Sunday, March 23, 2008

Gould's Book of Fish

A Novel in 12 Fish

This is an outrageous fictional account of the life of convict artist William Buelow Gould, who in the early part of the 19th century was transported to Van Dieman’s Land (now Tasmania) for stealing a coat.

The Commandant of the penal colony is a felon himself, having appropriated the identity of a dead English lieutenant. He corresponds with the lieutenant’s sister, who later turns out to be a famous English opium-eater. He wears a gold mask to hide his chancre-ridden face, and diverts himself by riding a locomotive around a circular track and gazing at painted vistas provided by Gould.

The Surgeon, who has hopes of being admitted to the Royal Society, enlists Gould to paint fish, and sends barrels of pickled heads to an English phrenologist. When the Surgeon meets an untimely end, his bones get sent to England too, resulting in a comic scientific mixup.

Gould becomes obsessed with fish. He confuses the people around him with the fish he is painting. He lives in a saltwater cell. He turns into a fish. His book finds its way into the hands of a 20th century purveyor of fake antique furniture named Sid Hammet. Sid turns into a fish.

Each of the 12 chapters is named after a fish and accompanied by a beautiful reproduction from the real William Gould. In the hardcover version there are magnificently marbled endpapers, which resemble a tidepool, and ink colour varies by chapter, reflecting the handmade ink that Gould himself is using. The writing is ornate and grotesque:

As I bob about my cell now I think back on it, we were not surprised when we felt upon us as an implacable hatred the malignant stare of that unholy army of the persecuted—filthy little clawscrunts & half-starved wretches, their pus-filled eyes poking like buttercups out of scaled scabby faces, their misshapen backs hacked & harrowed out of any matural form by endless applications of the Lash; brawn-fallen, belly-pinched wrecks of men bent & broken long before their time, the one I thought the oldest only thirty-two years of age.

This is an entertaining, though at times mystifying, recursive fish story.

Marbled endpapers
Historical Note

Several times the novel mentions Colonel Arthur, the Governor of Van Dieman’s Land. He was recalled in 1836 and the following year installed as Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada. Arthur’s replacement was Sir John Franklin, who governed until 1843, when he was removed from power without warning. Stung by this disgrace, Franklin set out two years later on his final expedition from which no one survived.

The book concludes with a doctored biographical note on Gould. His real bio can be found here.