Saturday, November 19, 2005

Gould's Book of Fish: A Novel in 12 Fish by Richard Flanagan
Grove Press. 404 pages. $27.50.

You should've seen the ones that got away: the Pot-bellied Seahorse, Porcupine Fish and the Serpent Eel. Not to mention the barrel of heads, Casterleagh the killer pig, Audubon, Brady the avenging angel, Paganini and the "sled of thwarted memory." And of course, the universe of horror and the infinity of love.

When Sid Hammet, Tasmanian antiques dealer of sorts and of borderline sordidness, loses his talismanic junkyard find, the bizarre "Book of Fish," written and illustrated by a 19th-century prisoner named William Buelow Gould, he misplaces more than just a few fish pictures and a hodgepodge of seemingly rambling madman jottings and observations. Gone is a phantasmagoric work of such soul-shaking seeking and sea-change that the obsessive Hammet, in "the folly of a sorry passion," decides to rewrite the book, tracing one career criminal's life, whether at large or writ larger than life.

This desire to re-create "everything, mad & cracked & bad as it was" thereby also constitutes the conceit of Tasmanian writer Richard Flanagan's audacious, labyrinthian and gratifying third novel, wherein issues of art and reality, identity and transformation, as well as such sins of the forefathers as colonialism and genocide variously glimmer dimly or glare like a beacon from "once upon a time ... long ago in a far-off place that everyone knows is not here or now or us."

Protest too much an apocalypse now, but there are early intimations that the ever-after back then was more like an ever-so aftermath of "an annals of a life etched in blood" in a Hobbesian world of "endless labor, ceaseless brutality & pointless violence." And with its temporal shuffle, forget any straightforward fairy tale- styled structure, too, in "Gould's Book of Fish: A Novel in Twelve Fish." (Each chapter, printed in different color ink to reflect the narrator's circumstances, begins with a reproduction of the original full-color artwork by the real-life William Gould.) You'll pick up the narrative bread crumbs soon enough, and be able to follow the foreshadowed and flashbacked flotsam and jetsam surrounding Gould in this richly picaresque story, as Flanagan has him crawl from wreckage to wreckage and soar from revelation to revelation.

And go back and forth from escapade to escape -- including one to America, where Gould studies painting with John James Audubon -- as this troubled but resilient, rowdy but insightful "bastard of a fair day's passion" is caught and jailed for a little theft here, a little forgery there, whether trumped up or true. Ultimately though, Gould is imprisoned, beginning in 1828, for a long period of time at Tasmania's infamous and torture-racked Sarah Island. There, "in the supposed interest of science," the ambitious prison doctor Lempriere, who is attempting to climb some scientific rungs toward entry into the Royal Society, orders him to paint the varieties of local fish.

If only Gould could stay true to the scientific purpose or even act or acquit himself in accordance to a certain inevitability he felt in becoming "what I hitherto only ever feigned being ... an Artist." Or if he could just halt at the point where the attributes of the scaly subjects are considered merely emblematic or indicative of his emotions and undertakings. But as it is, the punishment that became a labor of love may be steering him toward deep waters when he comes to believe the fish "were seeping through my pores by some dreadful osmosis": "I was to paint fish, you see, all manner of sea life: sharks, crabs, octopuses, squid & penguins. But when I finished this work of my life, I stood back & to my horror saw all those images merge together into the outline of my own face."

Maybe a perceived coalescence with a crayfish is a relatively healthy outlet, considering the tenuous coexistence with the lunatics who are running the asylum. Dr. Lempriere is obviously insane, and the prison clerk engages in extensive revisionist history by falsifying prison documents, whitewashing for authorities the wretchedness and horrors of Sarah Island.

But it is the bizarrely golden-masked Commandant who, as Gould notes, "determined my destiny." He at least determines that Gould, along with slave labor, would spend a lot of time reinventing Europe on Sarah Island. In addition to a stately pleasure dome knockoff, the Great Mah-Jong Hall (a "nightmare of stupendous proportions" decreed), the Commandant's intention to "make the penal colony of Sarah Island the product of his imaginative will" has Gould painting huge backdrops of European scenes and monuments alongside the railroad that pointlessly circles the island.

