“I have never in my literary life felt blocked by anyone. People who write for the movies are continually going to meetings where 16-year-olds tell them what to do. Publishers tend to let you do what you want. That means you end up with the mentality of a taxi driver or small shopkeeper: ‘If you don’t like it, get out of my shop.’ You feel that giddy sense of power. But in the end you are a taxi driver or small shopkeeper. You really don’t have, and nor do you expect, much power. When you publish, you never get the attention or have the influence that, in your grandiose dreams at four in the morning, you think you are going to have.”
This final statement might sound a little strange being spoken by the Australian novelist Peter Carey. Twice a winner of the Man Booker Prize, for Oscar and Lucinda and True History of the Kelly Gang, the 71-year-old is guaranteed a global audience every time he releases a new work – in this case, his 13th novel, Amnesia. Over the course of a career that dates back three decades, Carey has won every Australian literary award going and is regularly mentioned in dispatches as a future Nobel laureate. If you want a novelist with power, then Peter Carey is your man.
The unassuming assessment of his influence is not entirely the result of modesty. In conversation Carey is confident, funny, pugnacious and rollicking good company, but not meek. Quick to laughter, he is happy to jab at his critics. After I propose an interpretation of Amnesia’s narrator, Felix Moore, Carey cuts me, and himself, down to size.
“I don’t know if it’s clear to everybody, but the second half is written by Felix. It’s his own irony. I realise that hasn’t been totally apparent to everyone, but I think that’s your fault,” he says, laughing. “It wasn’t my fault. I didn’t f*** this up. You did.”
Carey takes his work seriously, but not so seriously that he overestimates literature's place in the grand scheme of things. He talks with admirable cheerfulness about books that met with critical puzzlement or disdain. "The Tax Inspector did not make me loved particularly, or understood," he says. "I think it was a disturbing reading experience. People felt that I had not provided a moral centre. Every lily pad they stood on sank beneath them. I didn't know you were meant to provide the moral centre." A cricketing metaphor is employed to describe the muted reception of 1994's The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith, which "as they say, sailed right through to the keeper".
Not only has Amnesia avoided this fate, earning rave reviews everywhere it has been published, but it has made a distinct impact, especially in Carey's homeland. "I never expect social effect, but I sense some social effect because of the book," he says. "A few people have said it is an important thing to write, which is unusual for me. Although when one was 18 one would have wanted to change the world with one's fiction, I don't expect to impinge on the real world very much."
Nevertheless, fiction's impinging upon the world features strongly in Amnesia. There are several ways one could summarise its many preoccupations: computer hacking, social protest, the erosion of cultural memory, the unstable relationship between Australia and the United States. At its heart are two people and one book, itself called Amnesia, seeking to change a nation if not an entire planet.
Put this to Peter Carey himself, of course, and he lives up to his novel’s title. “The past of a book is always such a jumble, a tangle, and mud, and confusion and darkness and grief that it is very hard to put it together. One starts to say things and wonder if they’re true.”
Amnesia's two central protagonists straddle a generation gap. In the older corner is Felix Moore, a crusading if unreliable socialist writer who, as the novel opens, has been successfully sued for slander: his fiction writer's way with journalism earns him the nickname Felix Moore-or-less.
Felix is offered a way out, if not redemption, by an old friend and patron, the frankly unsettling Woody Townes, who commissions him to write the life story of Gaby Baillieux. The daughter of a mutual friend, Gaby is a computer hacker wanted for extradition to American for releasing a virus that opened prisons across Australia and the United States.
“Gaby is someone who wants to change the world. She has seen her parents f*** up, sees governments not being responsive to voting populations, and has gone: ‘OK, we’ll do it.’ I don’t think this is a long-term political solution as we lurch towards chaos and confusion, but for a brief period of time individuals like Gaby may have the same power as a nation state.”
Gaby and Felix are united, at least in Felix’s imagination, by two historical confrontations with the United States that have been all but erased from the Australian cultural memory. The first is “The Battle of Brisbane”, in which Australian and American soldiers rioted on the city streets in 1942. Wartime censorship prevented this ever gaining widespread notoriety.
