In a Sydney courtroom, jaded journalist and warrior of the left Felix Moore has just had defamation damages of $120,000 awarded against him when old friend Woody Townes offers him a lifeline in the form of $10,000 to write the biography of Gaby Baillieux, a young cyber-hacker. She’s wanted by the Americans for releasing the Angel worm into Australia’s prison system, unlocking all the doors of prisons all over the country, as well as in the US.
Broke and thrown out of home by his wife, Felix has no choice but to comply. Woody wants Felix to make Gaby likeable, drawing unavoidable parallels with the project to write Julian Assange’s still unpublished biography. But as Felix hilariously notes, he didn’t think he was the kind of writer to make a difficult character loveable:
‘My most notable work of fiction, Barbie and the Deadheads, had been a satire.’
The search for the elusive Gaby leads him first to Melbourne, then back to Sydney, where he’s secreted in a hideaway on the Hawkesbury with only a bag full of tape recordings from Gaby and her mother Celine, who Felix first met at university in Melbourne. Its never certain just who is controlling Felix and who wants to find him, but the focus is on the backstory of Celine’s mother, Celine and Gaby. The story starts with the Battle of Brisbane during the second world war and moves through what Felix calls ‘the traumatic injury done to my country by our American allies in 1975’, being of the firm belief that the fall of the Whitlam government was orchestrated by the US and the Angel worm was now a retaliation against that act. It is revealed that Felix had even considered his own subversive action in protest at the dismissal.
Carey has created a really funny and absorbing hero in Felix Moore, who walks and talks like an old-school knockabout journalist. This is a resolutely Australian story and I especially enjoyed reading about country Victoria and inner city Melbourne, where most of the story is set at the time I lived there myself. Peter Carey grew up in Bacchus Marsh, less than 50 km away from the town where I grew up, which he actually name checks. I like the fact that Carey doesn’t feel the need to explain all of these locations and references to international readers, and he was quoted in an interview as saying that nineteenth century writers didn’t write for us to understand everything they referred to, and we’re all fine with that.
The story is told in first person from Felix’s point of view, and then in third to relate Celine and Gaby’s stories. I thought the relationships between Gaby and her fellow hacker Frederick, Gaby and her mother, and Celine and her husband Sando, were particularly well written. I’d be interested to know what younger people would think of the depiction of two teenagers growing up in the 90s but I wasn’t much older myself then, and Carey’s portrayal seems to ring true. The three-way interaction between Sando, Celine and Gaby as her parents marriage starts to disintegrate is quite sad.
My only criticism is that the section outlining Gaby and Frederick’s early computer hacking activities dragged a bit, but I suspect that’s just because I’m inherently not very interested in the technical side it all.
This story succeeds so well because its a great mix of satire, historical speculation, the origins of ‘hacktivism’, and of the personal relationships between parents and children, and teenagers.