Peter Carey returns to Australia for his latest novel. Picking up on the zeitgeist of hacktivism and information freedom, Carey seeks to examine how cyber-activism is born. But he wants to do more than this. Amnesia is also about the relationship between Australia and America and those moments where we have chosen not to acknowledge or to actively forget American influence in our affairs.
Amnesia opens with a piece of homegrown cyber-activism, which sees the doors of all of the prisons in the country thrown open. By virtue of foreign connections, the worm affects American prisons also making its originator a cyberterrorist in American eyes. Left wing journo and former Labor party hack Felix Moore, in the process of having his latest book pulped, is thrown a lifeline by his old property developer mate Woody Townes. Townes has bailed the hacker, the daughter of an old friend, and wants Moore to interview her. The hope is that publishing her version of events will prevent her being extradited to the U.S. where she could face the death penalty.
Thus begins Carey's book in two very distinct halves. The first half, involving Felix's hunt for the hacker, also delves into Australian history and particularly the U.S. involvement with it. He starts with a little publicised events like the Battle of Brisbane, tensions between US and Aussie soldiers during WWII which erupted into violence. But he moves on to bigger events, most particularly the dismissal of the Whitlam government portrayed here as an American-masterminded and CIA-run coup to protect American interests, in particular Pine Gap.
The second half of the novel is Felix's transcription of the stories of the hacker, Gaby Baillieux, and her mother. Gaby was born at exactly the moment of the dismissal, and with a Labour Party father has grown up in its shadow. Her story is more one of teenage angst and disaffection and it is difficult to see the connections that Carey is trying to draw between her growing activism, involving the revelation of local environmental misdeeds, and the broader themes of the novel. There is plenty of cloak and dagger action in the latter half of the novel as Felix goes on the run, but it never seems to amount to too much.
The novel is overtly Australian. Carey works hard to locate the action first in the Melbourne suburbs and later on the NSW Central Coast, but his imagery and descriptions often feel forced. Felix Moore is an engaging character of familiar stock. Sarcastic and cynical but dedicated to the cause, the half of the novel that is his straight narration is at times an enjoyable rant. The characters in the second half, while well drawn, are fairly predictable and generally not as interesting.
Amnesia is an ambitious novel by an author who has the chops to carry it off. However, despite Carey's credentials it comes across as being over ambitious. Carey is not quite able to make the connection between his grand themes of American inference in Australian affairs and our collective forgetting and his main characters. But he gets points for airing those themes nonetheless.