Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Peter Carey's Amnesia. Both very good and very bad.

I approached this latest Carey novel with trepidation. His last one, The Chemistry of Tears, was ordinary and unsatisfying. 

Amnesia on the other hand is both very good and very bad. Carey's coin is eccentricity and he delivers it in spades here. One of the principal characters for example is a thuggish, treacherous oaf called Woody Townes, a property developer who seemingly backs left-wing causes but is undoubtedly a CIA agent trying to bring our brave journalist hero, Felix Moore, down. He's simply absurd and Carey has no idea what to do with him or how to bring him to life. He's just a developer baddy and he cops it in the end.

The meandering narrative, which thankfully avoids all Carey's predictable fantastical indulgences, is littered with minor characters and all they do is add colour and movement. They're all disaffected Laborites in 1970's/80's Melbourne, 'shit-stirrers', 'comrades' and 'ratbags', consumed by the issues of that passionate time (Vietnam, Pine Gap) and lovers of their political hero and moratorium leader Jim Cairns. They live in terrace houses in Carlton and fibro shacks in Coburg. 

The problem is Carey bogs us down in far too much extraneous detail trying to bring these characters and the streets of Melbourne to life. We're buried in pages and pages of family histories, computer games, petty crimes, school and teacher dramas, car accidents, eco-terrorism events and many more. They're all unrelated episodes and ultimately it's an emotionally unsatisfying, incoherent mess. 

And there's the serious political undertone: Whitlam, Rex Connor, Cairns - they were all undone by the CIA. And union leader Hawke refused to call a general strike on the day of the Dismissal because he was got at by the American Embassy. Carey brings no detachment or irony to the telling of these hoary old conspiracies. 

Thankfully the two main characters, Gaby and Frederic, who are young, feisty, rebellious and alienated, are the life of the novel and are superbly fleshed out and real. They are fascinating and hold our interest throughout. 

And the writing is quite superb. There is a sparkling wildness to it, peppered with acute observation and description. As usual however Carey stays on the surface. There is little depth or resonance beyond the obviously political. Australia had its chance to free itself from great power dominance in the 70's but didn't seize it and more accurately was tragically refused it.

If you're a Peter Carey fan you'll love Amnesia. If you're an ageing lefty Labor tragic you'll also probably love it. If you love Melbourne you might love it even more. In a real sense it's a paean to this wonderful, fascinating city.

(Dear publisher: it's badly proofread. Dear author: stop using the ugly word 'shit' and the even uglier 'shitty' so often. It's vulgar and distasteful).

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Linda Grant's Upstairs At The Party. (not a party you want to go to!)

This is the new novel by author of The Clothes on their Backs, which was short listed for the Booker in 2008.

It's a story of ordinary students doing ordinary things at a new British university, and most of them having ordinary uneventful work lives afterwards.

The time is the early seventies, so the women are all reading The Female Eunuch and some of them are discovering politics and railing against capitalism and the ruling class. One boy is actually 'homosexual', who, you guessed it, subsequently dies of AIDS.

This novel fails on virtually all levels. It never engages the reader. It never takers off. It is tedium writ large. TEDIUM.

There is absolutely nothing going on in this book that does not reflect the plain, boring, ordinary, average lives and experiences of all students, like me, who attended university at that time. In the UK they weren't even obsessed with the Vietnam war like we were in Australia because the UK weren't participants. The most passionately political of these students became Trotskyites for god's sake. Something absurd they abandoned straight after university.

There is a lot of talk but the dialogue isn't real dialogue at all. When they're not being rude and accusatory to each other the characters are all declarative, articulating social and political ideas like no real people do. This seems to be the author's intention - to convey some sense of social development in Britain over the last 40 years or so. But the narrative just plods on offering little insight or critique. What's sacrificed is building characters who matter and structuring some plot lines with a bit of drama and tension in them. We get a taste of that in the final 20 pages, offered as some sort of climax, but it's simply not enough.

Why on earth this very ordinary novel was published is beyond me.