Friday, January 14, 2011

Oscar and Lucinda and me

A few years ago I had a chapter from my novel critiqued in a writing workshop. At the time, I was trying to do something that I now realize is impossible for me, which is writing from multiple points of view at the same time. Edward P. Jones does it beautifully in The Known World, and yet I am not Edward P. Jones, and perhaps a book about shopping and Bigfoot doesn't call for that kind of magisterial omniscience.

Anyway, one of the workshop participants suggested I read Peter Carey's Oscar and Lucinda, because it seemed to her like an example of what I was trying (and failing) to do. Approximately three years later, I have finally taken that suggestion. And yes, Carey does shift point of view, or "head hop," within a single section of the narrative, which would otherwise be a simple close third. It occurs relatively rarely, and it's not confusing when it happens. You just have the sense of a camera suddenly swinging around and then back again.

But as I was reading all I could think was: "He broke the rule, and he's only getting away with it because he's Peter Carey." Probably if I didn't know the rule in the first place, I wouldn't even have noticed these shifts. They're obviously deliberate, and I think they mainly exist to remind us of the presence of the narrator--which gives the novel a somewhat nineteenth-century feel. Back in the day, a sort of chatty "I" who stuck his head in every so often was expected, and nothing to kick up a po-mo fuss about. In this case the "I" gives himself a bit more dimension, since he tells us that Oscar was his great-grandfather; and yet that fact has almost no bearing, as far as I can tell, on the shape or outcome of the story. It's just an interesting sidelight, in the end. Should there have been more of a motivation for the p.o.v. shifts? As a workshop participant, I would probably have said "yes." But why would I have said that? Maybe just to have something to say?

Reading the book was an interesting experience for another reason. I quite liked the early parts of the story, especially because it concerns religious fanaticism, which is just about my favorite subject in the world. But after a certain point I started getting a little bored. There was too much quotidian detail for my taste, especially about gambling and glass manufacturing. Maybe too much talking in general. And there seemed to be an inordinate number of new sections introducing new characters with a brief summary of their life histories followed by a brief scene with said new character. What was this all adding up to? I wasn't sure. I almost set the book aside, but said to myself: "This is Peter Carey. And this book won a big prize and was made into a movie with Ralph Fiennes. So keep reading."

Sure enough, the last pages were stunning, drawing all the many seemingly loose threads together--not in a neat little knot, mind you, but one of those interesting, flawed tapestry-thingies that allows real art to shine through the roughness. But I still wonder--would I have stuck with it had I not heard of the author, and known that the book had won the Booker Prize? I tend to think not.

In short: established authors get away with stuff that new authors can't. Life's not fair, but the sun is out, and my mom's on the mend, and I have a new slow-cooker that I can't wait to try. Things could be worse.

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