Amnesia: the ‘new’ Peter Carey book

Peter Carey’s easily one of my top five authors and on my fantasy dinner party list, so of course I leapt straight on to his new book. Well, I meant to.

Now that I’ve finally got round to it I realise that Amnesia was published in 2012, so shame on me. But it’s certainly not lost any of its potency during its patient wait for me on the shelves of the recently opened City of Perth Library (beautiful and well worth a visit).

Peter Carey's Amnesia

Disgraced political journalist Felix Moore, unemployed after a highly public defamation conviction, is commissioned by a shady but powerful ally to write a biography of – and thereby potentially gain public sympathy for – young Australian hacker Gaby Bailleux, whose parents he knew in their younger days.

She faces extradition to America for infiltrating prison systems there and at home and Moore is promised access to her in her hideout – but the access never eventuates. Moore, held by shadowy figures of the resistance movement in remote locations for his own ‘protection’, is forced into a dreamlike attempt to grasp his elusive subject, and pin her inner life to paper, through the infuriatingly scant and subjective secondary materials she sees fit to provide.

He writes her life story, each page whisked away for an editing process completely beyond his control. He is unable to separate her from the backdrop of the society into which she was born – one whose politics is forever troubled by its murky relationship with America, from Vietnam War-era machinations between the CIA and Australian government until the present.

It sounds complex, and it is. This plot is not for the faint-hearted, and I confess to a rather foggy understanding at times. It requires a focus beyond the level neede for your average page-turner or blog post; perhaps that’s why it’s taken me four years to read it.

But that’s not to say it’s boring. Its ambitious plot reflects a leap for Carey into a heady new direction for his style, in which he crafts a modern thriller that still bears the Carey hallmarks. His dialogue is immediate and unhampered by quotation marks, a feature of much of his writing, which adds to the sense of surreal displacement experienced by his narrator. It’s a part of his style that has been described as fabulism, in which a sense of the fantastic is blended with a realistically reported narrative. In fact, the whole book embodies this concept, in a sense – the story of the objective political reporter who suddenly finds himself flung down the rabbit hole.

Above all, the novel retains the sublime power of description I love Carey for, a power so great it really goes beyond description, in which words do not seem to go through your brain for translation into pictures and feelings, but instead seem to cut straight into your soul.

Amnesia, to be truthful, did not grab me by the heart and the imagination in quite the same unforgettable way his Oscar and Lucinda, or The True History of the Kelly Gang, did.

But it did reaffirm my belief that Carey is one of the world’s greatest living novelists. In it I could see the expertise that has built over the decades and appears to still be growing. A privilege to read.

 

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The Curing of a Bibliomaniac part 23: Boating for Beginners (Jeanette Winterson, 1985)

Books left: 3. Weeks left: 6 (just keep swimming).

‘I’d rather play Battleships but we haven’t any graph paper, have we?’
They hadn’t, and so they were forced to talk about the Space-Time Continuum, and whether or not you should write books which clearly fixed themselves into time or books which flouted the usual notion of time in order to clear the mind of arbitrary divisions.

boating for beginners

I revere many novelists, but it’s fair to say there are some for whom my feelings run deepest.

They include Peter Carey. Carol Shields. Lucy Maud Montgomery (shush). Isobelle Carmody. John Marsden. Tim Winton. John Wyndham.

And Jeanette Winterson.

My affair with Winterson (and it seems entirely appropriate to describe reading her books as such) began during my English degree with The Passion. This novel was assigned for a unit on postmodern narratives, but don’t hold that against it.

I’ve actually only read a couple more of her works since then, but this was enough to make Winterson one of the authors to make the most lasting impressions on me.

Long after the details of The Passion‘s alluring stories of labyrinthine Venice have faded, I remember how arrestingly its language and characters hit me, the pull of its mystery.

Winterson’s writing is sensual, thematically complex and unexpected. Her power of invention is so dazzling it seems inadequate to term it imagination or originality. Her creativity is not about novelty, charming though her novelties are; it is about what they ultimately serve to reveal, the truths about how people think and what they desire.

At least, that’s how I remember it. Is it any wonder I haven’t picked up one for so long? After uni, I craved meat and potatoes reading for several years, hence my impressive mental crime novel catalogue. And sometimes you just get out of the habit of wanting to be really moved, really unsettled. You just think… I’ve had a long day at work. I need some simple entertainment.

