured since his days at Monash by Gaby’s mother, the now famous actress Celine Baillieux, who looks like Julie Christie. Celine also wants him to write the book. And in his eagerness to comply, Felix neglects to figure out exactly which book that would be.
There are, it turns out, at least four possible versions of the story. Woody, who gradually becomes as sinister as he is preposterous, wants to control it for dark purposes of his own—Celine suspects him of working for the intelligence services. Celine wants Felix to show that her daughter is in fact innocent, that she could never have been capable of such sophisticated sabotage. Gaby, as we will gradually discover, has her own reasons for wanting the book written and her own uses for it when it has been finished.
And Felix himself, who knows nothing of the cyber underworld, is determined to project onto Gaby his own obsession with US control of Australia. He wants her not merely not to be innocent, but to be an avenging angel, deliberately at war with the US. While trying to advance his own agenda, Felix is successively controlled by the other three. Moving from Woody’s clutches to Celine’s to Gaby’s, he becomes simultaneously a prisoner and a fugitive, constructing Gaby’s character and early history from contradictory reminiscences taped by her and her mother.
Yet if this implies that Amnesia has something to say about the world of WikiLeaks, Anonymous, and Edward Snowden, the implication is misleading. The cyberattack that is the trigger for the action all but disappears into the novel’s undergrowth. We do not, in fact, find out anything about how it was done or what its full intentions might have been. The story that Felix manages to put together stops far short of the actual attack, with Gaby still a teenager. It is rather apt that the technologies at Felix’s disposal—cassette tapes and a typewriter—are predigital. The emotional heart of the book lies in a period long before the Internet—to be precise in November 1975.
The great Australian constitutional crisis—what Felix insists on calling “the coup”—then came to a head when the unelected governor-general, Sir John Kerr, representative of Queen Elizabeth, dismissed the Labor Party prime minister Gough Whitlam and replaced him with Malcolm Fraser, the leader of the conservative opposition. (Poignantly, both men have died in recent months, giving Amnesia a kind of topicality Carey would not have intended.) The “coup” was preceded by a concerted campaign of disinformation and concocted scandals that weakened Whitlam’s government.
There have long been allegations that the CIA had a part in engineering Whitlam’s downfall. The Labor government had angered the US by withdrawing support for the Vietnam War, opposing nuclear weapons testing, and raising questions about the secret US-operated signals intelligence center at Pine Gap, near Alice Springs. Felix is obsessed with these events and with the alleged US role in them and determined that Gaby’s hacking be linked to them, thus dispelling the “Great Amnesia” into which they have disappeared.
He traces that amnesia back to the presence of US troops in Australia during World War II—a large section of the book is taken up with the story of Celine’s mother’s youth in Brisbane, culminating in 1942 in her rape and impregnation by an American soldier who is also a serial killer, Edward Leonski, known as the “Brownout Strangler.” (Leonski is a historical figure and Carey’s version of him in Amnesia follows the factual record.) Thus, Gaby carries in her blood the memory of an American crime and, as she is born at the moment Whitlam is dismissed in 1975, she symbolically inherits another.
Amnesia is not the first of Carey’s novels to have the 1975 crisis as a brooding background. It is woven into the texture of his much more substantial and formally ambitious 1994 novel, The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith. The contrast between the two books is as stark as it is illuminating, all the more so because they share so much. Tristan Smith, like Amnesia, is a rumination on Australia’s subservient relationship to the US. The eponymous Tristan is remarkably similar to Gaby—a lost child who enters a strange imaginative world. Tristan’s mother Felicity, like Celine, is a beautiful actress who is involved with a radical theater collective. Tristan’s putative father Vincent is, like Gaby’s father Sando, a rising Labor Party operative. The relationships between Felicity and Vincent and between Celine and Sando follow similar trajectories.
Yet in Tristan Smith everything is oblique whereas in Amnesia everything is literal. The difference can be summed up as that between, on the one side, Gulliver’s Travels and Tristram Shandy (the models for Tristan Smith), and on the other a John le Carré thriller, whose form (though not style) Amnesia follows. In the earlier book, the facts of 1975 and the relationship between Australia and the US are a springboard for Carey’s daring back flip into baroque invention. In the 2015 version, those same facts are a solid but rather flat surface.
