Sceptics of literary prizes might claim that winning the Booker Prize once is a fluke. However, this point of view is hard to justify if an author wins said prize twice, and Australian author Peter Carey is one of only three people to have done so to date. Born in 1943 in Bacchus Marsh, Victoria, Carey returns to his roots in his thirteenth novel Amnesia. The novel follows left-wing journalist Felix Moore, who is deemed unemployable after being sued for “defamation” by the Australian Supreme Court. Whilst broke, he is contracted by his friend Woody Townes to write the biography of Gabrielle “Gaby” Bailleux. The aim of the biography is to make her seem more likeable and thereby prevent her extradition to the United States, where Gaby is wanted for having written the ‘Angel Worm’, a computer virus which caused mass jail breakouts. However, the more Moore unearths about Gaby, the more he realises how a cowardly, caustic and claustrophobic journalist such as himself may have bitten off more than he can chew.
The novel has four major strengths: story, pace, characterisation and humour. Technically, all of the action takes place in the present, but the reader is transported back in time by means of Moore’s research, most of which is linked to the Australian constitutional crisis of 1975. The novel is divided into two parts, with part 2 in particular focusing on tapes recorded by Gaby and her mother, which are Moore’s primary source of information. The narrative switches between past and present as Moore presses the fast-forward and rewind buttons, which might seem flippant but is a clever emulation of the audio tape leitmotif. The only time this does not work quite so well is during the denouement, which can be summed up in the last two words of the penultimate chapter: “Fast forward”. The ending seems overly rushed, all the more so because such care is taken in establishing the characters’ histories earlier in the novel.
Apart from Moore, none of the characters are fleshed out per se. For instance, Gaby only appears twice, briefly, but the reader is able to catch glimpses of her thoughts and motives by means of the tapes Moore studies. The same is true of her mother Celine. The characters are complemented by adapting the pace of the narrative to their respective personalities. Moore is chaotic, frustrated and curmudgeonly. His pace can be described as hectic energy: the sentences are short, and ordered (or rather compiled) to include as much information in as little space as possible. Gaby is a radical left-wing activist on the one hand, and a seemingly bored, presumptuous a-social person on the other. Her diction emphasises her political beliefs, which is accentuated with a smattering of programming- and online-game-related neologisms, but the pace imitates her tone with medium-length, short-spoken sentences.
What speaks in favour of the author’s characterisations is that he pokes fun at some IT-related stereotypes, such as Gaby’s questionable hygiene, but without ever slipping into the farcical. Gaby could easily have been a leet-speaking, obese nerd with glasses and braces; instead, she is inconspicuous. Carey’s humour is as dry as Moore’s favoured wine, and ranges from self-ironic observations to the less agreeable physical necessities humanity is subject to but prefers to gloss over.
Perhaps it is the contrast between witty and puerile humour that makes the novel so appealing, or maybe it is the choice of topic, since something as prolific as cybercrime is combined with political unrest that is under-represented on the world scale. More likely than not it is the fallibility of the anti-hero Felix Moore, whose fall is mitigated by what one might consider his consolation prize at the end. Amnesia might not win Carey the Booker Prize a third time, but neither is it forgettable.