You are currently browsing the monthly archive for August 2021.

Resurrection Day by Brendan DuBois (1999) 580 p.

An alternate history nuclear war thriller in which the Cuban Missile Crisis escalated into a shooting war, the Soviet Union was obliterated and many American cities were devastated, leaving the country a shadow of its former self, Resurrection Day takes place 10 years later following a plucky Boston Globe journalist investigating the murder of someone with mysterious links to that fateful week in the White House in the October of ’63.

It’s fine, for the most part, but is way too bloated for the story it’s trying to tell, and easily could have been whittled down by several hundred pages.  The post-bomb world also falls apart if you start picking at it; for example, large parts of the surviving United States are only kept fed by British aid. Britain is (by far) a net importer of food, so I’m not sure how generous they’d be after the collapse of global trade that would surely result from the nuclear devastation of much of North America and Eurasia. And on the other hand, much of the plot revolves around a nefarious plan by the British to further neuter the United States and reclaim their place as global superpower, hampered by British SAS troops who… feel bad about that for some reason? As with Whitley Streiber and his novel Warday, Brendan DuBois seems to have a rather skewed view of how gushingly grateful the average Briton is about America’s participation in World War II. And also, for that matter, of how the average Briton talks. The first chapter follows an English colonel and contains “chaps,” “bloody,” “bollocks up” (???), “loo,” “Queen and country” and – this cracked me up – a character whose hand is shaking so badly she “had to put down her teacup.” Cloistered Americans with a stereotypical view of other countries are not the best writers to be speculating on the geopolitics of a post-nuclear-war world, especially when it’s an integral part of the plot. Anyway, Resurrection Day is fine, but unless you have a particular interest in nuclear war fiction I wouldn’t seek it out.

Amnesia by Peter Carey (2014) 377 p.

Of the 1,328 books I have logged on Goodreads (752 read, 570 want-to-read), Peter Carey’s Amnesia has the unfortunate position of being the second-lowest ranked of all of them, with a truly dire average rating of 2.82 stars out of 5. The lowest-ranked is Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question, which perhaps has the excuse of being a Booker winner which would’ve drawn many users to it who never would have read him otherwise, and quickly found he wasn’t to their taste – the same reason you can find so many copies in op shops. Amnesia is more of a puzzler. It’s not, I think, a particularly good novel, but it’s certainly not the worst book in the world – it’s not even Carey’s worst book, being a rung above two of his other contemporary efforts, His Illegal Self and The Chemistry of Tears.

I can see what irritated many readers, though, because it irritated me too. I think Amnesia is the first of Carey’s novels that was released after I’d started reading him, and I remember copies ranked across Waterstone’s new release shelves when I was living in London in 2014, when Julian Assange’s Ecuadorean consulate bolt-hole and Edward Snowden’s NSA leaks and subsequent flight to Hong Kong and Russia were still freshly ripped from the headlines. Assange’s Melburnian roots clearly struck a chord with Carey’s long-standing mistrust of American global dominance and how that interacts with Australia, previously explored in The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith and His Illegal Self, and Amnesia begins on a high note:

It was a spring evening in Washington DC; a chilly autumn morning in Melbourne; it was exactly 22:00 Greenwich Mean Time when a worm entered the computerised control systems of countless Australian prisons and released the locks in many other places of incarceration, some of which the hacker could not have known existed. Because Australian prison security was, in the year 2010, mostly designed and sold by American corporations the worm immediately infected 117 US federal correctional facilities, 1700 prisons, and over 3000 county jails. Wherever it went, it travelled underground, in darkness, like a bushfire burning in the roots of trees. Reaching its destinations it announced itself: THE CORPORATION IS UNDER OUR CONTROL. THE ANGEL DECLARES YOU FREE.

The first hundred-odd pages introduce us to Felix Moore, a flat-broke journalist recently ejected from his family home after being found guilty of defamation. Moore is recruited by the supporters of Gaby Bailleux, the arrested Australian hacker responsible for the novel’s opening incident and Carey’s Assange stand-in, to “properly educate the Australian public, who are naturally inclined to believe the Americans are overreaching again… Australianise her, mate.” With few other options he agrees on the story of a lifetime, but remains skittish and wary of what it will mean to be involved with the United States’ new public enemy number one.

The problem (and this is where I suspect Carey lost most of those disgruntled Goodreads users) is that he promptly ignores this promising set-up – which suggests Amnesia will be a timely techno-thriller – in favour of a rambling account of Gaby’s teenage years, ostensibly about the story of how she got involved in the world of underground hackers, but mostly just a family drama not dissimilar to any number of his other novels. It became increasingly clear, as Amnesia‘s pages went past, that the novel was never going to venture much further than the streets of Carlton circa 1989, and even then it surprised me when Carey only returned to the present day and wrapped up the original storyline, in a rather lazy deus ex machina manner, in the final seven (!) pages.

It’s a shame Carey took such a great idea for a novel and delivered such an underwhelming result, especially since on a line-by-line level he’s as good a writer as he’s ever been. As always, I quite liked his sense of place:

Before exhausting the last of the birdshit deposits which were the source of its fabulous wealth, before going into business as a detention facility for asylum seekers, the nation-state of Nauru destroyed two landmark buildings in Collins Street and erected a 52-floor octagonal monument to its own ineptitude and corruption. Who would want to have an office on this site? My mate of course.

The embankment was not a real riverbank, but a mess made by bulldozed mud and ancient garbage. From here you could look down to see the poor fucked Merri Creek threading through the body of Coburg like the vein in the dead body of a prawn. The descent was steep, shoulder-high with fennel. There was a spewy smell. Factories occupied the high ground above the creek, below the power pylons. The actual watercourse was marked by abandoned cars and broken industrial equipment including a sabotaged dragline crane with its long steel boom twisted like a swan’s neck.

The after party was in East Kew. I had lived in Melbourne all my life and never saw a house with gates like these, four-metre-high spears tipped with gold fleurs-de-lis, like the owners were waiting for the revolution.

Amnesia is by no means a terrible novel, but it’s certainly a missed opportunity. I’m writing this while SBS News is on, with a story on the United States’ ongoing endeavour to extradite Julian Assange from prison in Britain. Whatever you may think of that long and sorry saga, or of the man himself, the real-life story is undeniably more interesting than the fictionalised version Carey delivers in Amnesia.

Archive Calendar

August 2021