In Tristan Smith, Australia is called Efica and the US is Voorstand. “The alliance between the parliamentary democracies of Voorstand and Efica is built on three areas of joint co-operation—Defence, Navigation, Intelligence—DNI.” The Labor Party is the Blue Party, the conservatives the Red Party. Tristan is born in the year 371, not, like Gaby, in 1975. Both Efica and Voorstand have cultures as strange and familiar to us as Lilliput or Brobdingnag and Carey imagines them as thoroughly as Swift delineates his islands. His writing is densely textured, the allegory rich. Yet within it the features of the 1975 “coup” are clearly present. Tristan footnotes his autobiography with explanations of the events—the concocted scandals, the VIA (Voorstand Intelligence Agency), the DoS (Department of Supply, a version of the Australian spy service ASIO):
The two services worked closely at all times, it sometimes being said that the DoS’s loyalty lay with the VIA, not with the elected government of Efica.
The Pine Gap facility is a “navigation cable” and “an issue which divided Eficans. Supporters of the Blue Party…felt those unexplained cables to be a humiliating invasion, a reminder of our craven servility to another power.” In some ways, the “coup” is even more deeply embedded in the emotional soil of Tristan Smith than it is in Amnesia: the key event of the boy’s life is the murder of his mother by the intelligence services.
In Amnesia, however, the historical facts are stripped of their protective layers of fable and fantasy and stand quite naked before us, fictionalized only to the extent that they are filtered through Felix’s unreliable and obsessional cast of mind. At times, even these fictional devices recede and Amnesia reads like straightforward political-historical polemic. Carey reprints parts of an editorial from the Australian newspaper on the thirtieth anniversary of the crisis, and extensive excerpts of a secret cable between the CIA and the ASIO, concerning Gough Whitlam’s threats to examine Pine Gap:
CIA CANNOT SEE HOW THIS [public dialogue] CAN DO OTHER THAN BLOW THE LID OFF THOSE INSTALLATIONS WHERE THE PERSONS CONCERNED HAVE BEEN WORKING AND WHICH ARE VITAL TO BOTH OF OUR SERVICES AND COUNTRIES, PARTICULARLY THE INSTALLATIONS AT ALICE SPRINGS…. THIS MESSAGE SHOULD BE REGARDED AS AN OFFICIAL DEMARCHE ON A SERVICE TO SERVICE LINK….
This is not Carey’s invention or, indeed, Felix Moore’s. What we get are edited extracts from a cable of November 10, 1975, two days before Whitlam was removed from office. It is a public document: Whitlam read it into the record of the Australian Parliament in May 1977. We are, in dealing with the relationship between factual reportage and artistic invention, a very long way from Efica.
This is, for Carey, a paradoxically bold move. He has used a “found” text before—Ned Kelly’s Jerilderie Letter is the basis for the voice Carey so brilliantly elaborates in True History of the Kelly Gang—but never in the polemical way that this and other documents are deployed in Amnesia. It is fascinating to find one of contemporary literature’s great fabricators exploring the use of raw fact. It is like meeting a famous tightrope walker ambling along an ordinary street, or a magician who makes doves disappear up his sleeve suddenly giving a talk on the anatomy of doves. Having explored so many other possibilities for storytelling, from picaresque to pastiche to hoax to allegory, Carey’s lurch toward the literal can be seen as another experiment in form.
As an experiment, though, it is only partly successful. Amnesia is at its strongest when the events of 1975 cast the longest and deepest shadows. “Our victory,” says Felix, “was built on the mad idea we would not be punished.” Running through much of the book is an unstated but powerful feeling that the “coup” is not just a public crisis but a private tragedy, a personal punishment for the happiness of youth. It is the moment when the hopes of a generation turn sour.
The lives of Felix, Celine, and Sando become afterlives. If they represented in turn journalistic integrity, artistic radicalism, and political idealism during the 1970s, those forces of change have atrophied. Felix has become something of a joke and an anachronism. Celine’s marriage to Sando falls apart as she does commercials and sleeps with a conservative officeholder, and Sando becomes just another career politician. This triptych of portraits of the blighted hopes of the Australian left is suffused with a quietly affecting melancholy. Framing it is the larger question of whether all of this would have happened anyway, whether Felix’s obsession with the “coup” is not just a way of displacing onto a moment in history all the private depredations of compromise, failure, and advancing age.