The second, graver clash, is known simply as “1975” and has been subject to different forms of forgetfulness. Both Felix and Carey contend that the constitutional crisis that brought down the Labour prime minister Gough Whitlam was the result of CIA intervention after Whitlam threatened to close the American-run Pine Gap satellite station.
For Carey and others on the Australian left, Whitlam’s stance over Pine Gap was one of many acts of national self-assertion that make him a bona fide Australian hero. “He was the first and only Australian prime minister who pursued an independent foreign policy, who was intelligent enough and eloquent enough to stand on a world stage. We could be proud of him and not be a snivelling, pathetic, grovelling group of people who say: ‘Can we come to Vietnam? Ask us to go to Vietnam and we’ll go.’ As if that would somehow guarantee our later protection by an imperial power who would always act in its own selfish national interests anyway.”
Amnesia's combination of conspiracy theory, computer hacking and America's invasive national security services has earned Gaby comparisons to Edward Snowden and Julian Assange, the latter himself born in North Queensland.
“My book was built on the fact I recognised [Assange] as Australian,” Carey says, with a notable hint of annoyance. “[The United States] called him a traitor. How the f*** is he a traitor? He’s an Australian citizen. He’s not yours. You can’t call him a traitor. The lack of curiosity about who he was and where he came from speaks to an American habit of not really understanding the cultures and the places that they interfere with to their detriment.”
Carey, who has lived in New York for almost 25 years but continues to write predominantly about his homeland, is in an ideal position to compare the two nations. “People of my generation living in Australia are always looking outward to other cultures, because of where you are on Earth and colonial insecurity about who you are.
“Whereas the United States tends to look inwards, I think, and tends to be more isolated, less curious and less informed. I might be wrong, but that’s what I think. We had convicts. They had convicts too, but they weren’t as important as the Pilgrims. We can have a prime minister who doesn’t believe in God. They can’t. They talk about God all the time.”
It is tempting to locate Felix Moore and Gaby Baillieux (not to mention Julian Assange) in a rich tradition of Australian rebels. Carey, who won his second Booker Prize for narrating Ned Kelly’s life, cheerfully admits the connection and his own attraction to the outsider. “Absolutely,” he says, before telling an anecdote from his school days about a Careyesque gang of Australian confidence tricksters who swept through London “and cleaned everyone out”. Carey, who was sent to the elite boarding school Geelong Grammar, has often wondered why his peers were so excited and amused by these exploits. “That’s not their class interests. It’s their national identity about being cleverer than the people who always looked down on us a little bit. It was one of the aspects of colonial reassertion, I suppose.”
Carey himself fits this rebel blueprint, up to a point. “I have spent a lifetime of forever not quite belonging where I am, but existing in a relatively happy way in that environment.” Born in 1943, he grew up in the working-class town of Bacchus Marsh, Victoria. “I thought my parents were the town elite. They had a GM dealership. I imagined we were on the same level as the doctor, which would be about as high as you could get. Then I got to Geelong Grammar – in that context I was really working class with very posh people.”
After a year at Monash University, which features in Amnesia, Carey combined his literary ambitions with a job in advertising. "I wouldn't talk to advertising people and hung out with more arty people who disapproved of me for being in advertising. I was in Sydney but I wasn't from there. Everywhere I have been I have not quite been of. I have enjoyed all that."
Carey’s literary career was no less awkward. Despite “[working] very hard as a writer”, he wrote five novels in the early to mid-1960s, none of which were published. Towards the end of the decade, he travelled to London. “It was 1968. Australia had troops in Vietnam. Just to wear long hair in Melbourne was enough to have people want to kill you. So getting the train from Dover through this green landscape and reading the Sunday papers, I thought I had arrived in heaven. I loved London. I loved England. I loved everything about it. I was very sad to come home.”
Carey continued to write without success. He recalls one fledgling experimental novel as “a little bit like dragging your tongue over a grey blanket. I was very serious. I went half-crazy writing it. I was so confident that no one would publish it, because I knew it was very good, you see. Stuff that good doesn’t get published.”
