A Review of Richard Flanagan’s Gould’s Book of Fish

 In its gorgeous use of language, its extraordinary structure, its ambitiously realised depths, and above all, the magic it works on its reader, Gould’s Book of Fish is a masterpiece. Read it for the interesting story, and find yourself, like Hammett, lost in its labyrinth depths, obsessed, changed forever, and your unrequited love of literature both challenged, and invigorated.

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Gould’s Book of Fish: A Novel in 12 Fish
By Richard Flanagan
Picador, 404pp, $59
ISBN 0330363034
October 2001

There are times when, as a book reviewer, it is tempting to simply put the adjectives on hold; when mere descriptors seem paltry next to the indescribable beauty of the book itself. Richard Flanagan’s Gould’s Book of Fish is that kind of book. Reading it open mouthed, gasping at the richness and complexity of the text that clearly defies categorisation and classification, one feels intimately connected, while in awe of what the author has produced. Gould’s Book of Fish is a serious read; one of those desert island books you can read again and again and find still more meaning in its strange depths; both confirmation and destruction of those things you believe in (and cannot articulate). The book simultaneously makes a mockery of language, history, love, and humanity, while celebrating, and even immortalising them, much as Joyce’s Finnegans Wake , or Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury did for the last century, although with a more straightforward storyline. Both Joyce and Faulkner are celebrated in the novel, as are other great authors from history such as Flaubert, Hugo, Blake, Keats, Cervantes, Sterne, Wordsworth, Pope, Borges, Voltaire, and Conrad.

The book itself is attractive, with multicoloured text printed in six different inks in shades of red, blue, black, brown, purple to evoke the Gould’s own makeshift inks – the sea urchins, fish bodies, blood, and excrement. The old fashioned Felltype, and rich coloured illustrations are also evocative, leaving the reader wondering about the book before beginning to read.

The story follows the history of a “real” recorded convict artist William Buelow Gould, as he struggles with his internal and external prisons, art, love, and fraud in its many forms. When read in a purely linear way, Gould’s Book of Fish is originally found by Sid Hammet, a scruffy and disenchanted fraud merchant, whose rotting furniture is battered and peed on before selling it to “fat old Americans” or “voracious question marks” as lost Nantucket Shaker antiques. When he finds a dilapidated but glowing book in an old junk shop, he becomes obsessed with the story of convict artist and fish painter Gould, and his record of incarceration on a Sarah Island Penal Colony. Ridiculed by historians, and paralleled by another Book of Fish discovered in the Allport library, the book displayed elements of the fantastic, expanding itself while reading, and ultimately disappearing in a large, brackish puddle. From there, Hammet becomes a seadragon, and then becomes Gould as he tries to recreate the story which obsesses him. Or is Gould recreating Hammet’s story? Or is it the seadragon’s story?

In a way, Gould’s story is a mise-en-abyme; the literary device of a story within a story, but the smooth transition between Hammet, Gould, and the Seadragon, as well as the Dickensian cast of characters so humorously painted by Flanagan, forbids us from reading this as a diversion. It could also be called magic realism, with its melting books, its metamorphoses, its circular time, and its schizophrenic characterisation, but again, the historical framework which is, at least in terms of its setting and detail, fairly accurate, defying that categorisation. The narrative is a compelling and exciting one in itself, and the reader is driven forward quickly as Gould moves from forgery in London to a fish and bird painting apprenticeship with Audubon and George Keats, the poet’s brother, to deckhand en route to colonise Van Diemen’s land, barfly artist in Hobarttown, and convict, on death row, the endurer of a range of tortures, gaoler and gaolee. There is a brief, but intense love affair between Gould and an Aboriginal woman Twopenny Sal, and a range of altercations, escapes, recaptures, heroes, villains, relocations, and adventures in the wild west of early Tasmania. For all of its philosophical and linguistic depths, Gould’s Book of Fish is actually a very good read.

