National hero: reforming Australian politician Gough Whitlam and singer Little Pattie on the campaign trail in 1972. Photo: Getty
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Return to Oz: Peter Carey struggles with his country’s memory

Leo Robson reviews the double-Booker Prize-winning author’s new novel about Australian identity. 

“Amnesia seemed to be a condition of patriotism,” wrote the Australian-born, New York-dwelling Robert Hughes in the opening pages of The Fatal Shore. He was referring to modern Australia’s denial of its origins, a denial whose consequences he had experienced at first hand when, shooting a documentary in Port Arthur, Tasmania, he realised: “Like nearly all other Australians I knew little about the convict past of my own country.”

Years later, when he knew pretty much all there was to know, Hughes wrote confidently of the “convict stain”, which was repressed by Australia and formed the country’s estimation of itself. That only seems like a contradiction. In trying to forget where it came from, Australia also failed to notice that it had survived British rule and created a society of its own. Instead of taking pride in a genuine civic and national achievement, Australians held to the view that their history contained, Hughes wrote, no “great men” or “worthy sacrifices” or “stirring deeds” – nothing, in short, to give them a sense of pride or to make them abandon the “cultural cringe”, the peculiarly Australian feeling that the real action is going on elsewhere, at a distance of at least 10,000 miles.

When the great Australian writer Peter Carey, who was born in 1943, started devouring literature in his late teens, he didn’t bother with Australian authors: “I thought they were worthless, of course.” And although he found Australian painting “fun and wild and free”, he never had “the confidence to buy anything”. That’s the cultural cringe in action.

The destiny of Australia looked to be changing course in the 1960s and early 1970s, when Australian historians, prime among them Manning Clark, began to confront their nation’s traumas and celebrate its progress and members of the so-called Sydney Push made their presence felt abroad. If one element of the cultural cringe was artists’ and intellectuals’ feeling of despair that their work would never mean anything in the centres of cultural arbitration, this was the period when that fear lost its footing. Hughes was made the art critic of Time magazine. Germaine Greer published The Female Eunuch. Clive James launched his assault.

This new era of Australian identity was capped by the election, in 1972, of Gough Whitlam, a Labor Party leader who, as well as introducing a range of social reforms, set about dispelling the last vestiges of British rule and reversing the policy of deference shown towards Britain’s imperial successor, as embodied in Harold Holt’s policy on Vietnam: “All the way with LBJ”. If Carey’s generation was the last to experience the former British subject’s reflexive sense of inadequacy, it was also the first to witness Australia’s mutation into a different kind of poodle. As the Tasmanian scholar Peter Conrad, five years Carey’s junior, writes in his new book, How the World Was Won: the Americanisation of Everywhere, “I came to understand that Australia lived on sufferance, remotely dependent on the United States.”

Whitlam sought to end this dependency: calling troops back from Vietnam, threatening the closure of the “signals facility” at Alice Springs, resuming diplomatic and industrial relations with China. The politician Gordon Bilney recalled that he was one of thousands who had been “cringing culturally . . . who quickly found reason to take pride in what the new government
was doing”. Coinciding with the completion of the Sydney Opera House and the awarding of the Nobel Prize in Literature to Patrick White, Whitlam’s first term signalled a change of posture. As Clive James put it: “The cringe became a snarl.”

Or, in the words of Felix Moore, the angry, dishevelled, pill-popping journalist in Peter Carey’s new novel: “After almost two centuries of grovelling, we grew some balls.” It didn’t last. Felix is writing in 2010, almost 35 years after the most important episode of Whitlam’s political career – his dismissal by the then governor general, John Kerr, officially a representative of British rule but in reality a puppet of the Americans. Felix, a Whitlam obsessive, doesn’t need an excuse to reflect on “the events of 1975” but he is given one anyway when a hacker, Gabrielle Baillieux, releases a computer worm into the US prison system, an attack he recognises as a “retaliation”.

In one of the book’s many strange moves, Felix makes the connection between the “Amnesia Worm” and the Whitlam coup before he realises that Gabrielle is the daughter of activist friends of his – and before he discovers that she was born on the day the government fell. Remembering his fervour, Gabrielle’s mother, Celine, promises him “sole access” if he consents to write an account of her daughter’s crimes that might prevent her extradition. As Felix conceives the assignment, somewhat exaltedly, he is being asked to “become a larger person”, a man who has it in his heart to “make a difficult character loveable”, or in more highfalutin terms, “to love our stinking human clay”. Footing the bill for this exercise in imaginative sympathy is the property developer Woody Townes, a one-time Maoist who is on suspiciously good terms with senior figures in the US government.

