Peter Carey's Oscar and Lucinda stylizes the dual nature of knowledge even more than does A. S. Byatt's Possession. Carey frustrates the reader's expectations, thus revealing a primeval anarchic knowledge and deconstructing the reader's artificially-concocted conceptions of knowledge. Like Byatt, Carey plays out "the master trope of irony...where people are self-divided," (Kane 520), but Carey also joins the "parable with the parabolic and hyperbolic...the unpredictable, even psychotic" (520). Whereas Byatt plays the human constructs of linear and cyclical time off one another, Carey explodes human constructs altogether. In Oscar and Lucinda, "the underside of life is flipped over and we see its vulnerable, luminous belly. Carey's characters are always offbeat, the better to reveal how out of sync humanity really is with its fond conception of itself" (520). In Oscar and Lucinda, then, Carey does not replace a fallen human construct of knowledge with the rise of another. His re-visioning of knowledge subverts any construct's attempt to provide order. In Carey's narrative, order collapses only to reveal an anarchy in which all human success can be traced to chance and not wisdom: his past is not a golden age but an age of gambling.
Within the framework of the myth of the fall, Carey uses the glass church as the incarnation of his idea in the same way that Byatt uses creativity and procreativity as metaphors for possession. The desire to possess drives Byatt's characters in the same way that the desire to build a life, by means of a metaphorical construct, drives Lucinda and Oscar. Carey exploits this desire as an enticing but empty sham. The glittering but fragile glass church represents the unsuccessful fusion of Lucinda's and Oscar's life-building constructs.
For her part, Lucinda builds her life around the controlling metaphor of glass and purchases a glassworks with part of her late mother's financial legacy. Carey likens Lucinda's construct to a drug:
There are drugs that work the same, and while I am not suggesting that our founder purchased the glassworks to get more drops, it is clear that she had the seed planted, not once, but twice, and knew already the lovely contradictory nature of glass and she did not have to be told, on the day she saw the works at Darling Harbour, that glass is a thing in disguise, an actor, is not solid at all, but a liquid, ...in short, a joyous and paradoxical thing, as good a material as any to build a life from. (Carey 111)
Lucinda tries to build her life around a dissembler. By asserting that glass is "as good a material as any to build a life from," Carey implicitly undermines the mission of building a life at all. His claim does not ensure that any material is "good...to build a life from" except from a relative standpoint. Hidden behind a solid facade, the true essence of glass is as slippery and uncertain as Lucinda's status as a woman in Australia.
Australia's national codes dovetail with Carey's concept of anarchy. As a nation with a double cultural signification, Australia provides a backdrop of opposite forces struggling for the fore:
Australia began life as a hell on earth for transported convicts, and the imagery of hellish imprisonment has figured large in its literature and in its cultural self-images ever since. Ironically enough, the other dominant myth of Australia has been as a paradise, a new world, a virgin continent, a south land of the holy spirit, a social laboratory, where the ills of the old European world might be put to right. (Hassall 65)
Carey parallels the contradictory historical signification of Australia with the paradoxical individual promise of the glassworks and explodes both promises as surely as the Prince Rupert's drop of glass, which shatters in all directions when pinched between a pair of needle-nosed pliers.
Recalling her late mother, Lucinda founds the glassworks in the hope of liberating her sex. The glassworks seem to promise an incarnation of Elizabeth Leplastrier's vision:
[Elizabeth] had seen industrialization as the great hope for women...Factories...would...provide her sex with the economic basis for their freedom. [She] saw factories with nurseries incorporated in their structure, and staffed kitchen, fired by factory furnaces, that would bake the family dinners the women carried there each morning. Her factories were like hubs of wheels, radiating spokes of care. (Carey 70)
Carey's other protagonist, Oscar, makes a journey to the Australian Outback on Lucinda's behalf to transport a glass church into the wilderness. The glass church represents the fulfillment of Oscar's and Lucinda's joint hopes: glass as a means of liberation for her, religion as a means to uncover truth for him.
Unfortunately for Oscar, he uncovers a truth as savage and chaotic as the bush the expedition must beat back to obtain its goal. Narrating the journey to the Outback, Carey transcends boundaries with all the violence of the Romantics, but he transcends quite different boundaries. With an intertextuality at once more subtle and more dislocating than Byatt's, Carey recalls Joseph Conrad's journey into the heart of darkness and also countless classical descents into the underworld. The Stygian river and its hellish surroundings transform the comfortably sheltered Oscar into "a beetle inside the bloody intestines of an alien animal" (Carey 392) — an image that evokes Jonathan Swift's belittling of man by means of his scatology and also Kafka's banal treatment of man as a cockroach that lands in the garbage.
With a scientific precision more brutal than that of his predecessors, Carey documents the chaos at the core of his novel. Force-fed laudanum (opium dissolved in alcohol) through a funnel, Oscar watches a whipped man defecate in his pants. He prays to Jesus, "but no prayer could block out the smell of the man's shit" (392). His opium reveries include thoughts like these:
If you plucked Sydney from the earth,...like an organ ripped from a man, all these roads and rivers would be pulled out like roots, canals, arteries. He saw the great hairy, flesh-backed tuft, which he saw was Sydney, saw the rivers pushing, the long slippery yellow tracks like things the butcher would use for making sausages. (393)
Here Carey explodes Romantic and Victorian conceptions of opium. The same drug that supposedly fueled much of Coleridge's and Elizabeth Barrett Browning's poetic fancy appears here as a disembowelling dose of reality. The journey culminates in Oscar's drowning, the death he always feared, as he slides in the glass church into the river. The waters of his new consciousness close around him and silence his scream in a paralysis of utterance from which he will never recover. Not even his caul can protect him;superstition dies along with his artificial attempt to build a life.
Just as Carey addicts Lucinda to a gentler drug than opium, her withdrawal from her dream is cushioned by a chance success. Lucinda's financial independence proves a fetter that she gambles in order to lose:
And when, at three o' clock in the morning, she snapped her purse shut, she had no more money than the poorest of them. The purse was empty, freed from all weight, contained nothing but clean, watered silk. She felt as light and clean as rice paper...She felt limp as a rag doll, and perfectly safe. (251)
By losing her money and her glassworks and going to work directly in a factory (instead of supervising one), Lucinda immerses herself in the movement to improve factory conditions and becomes famous "amongst students of the Australian labor movement" (428). Lucinda "[breaks] out of the circle and metamorphoses positively" (652), but she escapes the circle of hell only by chance. After all, she works in the factory as a second plan, a last resort, a necessity prescribed by financial loss. By juxtaposing the fates of Oscar and Lucinda, Carey inscribes in relief the failure of the organized quest and the artificial objective — in Oscar's case, the doomed attempt to transplant a fragile symbol of social order into an environment that mocks man.
Last modified 1998