“It’s Time”: remembering modems, BBS, Telecom, Gough and The Dismissal in Peter Carey’s Amnesia

Author Peter Carey, one of Australia’s best known literary exports (he has lived in New York City for the past 20 years) is probably most identified with novels such as The True History of the Kelly Gang, Illywhacker, and Oscar and Lucinda which all draw heavily on Australian history and mythology of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  Oscar and Lucinda  was also made into 1997 film film of the same name featuring Ralph Fiennes and Cate Blanchette.  Despite this reputation, Carey has written novels that deal with more contemporary life, including the darkly comic Bliss, in which bored advertising executive, Harry Joy, is briefly clinically dead, but upon returning to life, finds himself in a reality that may, or may not, be a version of hell.   (Bliss was also made into a highly underrated film, with the peerless Barry Otto as Joy).  Carey’s most recent effort, Amnesia, delves into the very present day concerns of technology and surveillance.  Largely split between a present-day “thriller” narrative and a slightly disheveled and cut-up history of both 1950s and 1980s Melbourne life as seen through the lens of politically active family, Amnesia fuses Carey’s brilliant use of language, with more overt political undertones.

AmnesiaThe novel opens with a massive hack on the corporate state, where prisons across Australia and the United States are simultaneously remotely opened via a piece of malware called “The Angel Worm”.  The worm is eventually traced to the Julian Assange-like, Gaby Baillieux, daughter of a famous television actress, Celine, and her husband, Sandy (“Sando”), a senior Australian Labor Party (ALP) figure.  Veteran hard-bitten political reporter (“journo”) Felix Moore is hired by members of Gaby’s family to create a counter-story to that of the prosecution in advance of Gaby’s trial, in order to get her “side” out there (“to Australianise her”), even as she remains at-large.  The outer narrative of Amnesia detailing Moore’s travails in attempting to track down and interview Gaby, is largely a container for inner stories of Celine’s parents during the 1950s and Gaby’s childhood in inner-city Melbourne during the 1980s.  It is here where Carey excels at creating a complete, solid and textured world, with the sound of the birds, grumbling of trams, light cast through the gum trees all playing their part.  The neighbourhood and lifestyle of 1970s and 1980s Carlton is captured at a granular level, as Celine is described

bicycling from household to household, from playreading to rehearsal, past the Italian greengrocers, the group houses with windows open to the street playing Van Morrison throwing pennies on the bridges down below, up to the Brunswick baths, down to the Victorian markets for fresh puntarelle with her string bag suspended between the handles and Gaby dripping gelato on the seat.

Overlaid on this is a history of early bulletin-board systems (BBS) and phone-phreaking, told through a uniquely Australian perspective in a world where the precursor to today’s telecommunications giants is the government-run Telecom.

Gaby’s parents are both politically left-of-center (perhaps they would be considered radically so, by today’s standards), but the dissolving state of their marriage and the gap between her father’s ideals and the need to compromise with special interests, particularly environmentally-unfriendly companies, pushes Gaby towards a more direct and activist mode of political engagement. (This mirrors the history of the early 1980s, in which the ALP, led by Bob Hawke and Paul Keating, pioneered so-called “Third-Way” or “market socialism”, which alienated many true believers.  It’s also notable that the Hawke-Keating model, became, at least in part, the inspiration for Clinton and Blair’s remaking of their own parties in the 1990s).  Her relationship with the mysterious teenager Frederic, becomes Gaby’s entry point into the world of computers and hacking as a specific rebuke to her parents, and access to a modem, her way in to a new world.

Gough Whitlam
Gough Whitlam and singer Little Pattie wearing T-shirts with the famous “It’s Time” during the 1972 Australian federal election campaign, that led to his election as Prime Minister

As Felix Moore, now on the run, nonlinearly pieces together Gaby’s story from tapes and microcassette recordings of Gaby and Celine, we simultaneously piece together stories of loss: loss of love, of idealism, of memory, with the story of Australian political history: Sandy makes deals with the utility companies he once reviled, Celine leaves her community theatre for television advertising. One can detect a thread of regret at the abandonment of the promise of the Gough Whitlam-era of a more progressive independent-minded Australia, one that was less dependent on approval from Washington, and what has since become of both of the Labor Party and the country.  Anger over the 1975 Dismissal of Whitlam’s government by the Governor General, lingers over the characters in Amnesia.  This is particularly true for Moore who feels he betrayed his own cause by not actively pursuing the murmurings of alleged involvement of US intelligence agencies in the Dismissal back in 1975 when he had the chance. As Moore muses:

It was clear to me , straight away that the events of 1975 had been a first act in this tragedy and that the Angel Worm was a retaliation.  If Washington was right, this was the story I had spent my life preparing for.  If the “events of 1975” seem confusing or enigmatic to you, then that is exactly my point.  They are all part of “The Great Amnesia”.

Carey excels in painting a picture of shadowy forces and interests that are at once both banal and yet terrifying: Gaby’s environmentally activist teacher shows her private “cancer maps” generated by health insurance companies that correlate with pollution sites (the same cancer maps also make an appearance in Bliss: and Joy’s wife is diagnosed with terminal brain cancer).  Like Bliss‘ Harry Joy, who destroys his possessions, and retreats to the bush in an attempt to rid himself of evil, Moore must also purge himself of technology to avoid detection by the authorities, who are trying to use Moore to capture Gaby.  He retreats to an isolated river to complete writing his story of Gaby on his old Olivetti portable typewriter.  (Which authorities are investigating him are never specified, whether they are Australian or otherwise, Carey appears to be saying, it makes no difference). Amnesia‘s ending feels somewhat rushed, events happen without a lot of context in short space of time, but the journey is certainly worth it.

By obliterating traces of past decision points, much popular political discourse encourages us to forget, preferring the simple narrative that the recent past is simply a long preamble to the present, inevitable, arrangements, rather than a set of choices influenced by power.  To really figure out how we got from there to here, means re-examining those choices, and imagining the roads not travelled. By revisiting, in painstaking detail, these moments of recent Australian history: perched between the more innocent days of the 1970s (an era captured beautifully in David Williamson’s Don’s Party), and today’s world of total surveillance and client-state compliance, Carey, in some sense, is working to overcome our collective amnesia.

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