It is established early on that Felix is a mess but not a crank. His theories about CIA involvement in Whitlam’s unseating are shown to be grounded in a paper trail. But Felix and his creator are wrong-headed and self-aggrandising in their presentation of the coup’s afterlife. Sharing his view that the Amnesia Worm was revenge for 1975, Felix expects the reference to seem “confusing or enigmatic”. This presumption, central to the book’s agenda, is utterly false. The year 1975 is certainly worth writing about but not as a symptom of collective memory loss. Writing about Whitlam’s dismissal, the journalist Phillip Knightley claimed: “Every Australian of a certain age can remember where they were and what they were doing and how they felt when they heard . . .” And though there are readers elsewhere who don’t remember that it happened, let alone where they were, they hardly qualify as victims of “the Great Amnesia”.

At its best, Carey’s work delivers a glorious fusion of essay, poem and yarn. Amnesia, though not without its poetic flourishes and yarnish twists, is too much of an essay – at times, almost a harangue.

Carey gets himself in a particular bind over the question of amnesia, principally by constructing a fictional world at odds with Felix’s descriptions. References within the novel suggest that Australians have not forgotten their history. After accepting Celine’s offer and Woody’s money, Felix is put up in Eureka Tower, a Melbourne skyscraper named after a miners’ rebellion that took place in 1854. A librarian advises Felix to visit the body of Phar Lap, a great racehorse that was nobbled and died in the 1930s. The book’s central lesson is that Australia is in denial about the losses it has endured. But in order to allude to this submerged history, Carey depicts various ways in which it is remembered, even memorialised.

Carey found it similarly hard to answer the competing demands of lesson and drama in his last novel, The Chemistry of Tears, in which the main character is a stubborn rationalist who slowly recognises the narrowness of her mindset while serving all along as a mouthpiece for Carey’s thoughts on the overlap between the material and the metaphysical. When she reads the word “cure”, she corrects it in her mind to “endorphins”; she refuses to believe that a member of the Royal Society could also be a mystic. Yet, in her role as the author’s mouthpiece, she rhapsodises about the way that human beings, though “intricate chemical machines”, are capable of worshipping Monet.

Amnesia also shares with The Chemistry of Tears an unsatisfying approach to the demands of portraying now and then. In his earlier novels, mostly historical, all of them insisting on legacy and inheritance, Carey’s interpretation of William Faulkner’s much-used tag “The past is not dead. It’s not even past” was that there simply is no break. Put crudely, new events spring from old ones.

True History of the Kelly Gang – which takes Faulkner’s line as its epigraph – isn’t concerned with the Australia of today by means of allegory or analogy, in the way that a mini­series set in the Elizabethan court is “actually” about New Labour, but by causing the reader to reflect on what Carey has called “the nature of our heroes”. In this case the “hero” is a man who was hanged for stealing horses and killing policemen but is nevertheless remembered with affection (a feeling displayed dramatically and, to Carey, gallingly during the opening ceremony of the Sydney Olympics, when hundreds of performers dressed as Kelly danced around the stadium).

In Carey’s inventive spin on de Tocque­ville’s reconnaissance trip, Parrot and Olivier in America, a similar historical dynamic is at work. Although it enjoys the odd wink towards recent events – “No matter what the equation,” Olivier tells a banker, “it makes no sense to lend money to a debtor who will almost certainly default” – the 1830s don’t stand in for the 2000s. Instead, they provide a stage for 21st-century processes at an earlier stage of development, or decay.

Where those books left the reader to deduce their topical resonances, Amnesia wants to construct a genealogy, another device carried over from The Chemistry of Tears, which takes as its starting point the 2010 BP oil spill – or rather as its end point, because the book’s dual narrative traces the history of the machine from Vaucanson’s duck via Stephenson’s railway and Babbage’s difference engine (renamed the “Cruickshank engine”) to Benz’s motor car and onwards, ending with the semi-submersible drilling rig. Amnesia works backwards from a female Assange and, despite calling 1975 “a first act”, Felix also remembers the Battle of Brisbane, a two-day street fight between Australian and American soldiers in 1942, during which, in another of the novel’s clunky touches, Gabrielle’s mother was conceived.

