Week one: chance

How can a novel be true to chance? Novels aspire to be level with life, but the sense of pattern that all good ­narrative provides can seem un­lifelike. ­Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda is a beautifully managed narrative, but one that respects accident. Partly this is by having leading characters who are themselves fascinated by chance. Oscar, brought up in mid-19th-century Devon by his loving but utterly inflexible father, a leading member of a fundamentalist Christian sect, believes that happenstance is in fact providence. God must be behind all chance events. By a private process of divination, casting a stone on to a lettered grid, he perceives that his father’s faith is false, and that he should desert him for the household of the local Anglican vicar. Every day the boy throws lots under “the terrible pressure of eternity”.

Later, as an odd, solitary student at Oxford, he is accidentally chosen as a gambling companion by the roguish Wardley-Fish, who knocks on his door mistaking it for the college room of another undergraduate. He needs a companion for the races, and Oscar’s fate is sealed by the error. For, being a connoisseur of the pattern beneath apparent randomness, Oscar, whom Wardley-Fish supposes an innocent abroad, has a peculiar gift for gambling. Naturally, at Newmarket and Newbury, Catterick and Sandown Park, he sees “God’s hand everywhere about”. Meanwhile, over in Australia, Lucinda, a young lady with feminist sympathies and a large inheritance, is also becoming addicted to gambling. When she visits London, her mother’s friend George Eliot complains that when George Lewes takes Lucinda out for tea, she attempts “to seduce him into a game of chance”.

Oscar and Lucinda, being a love story, has a pattern implied in its title. The two eponymous characters grow up, in the novel’s early chapters, thousands of miles apart, but are destined to be brought together. Carey sharpens our curiosity about how this will be managed by keeping them separate for almost half the book (they speak to each other for the first time on page 231 of my 520-page edition). Groups of chapters alternate between England and Australia as, we suppose, the paths of Oscar and Lucinda move to some unlikely intersection. Chance does the trick. Oscar, now a clergyman, embarks on a mission to bring Christianity to Australia. (Naturally his decision to go is made by tossing a penny, which comes up heads: “you did not need to be a mind-reader to know that God was sending him to New South Wales”). Lucinda is on the same ship because, having visited London more or less in search of a husband, she has given up hope and decided to return. Religion is their ostensible bond: Lucinda seeks Oscar to hear her confession. But in fact it is gambling. In Lucinda’s cabin the two experience a kind of ecstasy, playing poker together for penny bets. All is delicious, concentrated stillness, the previously twitchy Oscar, Lucinda observes, “all strapped down like ­Ulysses at the mast”.

The novel’s dénouement will eventually be brought about by a wager, when Oscar, determined to prove his love, bets Lucinda that he can transport a glass church to the outback and erect it on her behalf. The stake is her whole fortune – and implicitly her hand in marriage. Gambling and religion are made inextricable as a way to get to the workings of chance. It is hard to think of a novel so rich in ­theological schism and argument. Its characters readily identify each other as ­Evangelicals and Puseyites, Rechabites and Latitudinarians. Their varieties of belief are anxiously dogmatic. “Our whole faith is a wager, Miss Leplastrier,” Oscar tells Lucinda, “we bet that there is a God. We bet our life on it . . . We must gamble every instant of our allotted span”. Religion in the novel is not absurd. Narratively it answers the characters’ needs to find something better than randomness. The two protagonists of Oscar and Lucinda struggle to make the flukes of their lives into patterns.

The very form of Carey’s novel seems to make chance visible. It is composed of 111 short chapters, often digressing and including the back-stories of a crowd of minor characters. Every little chapter is a self-contained episode, each one a testimony to luck. There is also its framing device, for the novel is narrated by someone ­revealing his own genealogy. We know from its first paragraph that “the ­Reverend Oscar Hopkins (1841-66)” is “my great-grandfather” (and if we look at those dates we might guess at some impending mischance). What is the strangest instance of chance that a person can think of but the chance that brought his or her parents together?

“In order that I exist,” says Carey’s nameless narrator, “two gamblers, one Obsessive, the other Compulsive, must meet”. Lucinda follows a path to Oscar “as complex as that of a stainless steel Pachinko ball”. But near the end of the novel we realise that the chance occurrence to which we have always been heading is not what we ­expected: the narrator owes his ­existence to an accident that will surprise the cleverest novel reader. The greatest novel in English dedicated to the consequences of chance events, Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, is similarly a long story of how its narrator’s conception came about. Carey wonderfully reanimates this ­narrative mission.

John Mullan is professor of English at University College London.

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