‘Amnesia’ by Peter Carey
Hamish Hamilton; $32.99
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Public-key data encryption depends on one astounding fact: multiply two large prime numbers together and you will get a number so large that there is not enough computer power in the world to reduce the product back to the original primes. The two numbers thus make a lock and key for senders and receivers to secure their information; without them, it just comes out as gibberish. One can’t help but wonder if the same applies to Amnesia, Peter Carey’s new novel, which claims to be an exploration of the world of hacking, radicalism, the 1975 coup and our forgotten relations with the US.
Ostensibly it’s the story of Gabrielle Baillieux, a Melbourne hactivist whose computer worm unlocks the automatic doors of every supermax prison in Australia and the US. Threatened with extradition and a decades-long sentence, she finds swooping to her defence “Woody” Townes, a ’70s leftie turned millionaire and patron saint of lost causes. Townes hires Felix Moore, a standard-issue chaotic journalist, to write Gaby’s life story, turn her into a hero and thus avert disaster. Moore then tells us a tale of Gaby’s parents (Monash radicals become Carlton establishment) and takes a trip further back into family history that blends with a transplanted version of the Leonski “Brownout Strangler” serial killings before ending in an abduction, a rural hideaway, secret tapes and much more.
So far so rollicking, and Carey has an inexhaustible talent for visceral re-creation of the physical – during World War Two, Gaby’s mother is conceived by rape beneath a Queenslander house that smells of “nightsoil and honeysuckle, dirt and gas” – but much of it is too frenetic to distil the real. Innumerable bits and bobs of Melbourne-leftie-boomer-literati lore make their way through the story, until it turns into some sort of political caper movie.
Many will find this beguiling; this reader found it dissatisfying, and not the good arty kind but the plain old-fashioned get-the-fuck-on-with-it kind. Carey never shows us enough of Gaby now, in the present, making adult choices, to make the hundred-page tour through her parents’ boho Labor marriage sufficiently interesting as a search for origins, for where the politics came from. You pick over this flow of data, wondering whether you’ve missed something in a novel that seems to ignore all the most exciting bits of the current era in favour of tales of old Carltonia, or whether there is no secret at all. Maybe that was the point; if so, it’s a pretty bloody irritating one.
Still, there’s a lot in it that Careyistas will enjoy, and I’ll read it again in a year to see whether I did actually miss something. This time around, if there was a way to sort the signal from the noise, I didn’t have the key.