This sort of thinking has resulted in me hoarding several unread Wintersons for more than several years, so I thought it time to see if we still clicked, or whether my love was one best left in the past.

So I open the book and the storm hits.

Boating for Beginners, which I shamelessly chose because it was short, features a romance author called Bunny Mix, a God made of animated ice-cream and Noah, who created that God in a culinary accident.

They are pretending to make a blockbuster film, but they are actually planning to wreak havoc, destroy the world and rewrite history.

Unless, as synchronised swimmer-turned-transsexual potter Marlene says, a group of girls succeed in making “one heroic attempt at foiling that cosmic dessert and the little chocolate button that created him.”

‘I like reading books,’ insisted Marlene, ‘but I’m more concerned with how to get rid of the cellulite on my thighs. I mean, there’s plenty of books around but I’ve only got this one body.
‘Art shows us how to transcend the purely physical,’ said Gloria loftily.
‘Yes, but Art won’t get rid of my cellulite, will it?’
‘Art will show you how to put your cellulite in perspective,’ replied Gloria, wondering for a moment who was feeding her her lines.
‘I don’t want to put it in perspective,’ Marlene tried to be patient. ‘I want to get rid of it.”

Boating for Beginners turns out to be what the author herself described as a “comic book with pictures”, a laugh-out loud alternative to the Biblical flood myth, and a gimlet-eyed look at why people react to the story so powerfully.

I need not have feared it too smart to be fun. This story about people believing any story put to them, and creating their own histories, is wonderfully, confidently absurd.

I have decided to keep my pile of unread Wintersons and be less shy about dipping into it next time. Winterson is by no means a one-trick pony. She sparkles – and surprises – every time and deserves to be read now, not kept for another day.

We’re back on, in other words.

Keep or kill? In my new tradition (I am learning from this project) I am going to pass this on along with my other already-read Winterson titles. But I’m keeping those yet unread and I’m keeping The Passion.

 

 

The Curing of a Bibliomaniac Part 11: The Amphora Project (William Kotzwinkle, 2005)

Books remaining: 15. Weeks left to read them: 28 (I laugh in the face of danger). 

As a pubescent, I read Kotzwinkle’s E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, a novelisation of the legendary 1982 Steven Spielberg film and thought the book just about better than the movie. Don’t throw rocks at me. The book was excellent.

Hence when I came across an original Kotzwinkle several years ago I snapped it up and, true to form, didn’t read it. Until now.

The Amphora Project

The Amphora Project

This is the story of Amphora, the immortality machine, and the humans who foolishly try to use it to achieve eternal life, at a time in which the Earth has long stopped being habitable, and people have long stopped accepting the idea of going quietly into that good night. When it becomes clear that Amphora is unstable and threatening the very existence of the race trying to use it, a band of fugitives makes one final attempt to destroy the device.

Lovers of a good robot, look no further – little Upquark, who converts himself into a suitcase in times of stress, is drawn haplessly into the battle and is hands-down what most endeared this story to me.

Upquark stared about in wonder. There was sand in his rollers, but excitement in his emotional card. Highly unusual circumstances were unfolding, for which he had no reference. He’d tossed and turned for hours in Ren’s ship, analysing for hours the terrible sequence of events he and his friends had undergone, and then, quite on its own, a train of nondeductive inference had begun, culminating in a picture of himself as a dangerous outlaw with a high metallic luster. Now he tried out a menacing gesture with his grippers, but no one seemed to notice. Perhaps he required Pugnacity Firmware.

Special mention, too, goes to the ‘junkernauts’, hazardous monoliths formed of obsolete, lunatic and half-broken robots determined to go on functioning in whatever capacity possible, with the result that they join to form these enormous oddities that sail about the galaxy, spectacularly destroying everything in their paths.

With its invention, whimsy and vivid stable of lovable, repulsive, weird and sexy characters, this would in fact itself have made a great movie. As a book it was a little hard to get, and stay, immersed in.

Though I put this down to lack of time to ‘get a run at it’, I find myself questioning this conventional wisdom. Surely the lack of ability to ‘get into’ books is not all because we all now have woefully short attention spans and even less free time.

