Peter Carey is receiving astoundingly mixed reviews for new novel, Amnesia. Where some reviewers see genius, others eye a tedious mix. It’s enough to make you suspect that critics are not infallible!
We love love in Top Ten Land, so let’s start with the rapture. “Peter Carey’s fiction is turbo-charged, hyperenergetic,” Andrew Motion observes in The Guardian. “His language has little time for quiet passages; his minor characters, even at their most incidental, are endowed with details of appearance and speech that belie their status; his narrative lines, when they run into difficulties of any kind, blast through them by introducing new inventions and new possibilities. This is what makes him Dickensian.
"Amnesia, his 16th book [and 13th novel], follows many of its predecessors in yoking these energies to a historical moment, then associating it with something urgent in contemporary times. It is a novel about hacking, and because it shows the revenge of a disaffected Australian on colonial powers, is therefore bound to bring Julian Assange to mind; specifically, it is concerned with the notorious moment in mid-70s Australian history, when the Whitlam government was brought down by American and British interference, in a way that is now largely forgotten (hence the title).”
The action begins in the present, when a hacker creates a computer virus that frees not only Australian political prisoners and asylum seekers but also inmates at thousands of US facilities. Is this a mistake, or a declaration of cyber war? And does it have anything to do with the largely forgotten Battle of Brisbane between American and Australian forces in 1942? Or with the CIA-influenced coup in Australia in 1975? Felix Moore, known to himself as “our sole remaining left-wing journalist,” is determined to write the hacker’s biography in order to find the answers—to save her, his own career, and, perhaps, his country. But how to get Gaby—on the run, scared, confused, and angry—to cooperate?
While Motion loved this tale, Elena Seymenliyska had a mixed response in the Telegraph, calling it “at once rich with promise yet maddeningly elusive, like a page of computer code that only occasionally resolves into English. Its story is fascinating and confusing, specific and disparate.’
No such ambivalence on the other side of the pond. Janet Maslin of the New York Times says the novel lacks spark, “For all Mr. Carey’s formidable powers and the righteous fire he means to light here, “Amnesia” isn’t one of his most memorable efforts.”
That is a rave compared with Ron Charles’ review in the Washington Post: “Halfway through Peter Carey’s new novel, Amnesia, I began to worry I was suffering from it. Who wrote this tedious mess? Where was that two-time Booker winner who gave us such spectacular novels as Oscar and Lucinda and Jack Maggs?”
Back in England, Jamie Runcie writes in the Independent: “It’s exhausting but also, curiously exhilarating; the first Australian comedy-conspiracy-cyber-thriller. It even has a viral twist at the end. As I said, Carey can do anything.”
Here’s my take-away from these reviews: Tea drinkers will probably enjoy Amnesia, coffee drinkers, not so much.
Peter Carey’s Top Ten List
Here it is -- no Joyce or Eliot or Kafka although they invented the river we swim in. No Bible either, which is impossible. The Great Gatsby is a perfect work of art and I cut it out. No Faulkner although I owe him everything. No Chekhov, Munro - what sort of list is that?
1. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (1857).
2. Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne (1759–67).
3. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens (1860–61).
4. Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes (1605, 1615).
5. Middlemarch by George Eliot (1871–72).
6. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (1877).
7. Austerlitz by W. G. Sebald (2001).
8. Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez (1985).
9. The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James (1881).
10. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë (1847).