Riders in the Chariot is the story of four unrelated people living in suburban Australia: Miss Hare, a half-mad heiress living in a crumbling mansion; Himmelfarb, a Jewish refugee and Holocaust survivor; Alf Dubbo, an Aboriginal painter and drifter; and Mrs Godbold, a washerwoman. Each is an outsider in their own way, on the fringes of polite society, and each experiences the same divine vision of a mysterious chariot.
Even when Alf puts his vision on canvas, White is cagey about referring directly to the chariot. What does it look like? What does it represent? As Miss Hare's father once said to her before his accidental drowning, "Who are the riders in the chariot?" (Is it our four protagonists?) White refuses to answer any of these questions; in fact, he hardly writes about the vision at all. When one character realizes that another has had a similar experience, they allude to it only in the most roundabout of ways. It is, perhaps, something beyond verbalization, and the only thing that can be said about it is that it is at odds with the shallow superficiality of modern society.
That tension leads the book's climax, in which Himmelfarb, never easily accepted in his new home, is strung up by his drunken coworkers in a parody of the crucifixion. White's aloofness and his knotty, even hostile prose, elevate this moment beyond an easy Christ parody, even as Himmelfarb's tormentors actively deny the similarity. Their cruelty is the product of their inability to appreciate the ineffable, as Himmelfarb's experiences in Europe taught him to, and of a suburban mode of living which is reductive and shallow.
White's writing is difficult, more so even here than in Voss or A Fringe of Leaves. It's rarely beautiful, but always striking:
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. All the syrups of the sundaes oozing into the streets to sweeten. The neon syrup coloured the pools of vomit and the sailors' piss. By that light, they eyes of the younger, gaberdine men were a blinding, blinder blue, when not actually burnt out. The blue-haired grannies had purpled from the roots of their hair down to the angles of their pants, not from shame, but neon, as their breasts chafed to escape, from shammy-leather back to youth, or else roundly asserted themselves, like chamberpots in concrete. As for the young women, they were necessary. As they swung along, or hung around a corner, they were the embodiment of thoughts and melons.
What does it mean? Is it really well written or terribly written? Flaubert famously sought ought le mot juste, the right word, it seems to me sometimes that White searches out the exact wrong word, or, at least, the word you would least expect. (Why are the young women "necessary?" What are we supposed to get out of the image of a chamberpot in concrete? How is a shade of blue "blinder" than another?) But somehow, that seems appropriate for a novel about the sublime beauty of that which hovers just outside the edge of what is plain and recognizable.