When I feel truly captivated by a book I make the time, constantly rushing off for five minutes more to poke my nose into it, deciding to let this or that task slide so I might polish it off. Perhaps if we are so time-poor and have so much competing for our attention we should only keep reading any book if we feel that pull, and never let anything less suffice. (Though had this been my philosophy always there would doubtless be no chance I ever would have finished, for example, Mrs Dalloway  – a bit painful, sure, but undoubtedly worth it). But as a general rule…

I vaguely knew Kotzwinkle’s work, sure, so picking up the book was justified. But as you keep reading a book that is not compelling you, what else is going unread? Right now because of this project, I am not reading Peter Carey’s Amnesia. I’m not reading Annabel Crabb’s The Wife Drought or Don Watson’s The Bush or letting the Matriarch pass on her latest book club book, Karen Joy Fowler’s We are All Completely Beside Ourselves or sharing the Ministry’s new obsession with Vince Flynn’s Mitch Rapp thrillers.

Did I enjoy The Amphora Project? Yes. Would I recommend it to a sci-fi lover? Yes. Was it worth feeling cut off from the new book world for? Not really. Welcome to my learning curve.

Slowly I am realising I don’t actually want to read every single one of the hundreds of unread books I own, though I feel like saying it quietly in case they hear me. It is not that they have no value. It is just that I am realising the value they have to me, and to who I am, lessened over the years I carted them around.

Now what I value is freshness and space, clarity and time. A load of books is not proof of personality or taste and nor should it be. If an object is in my home, I should get joy from touching it and seeing it, not a vague sense of guilt and overwhelm.

There are only so many rainy days I will have in my life.

This is why from now in on How to Cure a Bibliomaniac that for each letter I do as the second half of the alphabet approaches – if I pick one book above the rest, with the internet as my witness, I will get rid of the others if I’m not serious about reading them.

And I’m not going to keep this book either.

This post was inspired by The Minimalists.

The Dig Tree (Sarah Murgatroyd, 2000)

This is the book I’ve been intending to read ever since it was recommended to me by DOELD after I read, and raved about, The Supply Party by Martin Edmonds (see post below).

Where that book was about a particular, largely forgotten part of the famously ill-fated Burke and Wills expedition, this is basically the ultimate history of the entire thing.

A sadder, stranger tale it would be difficult to come across.

Sarah Murgatroyd has a peculiar sympathy for the peculiar character of Burke, a man so spectacularly unsuited to the role of outback explorer – as she details – it is hard to believe she speaks the truth.

But she does, and the book’s precise detail and fat bibliography attest to Murgatroyd’s painstaking and extensive research.

Despite this, it has the nail-biting, absorbing qualities of a suspense novel, once you are firmly into it.

It is a testament to her humanity and obvious affinity with the tale that she manages to humanise the – frankly, horrible-sounding – Robert O’Hara Burke.

I was as profoundly affected by this book as I was by Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, a revolutionary kind of journalism, and Peter Carey’s historiographic metafiction (sorry, university moment) True History of the Kelly Gang.

The latter is a novel, but one rooted in fact and with its style drawn directly from Ned Kelly’s Jerilderie Letter.

It is worth noting such similarities between these works, all incredibly memorable, disturbing and suberbly crafted, and between the feelings they have the power to create in the reader.

I needed a good hour staring quietly into space after turning the final page.

I will be entreating everybody I know to try this book. Stick with it and you will soon be unable to tear yourself away.

My only regret is that I didn’t read it the first time I was told to.

The Supply Party (Martin Edmond, 2009)

Part biography, history and travel narrative yet surpassing all in sum, Martin Edmond’s story of the Burke and Wills expedition is told through the life and death of its scientist, naturalist, collector and artist, Ludwig Becker.

Reflective and atmospheric, Edmonds’ descriptive work fleshes out the human side of Becker and the expedition and teases out the tragedy at the heart of what I previously thought of as a rather dry story, told to death.

Snippets, anecdotes and quotes taken from Becker’s notes illuminate the atmosphere and humanity (both good and bad) Edmonds picked from the story’s bones. Edmond makes Becker real and immediate, so much so that by the end I really don’t want to hear the rest; for it’s not a particularly happy story.

Nevertheless I am compelled to go on.

Now it has taken a place in my mental collection of haunting representations and stories: alongside Sidney Nolan and Peter Carey’s Ned Kelly; Capote’s In Cold Blood; and Joan Lindsay and Perer Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock.

Past and present blend as the narrative alternates between Burke & Wills’ expedition and that of the author following, albeit much more safely, in their footsteps years later.

The land he is seeing draws the author’s thoughts repeatedly back into the story of the doomed expedition, and one of Edmond’s major achievements is to give you a sense of not only what the land looks like today and how it looked 150 years ago, but 50 000 years ago before he, Ludwig, Burke or Wills ever walked upon it.