The trouble with telling stories in this way is that it reduces the past to a catalyst while treating the present as a site of culmination. Neither is treated as interesting in its own right, giving us little reason to invest in their detailed portrayal. The first half of Amnesia recalls 1942 and 1975 in relation to Gabrielle’s activism, while the second half explores Gabrielle’s activism in terms of
the events that preceded and created her, among them the battle and the coup. When Felix, making slow progress, explains to Woody, “I need background,” Woody replies, “It’s foreground I’m paying for, mate.” It’s what we’re paying for, too, but the way that Carey rigs the novel, everything feels like background.

As well as belonging to a strange, transitional period in Peter Carey’s writing in which he has been trying to accommodate historical imagination to political anger, Amnesia is also a prominent contribution to a new genre, the inverted CIA novel, concerned with describing US imperial misadventures from the victims’ point of view. Other recent examples include Ha Jin’s A Map of Betrayal (China), Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings (Jamaica) and Sophia Nikolaidou’s The Scapegoat (Greece). The contents page of William Blum’s indispensable and newly updated study Killing Hope: US Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II suggests the genre has plenty of room for expansion: as well as “Australia 1973-75: another free election bites the dust”, “Jamaica 1976-80: Kissinger’s ultimatum” and “Greece 1947 to early 1950s: from cradle of democracy to client state”, there are potentially seed-sowing chapters on Indonesia, Angola and British Guiana, among about 50 others.

Carey came close to writing a novel in this vein 20 years ago, in The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith, but opted for the cover of fantasy, with the plucky, faraway Efica getting pushed about by the colony-turned-superpower Voorstand. He wasn’t yet ready to tell the story straight. And, on the evidence of Amnesia, he still isn’t there. His feelings are too raw to form the basis of good fiction. The “special relationship” is presented as a simple case of bully and victim and allegorised that way, too. Felix, the “naive” underdog, embodies his homeland – “Australia felix”, or the lucky country, is a well-known 19th-century tag – while his “patron” and “boss” is the “rich man” Woody. Felix is sufficiently detached from his native country to despise its forgetful ways and, throughout the novel, memory (and not just memory of what Felix calls “novelistic smells”, which Carey renders brilliantly) emerges as the strongest defence against corruption, cowardice and greed.

But whatever its record of censorship, Australia has not forgotten the things that Carey, through Felix, is trying to preserve. And even if it had, it is unlikely that Australian readers would have been persuaded to remember them afresh by a work of fiction teeming with bald contrivances and fluffed strategies that evokes Australia without curiosity or sympathy, to the extent of wasting its own title on calling it a name. 

Leo Robson is the New Statesman’s lead fiction reviewer 

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The rise of the insurgents

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“My words stayed in folders”: life as a fandom lurker

I was listening to the conversations of other fans, but I wasn’t talking. For years—for more than a decade, in fact—I didn’t say a word.

When I was a child, I wrote stories about my favourite characters. Lots of children do this: whether they write it down or act it out, on playgrounds or with a handful of dolls, this kind of storytelling is a natural part of play.

As I entered adolescence, my stories grew elaborate. I took someone else’s characters and gave them massive backstories and a supporting crew of original characters in what I later realised was fanfiction, original stories drawn from someone else’s source material. (In this case, it was a corporate board: I was fixated on self-made millionaires, and told my parents and teachers I was going to grow up to be a “ruthless businesswoman.”) I wasn’t ashamed of my stories, but I didn’t share them with—or even mention them to—anyone else.

I’ve met a lot of people who played with other writers’ characters as a child. “I did that when I was a kid,” they tell me. “As I got older, I grew out of it.” But as I got older, I grew into it—and I went online. By the time the internet was truly accessible to me, past those blisteringly slow dial-up years to the point where, if I stayed up late enough, I could have the big, clunky desktop in my parents’ kitchen all to myself, I was fourteen. And right around then, I fell hard for Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

The fan sites of the late nineties looked like much of the organic web of the late nineties: garish colours and bad fonts. With Buffy, there was a lot of black. I don’t remember being surprised to find Buffy lovers on the web; after all, many of my friends were as obsessed as I was. (I modelled my Buffy scrapbook, painstakingly cut-out articles about the show and its cast, on one a friend had made, though hers was focussed on Angel, and mine was much more sensibly about Rupert Giles.) Many of the people making and reading these Buffy sites were adults, but that didn’t make a difference to me.

