Asterisk denotes entries on real places.
While inner Sydney offers spectacular views as it stretches gracefully around the magnificent harbor and along the ocean cliffs, the landscape changes dramatically once the harbor and sea disappear. Sarsaparilla is situated in this colorless, flat, and dusty expanse. Once a rural area of small farms, it gradually became more thickly settled as working-class families moved out of the city into housing developments in their search for a better life. Their cheap, poorly built houses, each with a well-tended yard, may represent security and happiness for their inhabitants, but White unmasks this supposedly ideal community. His version of Sarsaparilla is dominated by hypocrisy, ignorance, cruelty, rigid conformity, and just plain bad taste. Another suburb, Paradise East, may be more upscale, but underneath its pretentious exterior it resembles Sarsaparilla.
In spite of the physical ugliness and personal emptiness of these suburbs, four of the characters conquer the environs, discover their potential, and become “riders in the chariot.” Mrs. Godbold, a laundress; Himmelfarb, a Jewish immigrant from Germany; Alf Dubbo, an aboriginal artist; and the half-mad Mary Hare are the seekers who find truth even in their squalid surroundings. Others remain in the void of Sarsaparilla and Paradise East, altogether satisfied with their meaningless existence.
Xanadu (ZAN-ah-dew). Decaying estate near Sarsaparilla. The name Xanadu implies an idyllic, beautiful place and came into common use through Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem Kubla Khan (1816). Marco Polo’s description of the actual Xanadu in China forever marked it as an exotic, luxurious, and magnificent setting. The Xanadu inhabited by Mary Hare, however, who inherited it from her dreamer of a father, subverts the romantic name and its ramifications. The once-great house has fallen into disrepair, and the formal gardens have grown into a jungle. While Mary feels ill at ease in the house itself, she finds refuge and peace in the tangled gardens, which provide the stimulus for her vision. At the novel’s end, Xanadu is destroyed and another shoddy suburb is built on its grounds.
*Sydney. Port city in southeastern Australia. While Australian literature usually celebrates what is often called the “Emerald City,” White represents Sydney as a kind of psychedelic hell when the characters venture into its depths: “The train was easing through the city which knives had sliced open to serve up with all the juices running–red, and green and purple.” Unlike its outlying communities, the city has a beautiful natural setting, sophistication, and fine buildings, yet in White’s hands it too suffers from the spiritual malaise that affects Sarsaparilla and Paradise East. In Sydney’s affluent neighborhoods, the characters confront the same vacuum that characterizes the suburbs. Neither the city nor its outlying areas need be set in Australia, for the smugness of most of the characters and the visionary quest of the chariot riders are universal, whatever the place.