It is, though, another question that undermines the novel: What has all of this to do with the ostensible subject of the book, Gaby’s sensational hacking of the prison systems in 2010? Felix is determined to connect the two events, to understand Gaby’s sabotage as retaliation for the CIA plot that somehow warped her parents’ lives. But it turns out quite quickly that’s he’s simply wrong. The whole backstory he constructs for himself and for the reader—the rape in 1942, the “coup” in 1975—seems to have no relevance whatever to Gaby’s being drawn into the hacking underworld in the early days of the Internet or her subsequent activism.
Most of the novel thus comes to seem like an act of misdirection, except that when a conjuror misdirects our attention it is in order to produce some breathtaking surprise. In Amnesia, there is no great trick to reveal. We never even get an answer to the question with which the book starts: Were the effects of the hack on US prisons accidental or deliberate? Felix expresses his “fear that the end will come before the end is told, that there will be no end,” and for the reader that fear proves to be all too well grounded.
This lack of connection is not just a matter of plot. It becomes a matter of voice. Gaby’s own voice is curiously absent. The story of her childhood is told by Felix but in theory there are first- person passages in which Gaby is speaking. Felix is working from her taped reminiscences and tells us that he is “transcribing lines of dialogue written as spoken” by her. But they don’t read like spoken words or indeed like Gaby’s words at all. Here, for example, is Felix’s written language in his own first-person narrative, flourishing his characteristically flamboyant similes, describing an expensive suit he has just bought:
My suit was like nothing I had ever owned. It had the faintest hint of indigo hidden in its charcoal, like a crow’s feather reflecting the sky. As I descended the rocky steps I was alive to every sense and colour. My hair thrilled on my neck.
And here is Gaby, supposedly in speech, using similar bird images, describing a teacher she wanted to befriend because she had a 1988 Mac IIx:
She had cruel-looking magpie eyes and a squishy secret sparrow heart. I did not know she was full of love and yearning and plans to change the world, so I did not let her guess how much I wanted what I wanted.
Here is Gaby again, supposedly talking about the same teacher calling at her house:
Miss Aisen called my mother’s name and I was Gregor Samsa in the dark, peering through the chink below the blinds. There she was: sodium-yellow in the electric light, sun dress, wiry legs, homemade hair.
This is certainly beautiful prose, vivid, rhythmic and allusive. It is not remotely the voice of a thirty-year-old hacker. Carey’s geek world is a strangely literary place. Gaby’s early mentor and boyfriend does not appear to be much of a reader but uses the online handle “Undertoad,” drawn from John Irving’s The World According to Garp. Even when Gaby is describing computer code, she compares it to a Montaigne essay or to Brancusi’s sculpture Bird in Space. It might be possible to imagine that this is a deliberate strategy on Carey’s part, that he is making a point about Felix appropriating Gaby’s words and recasting them in his own literary voice. But if this were so, Carey would not every so often throw into Gaby’s reminiscences ugly words that we know Felix does not like, little distress signals that remind us that this is indeed supposed to be a young computer geek talking: “freakerated,” “disgustitude,” “gasmed.” The gap between “freakerated” and “sodium-yellow” is a chasm into which any real sense of Gaby’s own persona disappears.
In the end, we are meant to understand that Felix’s obsession with 1975 and the wound to Australian democracy is pointless. He himself comes to dismiss as “pathetic” the very belief that has shaped the book we are reading, the search for “one story, one cause, one effect.” Gaby has eluded his plans to write about her and he accepts that the world has moved on from the period of the “coup”:
He had been born in the previous geologic age while she was born in the Anthropocene age and easily saw that the enemy was not one nation state but a cloud of companies, corporations, contractors, statutory bodies whose survival meant the degradation of water, air, soil, life itself.
The reader of political tracts may or may not agree with this conclusion, but the reader of imaginative fiction will be unconvinced by it—not because it is necessarily untrue but because it is the “previous geologic age” that takes fire in Peter Carey’s imagination. The arguer in Carey may feel that this novel is about forgetting the past that shaped Felix Moore. But the artist in Carey is not, after all, a mere Felix. Amnesia is not an option—great novels of the kind Carey has written are shaped by memory, not forgetting. The saving grace of Amnesia is that it does not live up to its title: the past proves to be a much more fruitful subject for its true author than the present.