Eventually, of course, something did get published: Carey's first novel, Bliss, in 1981. This began a body of work that bears comparison with any novelist of the last 30 years. Carey's forte is exploring the illusory nature of people, art, myths, nations and reality itself. His penchant for inventive narratives and unsettling characters has not always endeared him to audiences seeking likeable protagonists and bullet-pointed stories.
“One thing that novelists have to be able to do is to imagine what it’s like to be other than themselves, even [with] the more objectionable of their characters. You have to have heart enough to love those characters otherwise they are not going to work. I am often shocked to find readers who don’t share my passion for my characters at all.”
Carey has found this is especially true where his female characters are concerned. The Kelly Gang's matriarch, Ellen, was considered a "bad mother" in the United States. Sarah Wode-Douglas, the sharp-tongued heroine of My Life as a Fake, or Catherine Gehrig, the anguished, grieving narrator of The Chemistry of Tears. "It is quite difficult to have people like angry women – or for men to like angry women, perhaps. Women don't have that issue. Men don't like them because she's angry or she's drunk." Carey pauses. "These things never occur to me because I'm angry and drunk all the time."
Anger, albeit leavened with healthy doses of humour, seems to be one of Carey's natural states. Ask whether he misses Australia after a quarter of a century in New York, and he replies: "Oh no, I am enraged wherever I am." He sounds crossly amused when discussing English condescension to Australians. In 1985, he travelled to London after his second novel Illywhacker was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. "The taxi driver said: 'You over here for the culture?' I said: 'Well, actually, I'm exporting it.' 'Oh yeah?' he replied. 'Neighbours? You got the marks, have you?' I said: 'What do you mean?' 'From the shackles on your ankles.' That was 1985. It was pretty interesting."
Carey is just as exercised when he turns to climate change and that “ecological reactionary” Tony Abbott, Australia’s current Conservative prime minister. When I ask how Australia weathered the recent economic meltdown, he says: “Well, selling a lot of raw materials – coal to the Chinese – always helps. Australia has never been very good at manufacturing or as entrepreneurs, but we are really, really good at digging s*** out of the ground.”
Abbott seems unaware of the need to take immediate action on global warming. Carey cites his apparent ignorance of bleak predictions made by the Pentagon as proof. “The Abbott government doesn’t seem to have read that. In the meantime we are selling coal to China and celebrating its healthy effects. I don’t know what that is. Australian opportunism, I guess.”
Raising one of Amnesia's central themes, is this a case of humanity burying its head in a rapidly expanding amount of sand? "It's always been like that. No one can believe that the future can be different to the past. But we can rely on the fact that it's going to be. We all do s*** that we shouldn't. I can sit and write this book, and still come back with plastic bags and consumerist c*** I shouldn't have." Carey pauses. "I feel terribly pessimistic on the one hand, and in need of a damn good joke on the other. Have a good old laugh on the way out."
Little escapes Carey’s boisterous comic sensibility: not his work, the end of the world or the new World Trade Center, which has just opened its doors. Carey can just about see it from his apartment’s window. “I hate the new building. It looks vaguely fascistic to me. I am pleased at least that they are not calling it the Freedom Tower. It’s going to change this neighbourhood. It’s not necessarily better to have all the hairdressers that sustain Condé Nast eagerly coming downtown.”
Carey says he has just about moved on from Amnesia, sounding cantankerously amused when I ask what he’s like between books. “I am not a very good human being when I don’t have something to occupy myself. My pottery wheel broke … it didn’t really. I don’t have a pottery wheel. I try to pretend that I am happy just reading, which is what literary people are meant to do. And I get so grumpy and depressed. I make notes and try and think of something.”
Luckily for everyone who knows him, the novelist has stumbled across a new idea after three months of searching. Perhaps, after all, this is where his fiction has its deepest impact – on Peter Carey himself.
“I am at my most alive probably when I am writing. God, I have got away with it most of my life. That you can spend most of your time at play, in an elevated way one hopes, is pretty damn nice. And even when it isn’t, it’s a very privileged way of ‘not nice’. It’s all great play.”
James Kidd is a freelance reviewer based in London.