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book review

Peter Carey’s funny and messy thirteenth novel sometimes dwells in the dark corners of the Web.Mike Segar / Reuters/Reuters

'If this was a story about hackers I was laughably ill-equipped," says Felix Moore, the narrator of Amnesia, upon meeting a man who goes by the name Paypal in a remote Australian bunker. While Peter Carey's funny and messy 13th novel does sometimes dwell in the dark corners of the Web, it is ultimately less concerned with computer codes than their moral counterparts. Fortunately for Felix, it isn't really a story about hackers, but rather one about politics and the complicated legacies left for the children of the Internet by their boomer forebears.

As the book opens, the caustic and shambolic Moore has been sued (successfully) for defamation, unlikely ever again to work as a journalist. His saviour is his old friend and patron, the Falstaffian Melbourne property developer Woody Townes. (Townes is one of those classic Carey creations who is more caricature than character, yet still feels fleshy on the page: "He was both a rich man and a courageous soldier of the left. He was a reliable patron of unpopular causes and (although he was possibly tone deaf) chairman of the South Bank Opera Company. He financially supported at least two atonal composers who would otherwise have had to teach high school.")

Townes hires Moore to write the inside story of the biggest story in the world: the attack of the Angel Worm, a computer virus unleashed by a young Australian woman named Gaby Baillieux that has unlocked prison doors in the United States and her home country, freeing countless inmates. Felix, in desperate need of cash and career revitalization, takes the project on, only to be denied in-person access to Gaby and embroiled in various power struggles and long-standing feuds and resentments.

Yet Felix forges ahead, emboldened by his sincere belief that there is one clear reason why Gaby and her cohort have loosed this virus upon the world: History made them do it. In particular, the events of 1975 in Australia, which, in Felix's left-wing muckraker version of the story, saw the legally elected (and extremely progressive) government of Gough Whitlam deposed by a CIA-led plot executed by Australia's Governor-General.

As the novel progresses, Carey begins layering Felix's voice with those of Gaby and her mother, Celine, whom Felix knew in his youth, producing a palimpsest of sorts in which the three are refracted through each other. Felix, alone in a remote cabin, pounds his book out on a typewriter, aided by a few casks of red wine and countless audiotapes made by his subjects in which they describe their lives. Structurally, it produces fascinating results, as people bend into and out of each other, unreliable in their self-characterizations, leaving the reader confounded and sometimes uncertain where each of them begins and ends.

But for all its success in producing an amnesiac state in the reader, the method fails to make a truly engrossing novel: One admires the elegance and cleverness of Carey's technique, but yearns for more intimacy with the characters than his isolated narrator can provide. This is more a flaw in the design than the execution. I can think of only one piece of literature that makes a man sitting alone in a room listening to some cassettes actually interesting, and I'm sorry to report that Amnesia is not the equal of Samuel Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape.

Where the book does thrive is in relentless political inquiry, and Felix's attempts to establish a causal line between the betrayals of the past and the hacktivism of today. In his view, the events of 1975 planted the seeds that grew into the Angel Worm. And while even Felix seems to recognize that this link might seem flimsy to some – Gaby was born in 1975, he argues, so "it is therefore not insane to write about her life and activism in relation to this long-forgotten history" – Carey makes the case successfully, situating all the novel's characters and actions on the same sad cultural continuum of betrayal and deception and anxiety.

This is Carey's greatest power as a novelist, the seeming ease with which he reminds us that politics are everywhere, always. One hears his gentle chiding in the voice of Celine, on the day Gaby is born, as she curses at the delivery-room television, where it's just been announced that the Governor-General has dissolved the Australian government:

"Shush, said the obstetrician. There's no politics today. You have a child.

"Celine cupped her daughter's universe inside her hand and inhaled the musty rutty sex-smell of her hair. There are politics every day, she said. Only a fool would forget it."

Jared Bland is The Globe and Mail's Arts editor.

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