What did make a difference was the night I discovered that other people wrote fanfiction. I’ve written before about the utter dissonance of that moment of discovery, about how confused I was by the first story I encountered. Even though I loved writing this stuff, it never occurred to me that other people would want to spend their time rearranging beloved characters on the page.

There were whole archives built around it, I soon learned, and prolific authors who posted work on individual sites. (This was 1999, early days for future fanfic juggernauts like fanfiction.net and LiveJournal.) There was so much to read. People sorted work by character, by romantic pairing, by genre, by trope. They were using fiction to talk back to the show—and to each other.

I dipped a toe into online fanfiction waters, slowly at first, until suddenly, I was drowning in it. I left one fandom and entered another: within a few years, I was wholly consumed by Harry Potter, where I’d stick around for close to a decade (and where now, weirdly, I have returned). As I read, I kept writing - other peoples’ fanfic only gave me more ideas. My drafts migrated from notebooks to word processors and my desktop folders were full of outlines and half-finished fics.

But my words stayed put in those folders: they were as private as they’d ever been. Online fandom was a world where people were having conversations about the things they loved. For more than a decade, I was listening to the conversations, but I didn’t say a word. I was a lurker.

In fact, most people in online communities are lurkers. What was once relatively easy to define—there were people who posted things on or moderated message boards, for example, and people who didn’t—has grown murkier with the rise of social media. But the prevailing wisdom still favours the 90-10-1 rule, which argues that 90 per cent of the people on the web are largely passive readers, 10 per cent are actively engaging with content, and just one per cent create that content. I, like the majority of my fellow fans, have spent most of my fandom life in the broad base of that pyramid.

Loving something with that deep, fannish love, can be a complicated thing. It’s different for everyone, I suppose, but for me, lurking has always sprung from a weird duality: I simultaneously want to talk about the objects of my fandom while also wanting to keep them incredibly private. In my lurking years, I felt like I loved this stuff just as much as everyone who was posting and creating and sharing, but then, I didn’t have proof  beyond my thousands of words of fanfiction, sitting in endless folders on my desktop.

For me, online fanfiction has always been a very private space that paradoxically exists in the public sphere. Over the years I’ve encountered stories that I hold as close to my heart as the source material they were based upon. Cloistered in my fanfiction-reading world, cut off from a lot of other fannish discussion, I missed interpersonal dramas and ship wars and, as arguments are colloquially known in many fan communities, wank. Even when fanfic writers and readers moved en masse to LiveJournal, I steered clear of the personal posts and diary entries: the most I’d see of authors I was reading were little notes at the beginning of chapters: “Sorry this is going up late! Life got in the way.” Fanfiction writers were, for me, their writing alone.

Lurkers occupy a difficult space in fan communities, which are usually built on unpaid labour. For many fic writers, part of the reward of writing lies in communicating with their readers, who are fellow fans. For most of my lurking life, I read in spaces where the only way to interact with writers was to leave a comment, but in recent years, I’ve done most of my fic reading at the Archive of Our Own, where a “kudos,” a little heart button, can be used instead. I regularly see Tumblr posts about the vast gulf between the number of people who leave kudos versus comments. Fandom, many argue, is powered on dialogue and verbal encouragement, and writers need more than a little “like.” And who can blame them?

But after years lurking, of revelling in fanfiction communities while staying resolutely silent, how do I learn to speak up? Social media has helped: I’ve made fandom friends on Twitter and Tumblr, aided by my pivot into writing about fan culture as a journalist. (I’m not going to pretend this doesn’t make my story fairly unusual amongst fanfic lurkers, but still!) I’ve floated little pieces of my personal fannishness out into the world. Now, people know what I ship, what characters I relate to, even some of the stories I love, as I shyly recommend the stuff that’s left me flailing or smacking the couch in glee or saying aloud to literally no one, “This is so good,” as I read it.

My natural instinct remains to lurk. I pepper the web with little hearts and favourites and kudos, but I rarely go in deep on public forums about the things I really love. It’s a curious position for someone who writes and talks a lot about fan culture: I am the perpetual observer, and the incredibly reluctant participant. But as the web has evolved, so have I: I’m inching closer to participatory culture, not just creating, but sharing what I create. And I’ve got thousands of words of new fanfiction, sitting in a folder in my desktop. Perhaps it’s time to finally speak up.

Elizabeth Minkel is a staff writer for The Millions, and writes a regular column on fan culture for the New Statesman. She is on Twitter @ElizabethMinkel.