A finely worked sense of ominous inevitability grows in the reader as we hear the now-familiar details of the party’s demise.

Discord grows between the dwindling numbers of men in the party. Gradually, and necessarily, they discard the camels, trackers, people, other supplies and hundreds of litres of rum which were catalogued with such pride at the journey’s beginning.

Becker is eventually required not for his artistic services but for the extra pair of hands that may make the difference between life and death. He is forced to leave behind the careful records, the tasks and equipment that constituted both his life’s work and his purpose for being on the expedition.

Edmonds draws a vivid, heartbreaking picture of Becker: ill, injured, bullied by the sadistic Burke and forced to make his observations and artworks at night. His love of his work, and unshaking commitment to it, is fully realised as we are shown the completeness of his exhaustion yet his absolute determination to continue with his mission as long as he is able to pick up a pencil.

The uniqueness of this book is its marriage of the human story with art history; Edmonds clearly has a deep respect for Becker’s artwork. I was as affected as he by the uniqueness of the work, which Edmond describes as in the tradition of miniaturing and portraiture – mixing scientific precision and detail, yet illuminating its subjects with whimsical, the fantastic and the grotesque.

In this crucial aspect the book is let down by its publication in trade paperback with a few measly reproductions in the centre, so small that the reader is forced to read the words and use the pictures as a sort of imaginative aid to help fill in details and colours described and vitally important to the story thematically, yet invisible in the versions shown.

I would love the opportunity to buy this in a coffee-table, hardcover format, with full-page glossy reproductions and more illustrations taken from Becker’s notes, already so painstakingly sourced by Edmond.

As Edmond’s background to this process recounts, he says to the librarians who want to know why he wants to access Becker’s jealously guarded sketchbook and poorly lit paintings that there is no substitute for seeing the originals. And why block access to art the public doesn’t know or care about anyway?

Therefore, it is a shame the scale and pathos of these rare reproductions weren’t given justice, though I recognise the market for such a book would be almost negligible.

To give the art community access to a book that rests firmly in the Australian history section would achieve Edmond’s goal far better – to give Becker his rightful place and recognition in art as well as history. As it is, the book is forced to be less than it was originally capable of, much like Becker at the close of his journey.

Yet this cannot undermine the subtle, scholarly elegance with which Edmond has written his elegy; it will certainly remain in my consciousness, as will Edmond himself.

Turbo blog

Presenting my guide to what I’ve been consuming recently. You’ll be happy to know I’m not including foodstuffs. I don’t want anyone to know these. 

  • Parrot and Olivier in America (Peter Carey, 2009)

Sadly, the picture of the cover is not that of the incredibly DROOLINGLY HANDSOME BLACK LEATHER-BOUND WITH STAMPED TITLE LIMITED EDITION SIGNED BY AUTHOR WITH RED RIBBON BOOKMARK copy that I have been reading. But I can’t really take a photo that will showcase its beauty.

I haven’t finished this yet. But as his novels get bigger and weirder, the more I love them. Even if you start a Peter Carey book thinking “oh, this is set in a place/time/culture that I know” you will soon leave your own realities far, far behind, scrabbling for footholds in Carey’s completely unique universe. No two books are the same, except for his reliably amazing writing, and – so far – this one has not disappointed. It’s talked about By Jennifer Byrne and the team on the ABC’s First Tuesday Book Club Christmas Special, 5/12/10. Watch the video here: http://www.abc.net.au/tv/firsttuesday/

  • SAS: The Search for Warriors. Two-Part Documentary: Military History, 2010 

For the first time in 25 years the SAS has allowed documentary photography. The resulting two-hour-ish experience spread over two episodes is unrelenting, adrenaline-filled, clear-your-schedule viewing and should not be missed. Whether you’re a military history devotee or absolutely not, you have my personal guarantee that you will be fascinated by every solitary minute of this deeply impressive and thought-provoking doco. Watch it here: http://www.sbs.com.au/documentary/program/sasthesearchforwarriors

  • Independence Day. Movie: Science Fiction/Action, 1996

Once again, the L.A.P.D. is asking Los Angelenos not to fire their guns at the visitor spacecraft. You may inadvertently trigger an interstellar war.

You can’t go wrong with this movie. You need to watch this intermittently throughout the whole of your adult life to retain top mental functioning and psychological health. An admirable choice for your Boxing Day stupors, now and in the future.