This kind of "ambition to outdo Europe by rebuilding it" concerns Flanagan, as peppered throughout are not only the condemnations of colonialism, but vividly rendered images of the atrocities, massacres and mistreatment by the British of the aborigines in Tasmania and Australia, some of it in the name of science. An increasingly and unduly implicated Gould cannot understand why the offenses he is ultimately accused of is "deemed a crime, while murdering a people is at best a question & at worst a scientifick imperative."

One incident of drollery, skullduggery and poetic justice involving phrenology and Lempriere's fate barely mitigates the injustice in making for some pointed commentary, but Flanagan is careful to point out that "we all make our accommodations with power," and, "living a life of moral cowardice," Tasmanians are like "the sheep we shot the Aborigines to make way for, docile until slaughter." He continues: "It wasn't the English who did this to us but ourselves, that convicts flogged convicts & pissed on blackfellas & spied on each other, that blackfellas sold blackwomen for dogs & speared escaping convicts, that white sealers killed & raped black women, & black women killed the children that resulted."

Flanagan, throughout "Gould's Book of Fish" and especially during Gould's harrowing circumstances, depicts graphically and convincingly this overall "smoky pall of oppression & degradation & subjugation," and on a more personal scale captures the "pain & all sadness & and all that hopeless love in every fractured life & in every hidden heart." Moreover, he injects a visceral, aching sense of why we are "So alone, so frightened, so wanting for what we are afraid to give tongue to."

But he tries admirably to speak for a terrible beauty, to reconcile the horrific aspects with the honorable facets, affirming the desire to "rise into the sky & shake the heavens, sink into the sea & move the earth; know the beauty & wonder of this world ... as limitless as its opposite."

Flanagan's masterful balancing act between what we endure and where we prevail ricochets page-to-page at breakneck read with passion and compassion, from the rhapsodic to Rabelaisian and from dark to darkly humorous. There are only a few collapsing lapses in cohesiveness, and some excess lapping at coherence when the ichthyologic incidents and analogies, though of course central, get heavy-handed and at times a bit Twilight Zoney and purple prosy.

"Gould's Book of Fish" recalls Joyce with its free-fall word fervor and use of language, and suggests the magic realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. More constant refrains, though, call to mind two other writers. Evocations of Ovid are strung throughout, and if the continual being and becoming, merging identities and sometimes surreal transformations of just about every one and everything isn't taking place, it's not necessarily for lack of desire, as Gould lets on: "I prepared to abandon the shell of who & what I was, & metamorphose into something else."

The depths of human corruptibility explored by Joseph Conrad are also integral, notably seen with heart and darkness doing battle within Gould himself in his attempt to reconcile "this knowledge of a world so awful, this sense of a life so extraordinary."

It is in this yearning to put to rights the wrongs and the wronged that Flanagan's singular voice emerges most forcefully amid the horrors he portrays. In the endeavor to "make a bonfire of words," he succeeds in "this business of smuggling hope."
Excerpts from Gould's Book of Fish
How could I then -- as I was painting my first fish -- have known I was setting out on a venture as quixotic as it was infinite? I have read the lives of the artists &, like the lives of the saints, greatness seems imprinted upon them from the beginning. At birth their fingers are recorded making painterly flourishes, merely waiting for a loaded brush & a canvas to fill with the images they seem to have been born with, so many immaculate conceptions.

But art is a punitive sentence, not a birthright, & there is nothing in my early life that suggests artistick aptitude or even interest, my pastimes & fascinations nearly all being what may -- & were -- deemed the merely villainous. And though I am, of course, the hero of this, my own tale, if only because I can't really imagine anyone else wanting to be, my story is no remade myth of Orpheus, but the story of a sewer rat made worse.

I am William Buelow Gould, sloe-eyed, green-eyed, gap-toothed, shaggy-haired & grizzle-gutted, & though my pictures will be even poorer than my looks, my paintings lacking the majesty of a Girtin, the command of a Turner, believe me when I tell you that I will try to show you everything, mad & cracked & bad as it was.


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