by Peter Carey
Knopf, 306 pp., $24.00
Oscar and Lucinda
a film directed by Gillian Armstrong
It is six PM on an April night in 1837 when the Dover coach pulls in at the Golden Ox in London. Gas-lit streets, cobblestones, gin palaces, child beggars: a Dickensian scene. And Dickens himself is about to appear under the name of Tobias Oates. Toby is still in his middle twenties, but already famous as a writer and journalist. He is fascinated by low life, by “Characters”; and “the death of children had always had a profound effect on him,” especially if they were poor children, as he himself had been.
Carey’s insight into the Dickens/ Oates character is subtle enough to be simultaneously sympathetic and cruel:
No one who knew Tobias…had any understanding of his unholy thirst for love. He had not known it himself. He did not know the curse or gift his ma and pa had given him: he would not be loved enough, not ever.
He never really knew this truth about himself, not even when the fame he craved was finally, briefly, granted him and he traveled from city to city like a one-man carnival act, feeding off the pleasure of his readers.
On the other hand, “he was sharp, like a jockey. He wore a waistcoat like a common busker, or a book-maker, bright green and shot through with lines of blue and yellow. He was edgy, almost pugnacious, with eyes and hands everywhere about him as if he were constantly confirming his position in the world, a navigator measuring his distance from the chair, the wall, the table.” This portrait of Dickens—except for the waistcoat—looks teasingly like Carey’s photo on the book jacket, both in pose and in expression. But that is probably just an illusion brought on by the quirkiness and trickiness of a novel which never lets the reader feel he has his feet on solid ground.
One strand running through it is a continuous psychological assessment of the Dickens character, with telling, original, and concise observations, like he “had a tendency to exaggerate the goodness of people he did not know,” casually dropped into the eventful narrative. Still, the book is certainly not a biography—not even a fictionalized one—but a fantasia about Dickens and his Gothick creature Magwich (alias Jack Maggs) from Great Expectations. In Carey’s novel, Dickens/ Oates and Magwich/Maggs, the historical and the fictional, are equally real and equally important to the plot—a very old postmodern conceit that goes back at least as far as the tales of E.T.A. Hoffmann.
Carey has used the same conceit before: his best-known novel, Oscar and Lucinda (also set in the mid-nineteenth century), starts off with two real-life characters: the teen-age Oscar is Edmund Gosse as he appears in his own autobiographical memoir Father and Son, while Oscar’s father, Theophilus, is Edmund’s father, Philip Gosse, a strict Plymouth Brother who combined zoology with preaching. Lucinda also has a link with history: on a trip to England, she …