Running Notes: Richard Flanagan’s “Gould’s Book of Fish”

I’m impressed from the opening chapter’s skillful language and the narrator’s mind-altering and enthusiastic reaction over a book on fish, which he plans to duly explain to us. I think that we are in for something special.

Our narrator, a huckster antique dealer, has found a magical book on fish and is obsessed with it. After making serious inquiries of its origin and shopping it to the experts, he is discouraged by their disinterested reaction and ends up hanging around a bar where he loses the book when he steps away to take a leak. Immediately he compares the loss to the desertion of a lover: the one that ripped your heart out, leaving a contagion to find her again. Our narrator seems a sensible sort, however, and eventually attempts to overcome the loss by re-creating the book, using the pictures of a second similar book, which he happened upon but which has no prose.

The story has a sudden section shift, and there’s a new narrator. Now, apparently, the Fish book will be given its full history, as narrated by the author/artist William “Billy” Gould. He’s held prisoner in a coastal cave that fills with sea water to near ceiling level when the tide comes in. During the day when he’s not being abused by the guard, Gould draws and paints all the marine life around him. That much is sanctioned by his captors, but he is forbidden from writing text of any sort. He does so on the sly, using any colored substance including blood and octopus goo that functions as ink.

Continued 11/18/20

Various despots come in and out of Billy’s life on the island. He is only too glad to consent to do painting at their bidding, thereby avoiding the worst of prison life. By far the strangest character who orders him around is the Commandant, a shipwrecked pretender to his role as grand master of the island. His minions build a locomotive from shipped parts and lays out a railway that runs in one small circle, then commissions a grand MahJong Hall as the national palace, where Billy Gould paints the walls with the words from the Commandant’s unseen love and pen pal, Anne.

Eventually Billy’s painting and labors of mural art in both the train station and the Mah Jong Hall fall to ruin, as nature takes over during a lull in construction. An outside nation comes in to buy the guano deposits.

He goes back to painting fish, fretful of their future existence. Billy Gould is a visionary of the sterile and loveless world we are all heading into (though he sees it from the 19th century, and we see it likely too late).