16 May, 2009

'Gould's Book of Fish' - Richard Flanagan

After an ambivalent response to Flanagan's latest book, Wanting - in which I highly respected the writing, but struggled with some conceptual realisations - I prioritised reading one of his earlier works, choosing the intriguing Gould's Book of Fish.

This earlier is as audacious in its execution as Wanting was in its breadth of characters. In modern Hobart, a man finds an antique tome - the Book of Fish - that takes an almost magical hold on him. After the book dissolves into water, he determines to rewrite it, to recreate its preternatural story. That recreated story is the memoir of William Buelow Gould, a Tasmanian convict who describes his experiences on Sarah Island - one of the most brutal prisons in the colonial world - with anthropological exactness, as he recounts not only torture and labour, but the true ambitions of the prison's Commandant to turn the isolated, terrible island into a New Europe.

While imprisoned on Sarah Island, Gould gained many periphery benefits by exaggerating his artistic capabilities and thus being recruited to produce the definitive record of Van Diemonian aquaculture. His project overwhelms him; he begins to see people as fish, and eventually cannot tell whether his life is contained within that manuscript - the Book of Fish - or the book in fact contains his life.

Hence, Gould's is not without elements of the supernatural, borrowing some style from the school of magic realism. Flanagan also presents us with an unusual choice of narrative voice, that of the omniscient first person. I spent the majority of the book wondering if this was lazy or canny and how he argued with his editor to retain it. In some of the last chapters even Flanagan can no longer deny its incredulity, as Gould berates the reader who wants to question how he can know what someone else thought, even when he wasn't in the room with them. Conversely, when it comes to seeing the future, Gould often surrenders to his own limitations, often using lines such as 'How was I to know where this would lead?'.

It was insightful to read Gould's after Wanting. They deal with very similar material and, in the main, have the same setting (some characters even appear in both). But their delivery and preoccupations are clearly distinct. Gould's is the kind of literary experiment that becomes a surprise success - something in the way of The Raw Shark Texts, with which it bears a surprising resemblance in the early chapters. Wanting is the experiment of a writer who has gained the respect of his audience and peers, and thereby some comfort and cushioning to produce work that is more intellectually controversial.

Gould's shows us again that Flanagan's strength is in concepts. There are some visual aids to its execution - changing ink colour to represent the rudimentary resources Gould scavenges in his cell in order to write (ignoring that no amount of blood or squid ink could have allowed him to quill several hundred pages of such detailed reminiscence); using ampersands throughout; throwing in the occasional Victorian construction such as verbs before subject (eg 'thought he' as an attribution). While overall it sustains an effect, some sentences taken in isolation are too convoluted to reveal any immediate meaning.

Had Gould's been my first experience of Flanagan, I wonder if I would have been intrigued to see what invention he would try next, or have been happy with the sample, without pursuing any further. Certainly, Gould's prepares us for many of Flanagan's ongoing preoccupations: with history, with its truth and lies, with its ongoing effect on the living, as well as with love - a theme that is often buried within, but vital to, his novels.

I will say again, however, something I perhaps didn't iterate strongly enough in the Wanting review: Flanagan, regardless of style, flaws, content and reader response, is a significant contributor to the Australian canon. His voice is an important part of our national literature.

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