What really stands out in this book is the gorgeous but unflowery language. The book is thought provoking and there are moments of great beauty, such as Gould’s statement: “I am not bound to any idea of who I will be. I am not contained between my toes and my turf but am infinite as sand”, or the ode to authors: “Perhaps reading and writing books is one of the last defences human dignity has left, because in the end they remind us of what God once reminded us before He too evaporated in this age of relentless humiliations – that we re more than ourselves; that we have souls”. The characters are rich, funny, and detailed, with Gould himself the most compelling. In many ways, Gould encompasses the other characters, including Hammet, Lempriere, Jorgensen, Death, Pobjoy, and the Commandant, as confirmed in the sensational epitaph, which brings the entire narrative into question. Gould speaks to the reader, taunting, and we recognise ourselves as the “nobby Hobart Town clerks who breakfast on the upper storey of the Colonial Secretary’s office – fat arses flapping on padded seats” and in the desperate question marks of the rich Americans asking “Is it safe?” In the surgeon, Tobias Achilles Lempriere, we find pure Dickens: a “big bowl-headed steaming pudding of a man, floury & treacly by turns”, speaking only in capital letters, “words existed in his speech as currents in a badly made bread-and-butter pudding-clusters of stodgy darkness.” Lempriere’s worship of Linneaus’s Systema Naturae, his obsession with gaining admittance to the Royal Academy of science, and his ironic ultimate fate as one of the best scientific specimen’s, “Crania Tasmaniae” is as amusing as it is grotesque.

The love affair between Gould and Twopenny Sal is also moving, with Sal’s many names and identities mirroring those of Gould’s, as she is revealsed as The Mulatto, Cleopatra, the one with a secret Aboriginal name, and the sexy Cowfish that Gould the Weedy Seadragon couples with. She is an unlikely love interest, smelling of pickled herring, and described as having small breasts & a large waist & skinny shanks, an unlanced boil, lice crawling up her arm, and breasts onto which Gould draws a cowfish. Gould’s words of love are also unique, as gross as they are beautiful: “Your feet, Your bowels, Your mound, Your armpits, Your smell & Your sounds & taste, Your fallen Beauty, I was Divine in Your image & I was You & I was no longer long for this grand early & why is it no words would tell how I was so much hurting aching bidding farewell?” Twopenny Sal’s aboriginal dances are not feminine, but they are powerful, in a way rendering both her and Gould immortal: “Nothing was reconciled: everything was beautiful”.

There are also moments of genius, such as when the book begins to refer to itself, prefiguring the chapters in a way which is both postmodern and mystical, almost Kabbala like: “Trying desperately to avoid the conclusion that if this book of fish was a history of the settlement, it might also just be its prophecy, I then realised that the book was not near ended, that it contained several more chapters, & with mounting terror I read on the succeeding page of how I realised that the book was not near ended, that it contained several more chapters, & with mounting terror I read on the succeeding page of how…” The ending is foreshadowed twice, and the narrative, although perfectly readable in a linear way, mocks its own timeline, and even its historical context, as references are made to the future from the past.

Gould’s Book of Fish is full of black humour, from the way in which Gould ages the junk furniture he sells, to the use of Voltaire’s head to give pleasure to the perverted Gottliebsens. The renaming of Jorgensen as The King, and his revolting but funny metamorphosis from self-aggrandising lying historian to silent confidante is another moment that will leave readers simultaneously laughing outloud and grimacing. Lempriere’s demise and ultimate metamorphosis is another very funny moment, mingling excrement, and putrefaction, with justice.

For all of the shifts in Gould’s Book of Fish , with things like time, history, identity, and power all variable, there are some constants, and this is the basis on which the book is built. Love is one of those constants. Another is its corollaries, racism, brutality, and hatred – clear and obvious evils. A third and more subtle constant is that sense of the mysterious beauty in life, and the world: “The knowledge of a world so awful, this sense of a life so extraordinary – how am I to resolve them?” Ultimately, as Gould says, this is a book about life, not death, and despite the inherent sadness, the brutality, the grossness, and the torture, what remains with the reader is how we ultimately escape with Gould; how the love, beauty, and even the story, remains, shining and glorious. In its gorgeous use of language, its extraordinary structure, its ambitiously realised depths, and above all, the magic it works on its reader, Gould’s Book of Fish is a masterpiece. Read it for the interesting story, and find yourself, like Hammett, lost in its labyrinth depths, obsessed, changed forever, and your unrequited love of literature both challenged, and invigorated.

For more information or to purchase a copy of Gould’s Book of Fish , click here: Gould’s Book of Fish

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