Halfway through Peter Carey’s new novel, “Amnesia,” I began to worry I was suffering from it.
Who wrote this tedious mess?
Readers may have trouble remembering the jacket copy, too, which describes “Amnesia” as a cerebral thriller involving cybercrime and international intrigue. That’s true for about 20 pages. Carey, a former advertising executive, knows the importance of a great hook, and the opening of “Amnesia” couldn’t be more relevant and exciting:
“It was a spring evening in Washington DC; a chilly autumn morning in Melbourne; it was exactly 22:00 Greenwich Mean Time when a wormCar entered the computerised control systems of countless Australian prisons and released the locks in many other places of incarceration, some of which the hacker could not have known existed.”
Because those computer systems had been designed by American firms, the worm instantly spreads through the United States, too, breaking open thousands of prisons, including secret black sites in [REDACTED] where the CIA keeps [REDACTED]. On computer screens across the world, the group behind this apocalyptic amnesty announces: “The corporation is under our control. The Angel declares you free.”
Who you gonna call — James Bond? Ethan Hunt? Jason Bourne?
No, this is a job for a glib, left-wing writer named Felix Moore, “the most controversial journalist of his generation.” He’s just been financially ruined by a defamation case (his 99th), which makes him especially grateful for the support of a rich old friend, Woody Townes. Bereft of money, home and family, Felix could use a big project to rehabilitate himself, and for his own mysterious reasons, Woody wants Felix to write a flattering biography of the Angel computer hacker. “The defendant won’t talk to anyone but you,” Woody tells him. “I bailed the bloody Angel before the US could touch her.”
Her. Yes, the Angel is a young woman.
“Australianize her,” Woody demands. “Make it up, and most of all make the bitch lovable,” so lovable that the CIA won’t be able to spirit her away without causing national outrage. Because this isn’t just any young woman. She’s Gabrielle Baillieux, the daughter of a famous actress that Woody and Felix knew (and loved) in their radical student days. Writing an exculpatory biography about the young computer criminal will be an audacious and dangerous literary stunt, but it also promises to bring Felix back in touch with the girl’s mother.
This exhilarating setup is infected with all kinds of destructive malware, but for a while, the story races along Carey’s fiber-optic lines. Woody is a lot more threatening than he first appears. Young Gaby is aligned with some awfully unsavory figures, and she seems unwilling to participate in the sugarcoating of her life story. Most troubling of all, Gaby’s mother, the famous actress, is surely manipulating everyone involved. Even before Felix can figure out whom he’s really working for, he’s given miles of meandering audiotape and whisked away to an undisclosed location, where he’s ordered to start writing — fast — on a manual typewriter (the last defense against the NSA). It doesn’t take a computer genius to realize that whatever he composes is likely to get people — starting with himself — killed. But he knows, “This was the story I had spent my life preparing for.”
Truth and deception have long been adulterous lovers in Carey’s fiction. He lashed together a similarly treacherous triangle a few years ago in a svelte novel about art crooks called “Theft.” And in “My Life as a Fake,” he nested deceptions within hoaxes surrounded by monkey business to write about literary fraud. Those novels, though, no matter how much they feinted, were always fantastically engaging.
“Amnesia” may leap off today’s front-page headlines, but it quickly gets lost in Felix’s dull recreation of Gaby as a young hacker in the early days of personal computers. This teen drama — think “DOSon’s Creek” — can’t possibly compete with the chaos we’re asked to imagine is now ravaging the world’s computer systems.
It doesn’t help that “Amnesia” is predicated on a largely forgotten political conflict between Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam and President Richard Nixon. Old spooks and students of Asia-Pacific politics will remember what Felix calls “the traumatic injury done to my country by our American allies in 1975”: The CIA conspired with MI6 to bring down Whitlam in a bloodless coup designed to protect Pine Gap, America’s secret listening post in Alice Springs, Northern Territory. That evil footnote in our nation’s diplomatic history received a bit of new attention in 2013, when Edward Snowden revealed that Pine Gap is now part of the PRISM program that allows the NSA to spy on almost everyone all the time. But U.S. and British fiddling with Australian politics in the mid-1970s might as well remain classified information for all its currency among American readers — and Carey’s elliptical and erratic narrative does little to draw back that veil of secrecy.
What a missed opportunity for one of the best writers in the world. With his story of the muckraker and the cyberterrorist, Carey might have given us a provocative update on Janet Malcolm’s “The Journalist and the Murderer.” Or he could have breathed life into that forgotten coup of 1975 the way he reimagined the folk hero in “True History of the Kelly Gang.” But instead, all the potentially fantastic elements of “Amnesia” are minced and scrambled and finally overwhelmed.
Charles is the editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.
By Peter Carey
Knopf. 307 pp. $25.95