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November 2002

Identity Crisis

Delusional in Tasmania or dotty in Britain-take your pick from this month's books

by Richard Flanagan
Atlantic Books, 2002

William Buelow Gould was a convict in Van Diemen’s Land (modern-day Tasmania, Australia), who is remembered for his natural history illustrations. Richard Flanagan has taken this historical character, and woven around him a wildly imaginative novel. Even in its presentation, this is an audacious book. The creamy, unlaminated jacket and marbled end- papers open to reveal a book whose chapters are each preceded by one of Gould’s delicate fish portraits, and set in a different colored type (a design flourish that is explained by the story). But this striking livery is more than matched by Flanagan’s extravagantly imagined world that lies within.

Gould narrates his life story from a prison cell, where he awaits execution. From the unusual circumstances of his birth to his even stranger end, Gould inhabits a fantastical world, peopled by memorable characters and characterized by bizarre events. The commandant of the Sarah Island penal colony turns it into a roaring international trading port, blithely selling off mainland Australia in his quest for trade—and that is just the start of his increasingly delusional ambitions. Meanwhile the surgeon is shipping Aboriginal heads in barrels to England for classification, and the jailer, Pobjoy, is turning a nice profit from Gould’s fake Constables. Then there is the commandant’s Aboriginal mistress, Twopenny Sal, with whom Gould falls in love, but whose real name he never thinks to ask.

Gould narrates the book with a conspiratorial awareness of his readership, daring us to believe his extraordinary tales. He is often funny, often sad, yet the story is less moving than it might have been. This book has some interesting parallels with Matthew Kneale’s English Passengers, which also deals in Tasmanian convicts, Aborigines, eugenics and megalomania. Despite Flanagan’s flights of imagination and lyrical voice, this book does not hold up well in comparison to Kneale’s extraordinary achievement. This “novel in twelve fish” is highly unusual, sometimes engaging and is told with flare. It is hard to say, on finishing, quite what it is about or what it is supposed to mean, but it’s an enjoyable ride. (Richard Flanagan will be reading from Gould’s Book of Fish at the Literaturhaus on November 5. See this month’s What’s Up section.)

by Dave Gorman and Danny Wallace
Ebury Press, 2001

Dave Gorman is a British stand-up comedian. His flatmate, Danny Wallace, is a writer. One drunken evening at their local pub, they get into a discussion about the possible number of David Gormans in the world. Danny reckons that Dave will probably never meet another one. Dave replies, “D’you wanna bet?” Thus begins a six-month odyssey, as the pair travels Britain and the rest of the world searching for Dave Gormans to shake hands with. Danny and Dave take turns narrating the story—in two different fonts—and the disjunction between their accounts is often a source of the book’s gentle humor. Danny reels in disbelief at each new excess on the road to Dave Gorman nirvana, but while there are plenty of arguments along the way, he never calls the enterprise into question. The dogged seriousness with which the pair pursues this bet, at the risk of their relationships and bank balances, pays tribute to their dedicated friendship (dedicated to silliness, perhaps) and marks a new chapter in the tradition of British eccentricity.

Dave displays a worrying tendency to book two last-minute plane tickets, without stopping first to ring the Dave Gorman in question and check whether he is home. Dave’s bank account turns a flaming shade of scarlet, and Danny’s exasperated girlfriend flies home to Norway to think things over for a while. The pair jets off to the south of France, New York, Oslo, Tel Aviv and Dublin, barely pausing to stop and look at the scenery on their relentless quest. Scant mention is made of any kind of work commitments for either of them. Dave becomes so immersed that he almost passes up his annual gig at the Edinburgh festival, fearing he can’t spare the time, until he comes up with the idea of turning the search into a show (and, later, a TV series and this book). A plate section allows the reader to inspect all 54 Dave Gormans as they are mentioned. Readers of Tony Hawks’ Round Ireland with a Fridge will be familiar with the drunken bet scenario, which is almost turning into a sub-genre. Like Hawks’ book, a delightfully silly premise sets the stage for a light-hearted and diverting read. Gorman and Wallace, however, manage to bring more warmth (and less beer) to the venture.

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