Oscar And Lucinda
The Guardian, Friday April 1 1988
It is instructive to see how Peter Carey brings off a fusion of the epic and ironic modes in this marvelous novel, Oscar And Lucinda.
He constructs his narrative out of short, or shortish, sentences, often of an off-beat, ferocious elegance. (His is a style that calls attention to itself not insistently but unequivocally.) These sharp, highly colored splinters are assembled into very many short, or shortish, chapters. Gradually, all builds [sic]into a novel of extraordinary size, in every sense of the word; yet the method of it is not unlike the way a person might set out to construct a model of the Taj Mahal out of matchsticks, and the general effect of Oscar And Lucinda does indeed have some of the unselfconscious strangeness of folk art.
It is just this strangeness that undercuts the tendency towards irony and gives Oscar Hopkins his genuinely tragic dimension. Oscar and Lucinda are in predicaments which, in the twentieth century, to a twentieth century sensibility, are absurd – but never, for one moment, seem so the themselves, nor to their creator. The circumstances of their lives, and the environments from which they spring, are recreated in hallucinatory detail.
The novel is set in England and Australia in the middle of the nineteenth century and wears its research so openly on its sleeve it is obviously intended to demonstrate just how very different a country the past was, and how, in that country, salvation and damnation were not only a constant topic of intellectual debate but a mater of profound emotional concern to the individual.
The novel is narrated by somebody we never learn much about, except he tells us that he looks like his great-grandfather, the Reverend Oscar Hopkins, and that it is because of a Christmas pudding that there is a story for him to tell, in the fist place.
This information is delivered deadpan; there is nothing quaint about the story of the Christmas pudding, nor of the section of family history that devolves thereon for Oscar And Lucinda belongs to the category of novels that reach back into the past to explicate the present, although the connection between Oscar and the family who call him their great-grandfather is as shockingly arbitrary at the white presence in Australia itself.
Everything begins in the red mud of a Devon village. Oscar is the child of a fundamentalist Christian of the most austere kind whose system of belief and practice reflects obsessional characteristics that will come to fine flower in his son. It is the illicit Christmas pudding an incorrigible servant cooks for the little boy one Christmas Day that sparks Oscar’s first crisis of belief, for his father, opposed to Christmas pudding on theological grounds, makes the child vomit his helping.
Yet it was fatherly love made him do it. But God smites him for his austerity, or so Oscar believes, and Oscar flees him for the less rigorous Anglicans –abandon his father and the obsessional tenets of his faith only to discover in himself an untold capacity for obsessional gambling.
Carey makes us believe, not only in Theophilus Hopkins’s religious mania, but also in his goodness of heart and when Oscar abandons his father he is himself abandoned, from that moment driven only the demands of his obsessions and his phobias, his genuine humility, his genuine disregard for self. At last, ordained, he sets out to Australia to convert the heathen, only to encounter on the boat, a young woman as a driven as himself, the half-emancipated heiress, Lucinda Leplastrier.
The novel deals with sin, guilt, obsession, compulsion, the nature of religious belief and the destructive innocence of God’s elect but nothing rumples the bright precision of the writing and the observation behind it. This precision gives the writing its profoundly unsettling quality. For example: “A fox terrier was placed in the ring. The fox terrier was called Tiny. It wore a woman’s bracelet for a collar. It took the rats one by one, picked them up like fruit from a bowl, broke them while the clock ticked and the men roared so you could not hear your companion speak to you.”
To bet on the results of this small massacre is the most degrading thing Rev. Oscar Hopkins can imagine. He will do so, of course, soon after, and on a Sunday, too, “Because it was a sabbath and there was no other betting to be had.”
If Oscar is a Myshkin-like sacred innocent and holy fool – and he is all that – then he shares the pet vice of Myshkin’s creator, and the young woman with whom he falls in love is as unruly and passionate as those heroines of Dostoevsky who tremble on the verge of becoming New Women. If Oscar is an obsessional gambler, then Lucinda is a compulsive one. There is a difference; see the difference between Oscar’s coolly systematic gambling on his first day at the races in Chapter 29 (“Epsom Downs”), and Lucinda’s crazed chase though the dark and dangerous night-time city of Sydney in search of the glamour and intoxication of a game where she can lose all her money (Chapter 65, “The Multitude of Thy Sorceries,”) but it is inevitably they fall in love, the wild, rich girl and the by-now unfrocked clergyman with his red hair and gangling legs, his saintliness, his lack of guile.
Their love, and their fates, are sealed with a wager concerning a folly even more extravagant than a model of the Taj Mahal made of matchsticks – a church made out of glass. A glass church that can be packed flat and transported though the bush to be raised again where the wasps and butterflies and bees don’t know the nature of glass, have never met it before, will bang themselves against the suddenly solid air, and Oscar can praise God in the wilderness.
The detail and precision with which Carey has constructed the novel makes this wager seem not only possible but plausible, for Lucinda, known as the Glass Lady, bought herself a glass-works with her inheritance and the peculiar strengths and fragilities of glass as a substance is one of the things the novel is about.
Octavio Paz says somewhere that the most mysterious thing is absolutely transparent, and the glass church, that beautiful, preposterous, “batboned” thing, “its walls like ice emanating light, as fine and elegant as civilization itself,” floats at last down the Bellinger River after Oscar has brought it through the bush at the cost of tremendous human suffering, not only to those on the crazy expedition, but to the tribal people whom the expedition ills, and to whom the civilization represented by the glass church is deadly.
Oscar is presented with a final conundrum which the novel never properly resolves: Was the vision of the glass church built to the glory of God in reality a snare of the Evil One all the time? (It must be said that a glass church, in a country as sun-struck as Australia, is something of a lethal folly even if, as Lucinda suggests, it is erected under a shady tree.) This conundrum isn’t resolved because it is one Oscar asks himself but one the novel never asks. It is possible that the folly – the great, heartbreaking folly – was no more than a folly all the time.
Oscar And Lucinda is a novel of extraordinary richness, complexity and strength – it is a peopled world, humming, buzzing, dancing with life and liveliness; it brings the past, in all its difference, bewilderingly into our present. It fills me with wild, savage envy, and no novelist could say fairer than that.
(Angela Carter was a great novelist and short story writer)