Review: Gould’s Book Of Fish By Richard Flanagan Essay, Research Paper
In the hands of madmen Gould’s Book of Fish Richard Flanagan 404pp, Atlantic Books Richard Flanagan’s third novel has divided opinion in the author’s native Tasmania, between those whose swoon at its audacity and the excess of its imagination, and those who complain of its capacity to flummox and disorientate and, frankly, its pretentiousness. One critic denounced it as “a monstrosity of a book”, and suggested that its vast range of reference and style amounts to little more than heavy-handed pastiche. The truth about a book so obsessively concerned with the inability of words to establish truth is, as ever, somewhere in between. Certainly, this is one of the most fatiguingly inventive novels to have been published in recent years. It presents us with a thoroughly confusing, wilfully convoluted and ultimately less than satisfying plot. It ushers in a range of ideas that much contemporary writing grasps at but ends by simply nodding to, and it anchors them in a specific time and place that, in turn, seem to evade our historical reckoning. It is hugely original, yet it has also provoked comparison with a dizzying parade of writers: Sterne, Swift, Smollett, Cervantes, Melville, Dickens, Conrad, Joyce, Faulkner and García Márquez, just for starters. Flanagan has indicated in his previous novels a rage against the silence that descended over Australia and Tasmania after the collapse of the convict system. Now, he gives us that period made splendidly garrulous: forced, through a series of competing, disintegrating and renascent narratives to speak endlessly about a fiercely contested experience. But much of the novel’s rage collapses into hectoring, preachiness and exaggeration. Our first narrator is a world away from the 19th century, but keenly in touch with it via his idea for a money-making scam. Taking the idea of distressed antiques literally, he hammers on tatty old furniture, urinates on it and screams curses at it. It is then distressed enough to be sold to American tourists. But when the scam peters out, and his partner in crime takes to “eco-tourism consultancy”, he is left to go in search of new lines. Thus he is brought to a meat-safe and its (literally) glowing contents, a book “that never really started and never quite finished – not the sort of open-and-shut thing a good book should be”. The “dreadful hodgepodge”, a mixture of detailed portraits of fish and shaggy-dog stories, tales written frontwards, backwards and sideways, crammed with annotations and addenda, scraped together on loose leaves and dried fish skin and penned in numerous different coloured inks (as is this novel), obsesses him. As unexpectedly as it has appeared, however, the book disappears, dissolving into a puddle of water on a bar-room table. Distraught, and feeling that he too is about to dissolve, our narrator decides that, from his partial notes and transcriptions, and from his fevered memory, he must reconstruct “Gould’s Book of Fish”. As framing devices go, this one is particularly complex, especially as it sees the narrator metamorphose, at the last minute, into an aquarium fish. But by page 38, when we are released into the story “proper”, we already know that we can trust nothing we read from hereon in; that we are, possibly, in the hands of a madman. As is William Buelow Gould, our second narrator; more accurately, in fact, in the hands of several. For Gould is a convicted forger, a prisoner on the notorious Sarah Island at the end of the 1820s, marooned on a tiny strip of land in Macquarie Harbour. The island is the last resort for re-offending convicts who have already found themselves in the last resort of Van Dieman’s Land; from Sarah Island, there is nowhere else to go. Even less so for Gould who, latterly found guilty of a murder he didn’t commit, now awaits execution in a “fish cell” that floods, with the tide, twice daily. In the convict society that Flanagan describes, hierarchies are unstable and unpredictable. Former convicts often turn into constables and officers; escapees reinvent themselves as bushrangers who will return, mob-handed, to avenge their brutal treatment; alliances are abruptly disbanded at the first hint of preferment; captors and captives alike endure conditions of exceptional privation and degradation. Throughout Gould’s digressive narrative, there is extreme violence and the abiding presence of large quantities of excrement. There is also madness and mayhem, brought impressively to life in the figure of the Commandant, a syphilitic megalomaniac whose lunatic plans to recreate the glories of the enlightenment on Sarah Island bring the community to the brink of implosion. From behind the gold mask he permanently wears, the Commandant orders the building of a National Railway, oversees the construction of the Great Mah-Jong Hall, makes extravagant swaps with visiting traders – the entire continent of Australia goes for a fleet of Siamese girls – and fabricates, with the help of a clerk who believes himself to be the King of Ireland, glowing accounts of the community’s excellent progress for his absent superiors. For William Gould, this derangement offers a chance to shine: a self-taught painter who profited by a chance association with Audubon, he finds work painting backdrops of the Lake District and the African veldt to decorate the 200-yard railway line. He also paints fish for the surgeon Lemprière, who seeks to make his name in the new industry of taxonomy, but whose own skull ends up – after he is eaten alive by his pet pig – misclassified and produced as evidence for aboriginal degeneracy. There is so much to savour in this rolling, picaresque tale of grotesques and their progress: so much unfettered imagination, so much sly irony and comic anarchy. Passages of Gould’s Book of Fish burn with the intense pleasure of story-making, of the abandon that comes from a seething of ideas and their joyful mutation into words. But Flanagan’s delight in writing too often gives way to a fatal fascination with postmodern manoeuvre, smart-aleck self-referentiality and an unconvincing transcendentalism. When Gould witnesses his own book – and this one – burning in a fire, one can only groan; we’ve heard all this before. If we’ve read our Calvino and our Borges, we get the joke; if we haven’t, where is the joke? Talented and impassioned, Flanagan needs self-discipline if he is to translate his gifts into truly remarkable fiction. He also needs to remember that at the end of every book, even one as self-consciously iconoclastic as this, there is a reader.