Looking back at the Booker: Peter Carey
There is no doubt that Oscar and Lucinda has won over readers and critics alike, but could their love of the novel have blinded them to its lack of subtlety and implausible storyline?
Wed 28 May 2008
Wed 28 May 2008
It's with some trepidation that I approach Peter Carey's Best of Booker shortlisted novel Oscar And Lucinda. A quick google search reveals it to be "a transforming experience... my ultimate favourite romantic book". One that someone called Sarah "fell in love with", which "won over" someone called Harriet "completely" and that "will change your life".
Meanwhile, the back cover of my edition features no less than Angela Carter proclaiming it to be a "novel of extraordinary richness, complexity and strength" which filled her with "wild, savage envy". My own girlfriend warned me of relationship reassessment if I didn't like it. This isn't just a successful and critically acclaimed novel, it's a book people love. Any perception of unfair judgment or misinterpretation will undoubtedly land me in hot water.
Fortunately, I can see the appeal. Most notably, there's the simple pleasure of Carey's storytelling. We follow the adorably unusual romantic lead Oscar (all gangling limbs, "long-stretched neck", religious obsession and compulsive gambling) on a gloriously picaresque journey. He progresses by confused and shambling steps from a strict Plymouth Brethren upbringing in rural Devon to obsessive gambling in London and Oxford and on to Australia, where a bet inspired by his desperation to impress a certain Lucinda has him transporting a glass church through the outback and up the Bellinger river on a mission even more futile than that of Marlow in Heart Of Darkness.
So, a strange yarn, but undoubtedly a ripping one too. As well as the Conrad, there's a heady mix of Edmund Gosse's Father and Son and Fitzcarraldo. A potent brew of religious fanaticism, naturalism, strange conversions, bizarre water-themed activity, determination in the face of insuperable odds and triumphs of madness over reason.
It's absurd. Its insistence on chance and the arbitrary nature of human decisions repeatedly confounds expectations and lurches the plot in strange directions. Each character's thinking and personal motivation is alien (few people nowadays emigrate to Australia because of the opportunities it presents for self-mortifying missionary work, after all). But all those potential pitfalls become virtues in Carey's skilful hands, and his great gift is not only to make us believe in this very foreign vision of the past, but also to care about it deeply.
All the same, while the passion Oscar and Lucinda elicit makes it magical in ways that drier Best of Booker contenders like Nadime Gordimer's The Conservationist just don't even approach, it also creates its own problems. Certainly, as I read over the ecstatic web reviews, not to mention the glowing notices the book received when it first came out and accounts of the book being given the 1988 Booker after just 30 minutes deliberation among the judges, I couldn't help thinking that love had maybe blinded those critics to the book's faults.
After the first throes of passion have died down, there's still plenty about Oscar and Lucinda that keeps the relationship interesting. Behind the entrancing story there are some meaty ideas about the nature of storytelling, chance, the achievements and cruelties of Empire, the way what we term "progress" is so often destructive and the fragility of dreams. Most of these are vividly symbolised in repeated references to glass and water, culminating in that splendid image of a glass church floating up a river. The trouble is that these references are repeated so often that it starts to seem laboured. It's as if Carey is worried we might have missed the references the first, second and third times and it all starts to get a bit York Notes. Worse still, some episodes seem to be there only for the sake of these themes, particularly a contrived series of episodes about Prince Rupert's drops that all but scream Carey's ideas about how things can be both strong but fragile. About the marvel and folly of technology. How the beautiful can be destructive. It's not subtle.
I had further problems with a rather cumbersome narrative framing device. This comes courtesy of someone who explains that Oscar is his great-grandfather and occasionally pops up to remind us that he is piecing together the story from photos, reminiscences, letters and similar. The trouble is that his knowledge seems highly unlikely since so much of the book is written from the perspective of an omniscient voice. How, for instance, could this descendant know the intricacies of Lucinda's night out in a Chinese betting shop? Perhaps one could detect clever meta-fictional commentary here, but really it seems that this narrator from Oscar and Lucinda's future is there just to spring one big surprise about his parentage towards the end of the book. Okay, it's a good surprise and neatly fits in with Carey's ideas about the expectations we have of stories but it comes with a heavy cost in terms of the suspension of disbelief.
In other words, I think there are less flawed books on the Best of Booker shortlist. Whether there are more lovable ones, however, is a different question - and one that may make Oscar And Lucinda a serious contender.
Next time, in a frankly embarrassing contradiction of my earlier claim that I was going to deal with these Best of Bookers "in authorial alphabetical order", Pat Barker's The Ghost Road.