Book Review – Amnesia by Peter Carey

Ah, where to start on this entangled, undisciplined, dissonant, amazing carnivore of a book? A ragged, shredded, broken-toothed affair, a story of Australia related by a melange of unpredictable and wounded characters with inarticulate and blasted dialogue embedded in even more unpredictable careening narratives, alternating first person, third person, shifting between reliable and unreliable narrators and different character’s perspectives, sometimes multiple times on a single page. The characters live shambolically within dysfunctional families, battling their own warped and broken personalities,  and amidst political conspiracies, real and imagined (what do you know of the coup of 1975? The Battle of Brisbane in 1942? The CIA spying facility near Alice Springs? Me too. I had to look them up).

If this introduction to Amnesia seems a little hallucinatory, it is because that is how it feels reading this wondrous and complex story, at least from time to time. It is partially about a unhappy and outspoken young girl, Gaby, unable to fully escape from her warring parents, who becomes a teenage political activist and eventually a hacker, unleashing global mischief on a truly grand scale. It is partially about a celebrated Australian journalist, now shamed and brought low for crimes only hinted at (making up news stories?) who is kidnapped and forced to write Gaby’s life story (Gaby and her hacktivists are fugitives). It is partially about the history of left wing politics in Australia. It is partially about the parts of Australia we never see – poverty and crime and alcoholism and messed up schoolkids and corporate malfeasance and US domestic interference and the convenient ententes of backroom politics.

The many characters in this book are huge, they come at the reader like a herd of elephants, trampling any expectations of subtlety and patient character development. They are in your face from the first page, and the reader’s empathies are treated with disdain – we like and dislike them in equal measure and at different times, a reasonable facsimile, I suppose, for  the real people in our lives. The story is deep and robust and complex –  at times claustrophobic, beautiful, shocking, even incomprehensible (I struggled to understand what was going for the first 75 pages) –  with Australian left wing politics and environmental activism and the weakness of men fueling 376 pages of dizzying construction.

Once I loved Peter Carey (twice Booker winner, and reigning monarch of Australian fiction, along with Tim Winton). Then I read some books I didn’t like and moved on to other authors. Now I am re-energised by him. A bit out of breath, perhaps, exhausted by this book, amazed by his language skills and acrobatic scaffolds. A great book? Not quite, but so different to anything I have read in a while that I must say – read this, with your literary crash helmets firmly secured. It is a wild journey on a bumpy road.

Book Review – Let Me Be Frank With You by Richard Ford

Book Review – Let Me Be Frank With You – Richard Ford

This is fourth book in what was originally a completed trilogy by Ford – three iconic and truly great American novels over 15 years  – The Sportswriter, Independence Day and Lay of the Land, all tracking the small triumphs and failures of one unremarkable middle class American, Frank Bascombe.  All of these books, and particularly this one (which is more of a postcript than a novel), are mercifully free of and the artificial and synthetic straight jackets of plot, but are brimming with story (in extremis – plot is entirely eschewed, we are simply transported into Bascombe’s head, and we follow him around for a few days – hearing what he thinks, and seeing what he sees). The meandering approach to the novel is (contrary to expectations) liberating and thrilling, and in Ford’s hands full of pathos and gentle humour and profound insight.

There are 4 stories in this book, minimally overlapping, all taking place on the seashore in New Jersey in the days approaching Christmas 2012 in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. The hurricane and its attendant devastation of property and lives colour all of the stories and is the driving metaphor behind many of the book’s more subtle themes – the end of things, ambition’s pointless energies, loves lost, lives unhinged by random events.

Bascombe is approaching seventy, his whole history within miles of his home.  His Parkinson’s afflicted ex-wife in an spectacularly well-appointed care facility waiting for the disease to claim her. A sometime friend (once rich and envied) dying in a nearby hospice bottled up with a secret whose shock value has been leached by age. A black stranger who arrives at Bascombe’s front door to tell him about her brutally truncated childhood in this house in which he now resides. His current wife counseling grief-stricken hurricane victims and Bascombe’s growing distance from both her and the entire outside world.

It is difficult for me to articulate the magic of this book, particularly in the light of the previous Bascombe novels (it is not necessary to read them to enjoy this one), but there are many places were I stopped to rethink a thought in Bascombe’s head. There are few other characters in the modern American literature who are so fully rendered, drawn with all the complexities of everyman as he, and we, get towards the end – our unnecessary fretting and tiny pleasures and overblown fears and fading memories and finally the peace we can make with ourselves after a lives lived with best intent but arbitrary consequence.