Oscar and Lucinda is a feat. It is a huge accomplishment, and you are aware of that as you read it (I think I mentioned Midnight's Children is a bit like that; it is even more prominent in Oscar and Lucinda). The book is meticulous. Carey paints a careful, rich landscape of backwater England and Australia in the mid 1800s -- not only the physical attributes, but a landscape of culture and society. Carey must have been entrenched in his research, because he entrenched me, as a reader, in his backdrop. He also created several fascinating characters. He had an almost Dickensian way of weaving their lives together in the beginning, drawing them closer so that you began to guess at how they would interlock before they knew. There is nothing simple about his characters and he creates a careful landscape of their personalities in the same way that he crafts a landscape of the scene.
But I have to admit, while I understand why Oscar and Lucinda won a Booker, I cannot for the life of me understand how this was shortlisted for a Best of the Bookers, especially when The Famished Road, The Remains of the Day, and Michael K. were all left off. Not to mention A Sacred Hunger or Schindler's Ark. Oscar and Lucinda was a feat of historical fiction and a total force of a book, but it didn't have the heft that some of these other books have. It reminded me of those footballers that have technical ability but no spark. You watch them play and it seems like great soccer. But then you see Pele, or Ronaldinho, or Michelle Akers, and then you get what soccer is really supposed to be. The Famished Road and The Remains of the Day are Ronaldinho. Oscar and Lucinda is Germany, circa 2002.
I never was totally sucked in. I felt that the characters were clinical; his descriptions were perfect and deep, but I was an impersonal spectator to the story. I didn't join the characters; I wasn't invited to do so. I'll give Carey the benefit of the doubt and guess that it is a technique, a writing-style-reminder of Oscar's father. But of course, Oscar's father's descriptions of nature were poetic, even if he didn't live his life with poetry. So I don't know.
Of course, Oscar and Lucinda, as characters, were fiercely set off from society and Carey's writing may try to reflect that. But you can just look to The Bone People (which perhaps I should not have read right before taking this book up) for an example of writing that totally embodies the alienation of some seriously flawed characters who did truly hateful things, and yet still brought you with them on their journey, made you care about them not just in spite of (because of?) themselves. Oscar and Lucinda was brilliantly written, but the writing and the characters, for me in the end, did not resonate. I didn't actually care about where they were going. Because of that, the Dickensian paths registered less powerfully than they ought to have. Again, I viewed the characters clinically and so I viewed their stories clinically. Also, in my opinion the vastly more interesting story happens (he tells us) after the novel ends; and in fact, I think the two most interesting stories happen after the novel ends.
In the end, I deeply admire this book, but I do not love it.
In other news, my soccer analogy made me look up Youtube videos of those guys. They are so badass.