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Wishing for Modernity: Temporality and Desire in Gould's Book of Fish

journal contribution
posted on 2023-05-17, 06:48 authored by Shipway, J
Upon arrival in that stinking grotty modern world of Van Diemen's Land in the stinking late summer heat, all hideous new sandstone warehouses and customs houses and chaingangs and redcoats, I was assigned to Palmer the coachbuilder in Launceston, what passes as the capital of the island's north. (Richard Flanagan, Gould's Book of Fish 67) IN a methodological echo of Fredric Jameson's claim that 'our cultural languages are totally dominated by space rather than categories of time, as in the preceding period of high modernism proper' (16), spatial metaphors have become a staple tool for cultural critics interested in tracing the development of new narrative forms. Philip Mead seems to be persuaded by this impulse in his review of Richard Flanagan's novel Gould's Book of Fish when he compares the 'strange narrative density of Tasmania' to the moment in Calvino's The Castle of Crossed Destinies 'where the narrator realises that stories don't proceed along thin, linear planes', engendering a situation in which 'the act of reading produces a dense forest of story in whichever direction the reader proceeds' (15). While I recognise the richness of this kind of approach, in this essay I want to distance myself from spatialising metaphors, and mobilise the second of Kant's intuitive categories, time (Russell 681), as the focus in reading Gould's Book of Fish. The purpose of this essay is to examine the ways in which configurations of temporality in Richard Flanagan's Gould's Book of Fish, his most recent novel, and his other fiction, articulate a desire that precedes and exceeds the works themselves. One of the recurring motifs in Flanagan's writing is the impoverishment of the Tasmanian present, a state of affairs both enacted by, and embodied in, a failed modernity. The imaginative force exerted upon Flanagan's fiction by this configuration of energies bleeds into his cultural criticism, to produce the following problem: how are we to summon up hope for Tasmania's future, when its past is so overwhelmingly full of defeat? The answer proposed in Gould's Book of Fish is to radically fictionalise that past, and to imbue it with the residue of collective longing left over from the project of hydro-electrification that was aborted after the Franklin River conflicts of the early 1980s. At first glance, Gould's Book of Fish doesn't appear to be a book about modernity. It's predominantly set in the 1820s for one thing, and its protagonist, the convict forger William Buelow Gould, is certainly no Renaissance man, although he does do a fine line in imitational water colours. Essentially, this is a book about convictism and the plight of a singular victim of its depredations. Sid Hammet, a twenty-first-century Tasmanian furniture restorer and local skite, discovers the Book of Fish in a meatsafe at Hobart's Salamanca place. After its mysterious transmogrification into a brackish puddle at a popular Hobart drinking hole, he begins to recount its contents. From there we are submerged into the life history of its author, William Buelow Gould--forger, convict, painter of fish--as Flanagan traces his biography from its lowly arc in industrial London to the transportation of its subject to Van Diemen's Land, and on to its final termination amid the wreckage of the hallucinogenic 'Nova Venetia' constructed at the convict colony of Sarah Island on Tasmania's wild West Coast. Flanagan's book is about the malleability of truth and the reliability of writing, it's about what can happen when imagination and desire slip into the gaps between de jure and de facto interpretations of history. It's also about the ways in which modalities of temporality can be inserted into an economy of longing for the future, so that a fictional past becomes the alternative future for a non-fictional present. In Gould's Book of Fish, Richard Flanagan returns to the time of Tasmania's first modernity in order to realise his hopes and ambitions for another modernity that is yet to come. The tragic-comic failure of that fictional modernisation embodies the ambivalence he feels about the real history of Tasmanian modernity. In broad terms, the time of Gould's Book of Fish is split into two parts: the time of the present, and the time of the past. The time of the present is the time of Sid Hammett and the discovery of the Book of Fish in the old meat-safe at Salamanca markets. The time of the past is the time of William Buelow Gould--'the Commandant'--and of Sarah Island. This second ...


Publication title

Australian Literary Studies








School of Social Sciences


University of Queensland Press

Place of publication

Woolongong, NSW

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  • Restricted

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Expanding knowledge in human society

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