Sunday, September 16, 2012

Aboriginal Sin: Loving Peter Carey Too Much

The name Peter Carey elicits in me a reaction akin to that of Augustus Gloop at the Wonka Factory chocolate river. I just can't get enough, and I will not share with Charlie Bucket.

Carey has authored seventeen novels and one collection of stories. They are all wonderful - each one a literary golden ticket (done with the Wonka references? Yeah, me too.) 

But I play favorites: The True History of the Kelly Gang and Oscar and Lucinda

The True History of the Kelly Gang isn't a historical novel; it's a fully imagined act of historical impersonation. It purports to be the confession of the outlaw Ned Kelly, the Australian contemporary of Jesse James. Carey's novel is a thoroughly researched portrait, but it's also a corrective to the usual portrayal of Kelly as a thief and murderer. The Ned Kelly of this account is a freedom fighter -  a defiant, anti-colonial, Irish-Australian Robin Hood.
The form and style of the novel is striking. Carey creates a barely grammatical, ragged apologia for Kelly to have written while on the run. Somehow, though, the untidy, unpunctuated narrative develops into an almost poetic instrument. 

I feel I cannot leave Ned Kelly behind without commenting on the little known Tony Richardson biopic of the outlaw starring none other than...

Oscar and Lucinda could be compared to Tristam Shandy in its embrace of chance as the real force behind the universe. Or, rather, Oscar and Lucinda could be compared to TS if I had read more than the first chapter of Tristam Shandy. Instead, I shall rely on an equally erudite comparison: "Sliding Doors", a film starring my husband, John Hannah*. Gwyneth Paltrow is in it too, I guess. Whatevs. 

The premise of JOHN HANNAH's "Sliding Doors" is that the smallest decision, made differently, completely alters one's existence. Gwyneth is on time for her train one morning and her life proceeds one way; Gwyneth misses her train and her life proceeds to involve making out with John Hannah and then being shot with a BB gun by me**. 

Oscar, the English son of a mid-19th century fundamentalist Christian pastor and Lucinda, an Australian proto-feminist glassworks owner, are, for much of Carey's novel, separated by thousands of miles. Chance - ultimately, a penny thrown for heads or tails - will bring the two together. The entire novel, though, is suffused with the way in which randomness, happenstance, work to bring about a life. Oscar first introduces himself to us by asserting: "In order that I exist, two gamblers - one Obsessive, the other Compulsive, must meet." Lucinda's life path is "as complex as a stainless steel pachinko ball," and Oscar's journey towards Lucinda begins with throwing lots to determine that he must reject his father's faith. 

Did I mention that the book involves the Plymouth Brethren, a man named Wardley-Fish who wears a “loud hound’s-tooth jacket with a handkerchief like a fistful of daffodils rammed into a rumpled vase," and an epic journey through New South Wales? 

Yeah. It's that good.  
  *John Hannah is not, technically, my husband. 
** I did not shoot Gwyneth Paltrow with a BB gun. More's the pity.

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