Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Peter Carey's Amnesia

Peter Carey is one of those writers readers rarely agree on. That's certainly been the case with our group in the past, and nothing changed this month when we discussed Carey's latest novel Amnesia. Consequently, the discussion was lively. Most people had finished or nearly finished it, but a couple gave up, finding it not to their liking. One found she was fighting her twenty-something son to read it - he kept picking it up when she wanted to read it. He didn't think his mum's group read books "like this"!

What we liked

Most, even those who didn't finish it, liked something. For some the beginning was engaging but they got tired of the "1970s political stuff". Others, particularly those who grew up in Melbourne, really enjoyed the middle part telling the story of the family - Sando, Celine and Gaby - and their lives in artsy Carlton and working class Coburg.

Another commented on Peter Carey's writing and his wonderful sentences, such as the description of the protagonist making a toilet for himself in the bush:
No-one saw him. No-one knew his aching knees. He was Felix Moore and he was aware of his position in his country's history and thus saw himself from a slightly elevated perspective, deriving some dour satisfaction from his similarity to Dürer's portrait of the hermit Saint Jerome.

Some enjoyed the humour, such as the story of Celine's grandmother, who, during World War 2, offered to entertain American soldiers, "except no Jews". She's sent a black GI. She tells him there must be a mistake, and he politely replies, "we are sorry to have inconvenienced you ... but it wasn't a mistake. Our Captain Cohen, he don't make no mistakes". Loved it!

Another enjoyed the satire, and particularly liked the second part of the novel. And one said that her husband thought it was a ripping yarn. (Never let it be said we don't involve men in our group!)

What we didn't like so much

For some the story was just a little too over-the-top and hard to follow. There was too much going on, and some of it, such as the computer-worm-and-hacking thread didn't fully hang together. A few felt that perhaps the story needed to be read in longer stints than last thing at night before bed!

One was a little irritated by the language at the beginning. Why did the character say "m'lud" in court rather than the more common Australian "your honour".  She also felt there were some anachronisms, such as the use of WTF. (However, later research revealed that WTF was first used on the Internet in 1985, which makes Carey's use okay.)

One felt the characters weren't easy to visualise.

We wondered whether Carey tried to satirise too many "things". And we all found Woody Townes a little mystifying. One described him as "shape-shifting". We knew he was an old university friend of the main protagonists, but who was he really and why was he doing what he was doing? Without spoiling too much, it was generally felt that he deserved what he got at the end!

Other questions and comments

This was a big, somewhat rambling book, and so our discussion was big and rambling too! One reader said it reminded her a little of Tim Winton's Eyrie which we read last year, because it too was about a journalist who got himself into trouble.

Given the political nature of the novel, a couple found themselves wondering whether characters in the book were meant to represent specific people. For example, the main character, leftie journalist Felix Moore. Was he supposed to be Mungo McCallum, or Bob Ellis, or even John Pilger? Others weren't sure, and one felt that Peter Carey who, like his character was born in Bacchus Marsh, may, at times, have been sending himself up. She quoted a sentence on the second last page:
For the crime of expressing pleasure that my book would be available to future generations, I was judged not only immoral but vain and preening ...
Why did smells and birds feature so much in the novel?

So what was it about?

We didn't come to a complete resolution on this, but we came up with several ideas:
  • how the young radicals of the 1960s/1970s brought up their own children and the ways in which they "sold out"
  • that modern activists now work with hacking and computer worms/viruses whereas their parents marched and leafletted, lobbied, etc.
  • cybersecurity, perhaps inspired by Julian Assange and Edward Snowdon
  • independence and/or interference in journalism, how "true" it is (or is not), pernicious "editing"
  • the importance of maintaining the rage, of not forgetting (hence the title "amnesia") what's happened in the past, of the need to be aware of the ways in which the USA has not been Australia's friend.
Not bad for a discussion which started out with more of us not liking the book than liking it.