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All The Pretty Fishes

GOULD'S BOOK OF FISH A Novel in 12 Fish By Richard Flanagan Grove Press: 404 pp., $27.50

April 14, 2002|CAROLINE FRASER | Caroline Fraser is a frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books, among other publications.

Surely one of the most eccentric novels to appear in recent years, "Gould's Book of Fish: A Novel in 12 Fish" by Tasmanian writer Richard Flanagan, rivals other ambitiously weird fictional works of our time. From David Foster Wallace's "Infinite Jest" to Thomas Pynchon's "Mason & Dixon," fictional high fliers have attempted to slip free of sturdy old realism by summoning the odd alternate universe, always running the risk that readers will be distracted by the little man behind the curtain, frantically working the machinery that supplies the magic. "Gould's Book of Fish" is such an experiment: by turns enchanting, bemusing and irritating.

Purporting to be the re-creation of a lost manuscript of William Buelow Gould, an actual convict in the penal colony of Van Diemen's Land (the original name for Tasmania), the novel reproduces 12 astonishing watercolors of native fish from the actual "Book of Fish," owned by the Allport Library and Museum of Fine Arts in the State Library of Tasmania. The chapters are printed in a different color ink (red, purple, brown, blue, green), corresponding to the different substances (lapis lazuli, sea urchins, human blood and feces) that the desperately inventive Gould uses to pen his bizarre memoir.

Although hardly as melodramatic as his character's, Flanagan's career has had a picaresque air. Born and raised in Tasmania (where he still lives), a descendant of Irish convict ancestors who arrived in the 1840s, Flanagan remembers reenacting his father's experiences in a World War II Japanese prisoner-of-war camp in Burma while on seaside holidays as a child:

"In our shack we shared in his annual exorcism," he wrote in an Austrialian magazine earlier this year. "We six children would line up and recite one to 10 in Japanese or his number that he had once called at roll call in jungle camps. He would inspect our bunk beds to make sure our blankets were folded in the manner decreed by the imperial Japanese jailers--with the fold out."

A champion whitewater kayaker, Flanagan left school at 16 to work as a river guide, an unusual apprenticeship for someone who ultimately became a Rhodes scholar. He subsequently dismissed Oxford as "the most grossly over-rated institution." He wrote his first book, a history of southwest Tasmania, at 21, followed by several more nonfiction works of history and biography.

His first novel, "Death of a River Guide" (1994), was something of a revelation: A Faulknerian homage in which Tasmania's tragic history of penal colonies--the rape of its native people and natural beauty by the British and its subsequent colonization by a welter of nationalities--is seen through the eyes of a river guide, Aljaz Cosini, who is drowning beneath a waterfall on the Franklin River, his life and those of his forebears flashing before him. It was an astonishing tour-de-force, lyrically written and bringing to life a place and history that most readers outside of Australia had barely glimpsed (and might have missed altogether, because the book received little attention in Australia and was not published here until 2001).

Flanagan's next project involved writing and directing a feature film about a family of Slovenian immigrants in Tasmania, "The Sound of One Hand Clapping." While awaiting funding for the film, Flanagan rewrote the story as a novel, which was published to great acclaim in Australia in 1997--winning major prizes and selling about 150,000 copies--but the project soured its author on film. Given to rebellious Russell-Crowe-style outbursts, Flanagan told the press that movie-making was "the closest thing I've come across to a tyrannical state" and subsequently revealed that his next novel had been deliberately written to be "unfilmable."

"Gould's Book of Fish" is that unfilmable book, Flanagan's ninth work and third novel, an extended peroration on what its central character terms "Literature & Art, those sick & broken compasses." It begins with a classic first-person framing device: Sid Hammet is a modern-day Tasmanian entrepreneur who concocts fake antiques--"old chairs ... painted in several bright enamel paints, sanded back, lightly shredded with a vegetable grater, pissed on and passed off as Shaker furniture that had come out with whalers from Nantucket last century"--to sell to the "fat old Americans ... with their protruding bellies, shorts, odd thin legs and odder big white shoes dotting the end of those oversize bodies." A familiar type in Flanagan's work, Hammet is eaten away by the corrosive self-loathing and universalized contempt inspired by this commerce:

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