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Animal Form

August 2013

  • James Bradley

James Bradley writes a new introduction to Wish, by Peter Goldsworthy, another addition to the Text Classics series of Australian literature.

It is difficult not to wonder how Peter Goldsworthy’s publishers reacted when he delivered the manuscript that would appear in 1995 as the novel Wish. Already famous for his debut, Maestro (1989), Goldsworthy had established a reputation as one of the most clear-eyed observers of Australian middle-class life, yet here was a book that seemed—at least at first blush—more like science fiction than anything else.

That Goldsworthy was not entirely comfortable with narrow conceptions of his writing should have been clear from his second novel, Honk If You Are Jesus (1992), a bleakly acerbic riff on cloning technology that imagined the creation of a new Christ from traces of genetic material retrieved from holy relics. If Honk occasionally seemed like the work of a writer determined to resist the expectations of his readership, though, Wish was something else altogether: a fully realised exploration of love, language and the boundaries of personhood that just happened to centre upon the relationship between a human sign-language teacher and a biologically engineered gorilla.

At first blush it is a subject that is likely to prove challenging to many readers. Yet Wish goes further, not by escalating the sciencefictional elements of its plot but by asking its readers to engage with the existence of systems of meaning and ways of being much closer to home, in the form of Sign language. The reader’s guide to this second – and in some ways more tantalising – world of meaning is the novel’s narrator, John James. Better known by his Sign name, J.J., he is an anomaly: born to deaf parents, he learned to sign before he could speak, and even in his thirties is more at home in Sign and with the deaf than in speech and the company of the hearing.

Initially J.J. seems an unlikely candidate for the experiment he becomes involved in as the novel progresses. Recently returned to his native Adelaide, unemployed and still reeling from a bruising divorce, he is adrift, living with his parents on the seafront in Glenelg, his evenings spent watching television or – in a playful reference to the aquatic ape theories of Max Westenhöfer and Alister Hardy – floating, clad in wetsuit and flippers, in the silent water outside his parents’ home. Then J.J. is hired by the zoologist and animal liberationist Clive Kinnear and his wife, the poet and veterinarian Stella Todd, to help teach Sign to Eliza – or, to use the sign name she soon adopts, Wish – a gorilla liberated from a laboratory in Melbourne by colleagues in the animal-rights underground.

Goldsworthy’s fiction has explored the charged relationship between teacher and pupil several times, most notably in his 2008 novel, Everything I Knew, about a young boy’s obsession with his teacher, and the short tale ‘The Nun’s Story’, in which a boy’s erotic feelings for his teacher collide with physical reality. These later excursions into this highly contested territory suggest a desire to tease out the complexities of such relationships, illustrating not just the ways in which both parties are often complicit in transgressing conventions, but the ways in which these transgressions can reverberate through both lives in unexpected and sometimes tragic ways.

These issues are present in Wish as well, but for the most part they are subordinated to a more complex set of questions about our increasingly unstable definitions of personhood and their ethical implications. Indeed, even as we are prompted to look past the more unsettling aspects of Wish and J.J.’s relationship we are being asked to grapple with deeper questions about Wish and her ethical status, questions that are made the more disturbing by the way her nature seems to elide so many of the categories we use to frame such discussions.

In this respect the novel has proven surprisingly prescient, its desire to explore the manner in which advances in genetic engineering and scientific understanding are forcing us to re-evaluate our assumptions about the boundaries between animal and human anticipating not just the burgeoning field of animal studies and the intensifying debates around the ethical status of great apes, but also books such as J. M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello and Sara Gruen’s Ape House, and big-budget Hollywood movies such as Splice and Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

The genius of Wish lies not in its recognition that these dilemmas exist but in its deft marriage of them to the conflicts of character at the heart of the novel. Like much of Goldsworthy’s work, Wish manages the not-inconsiderable trick of being both deeply felt and slyly aware of the contradictions and absurdities of the characters it portrays, allowing it to move effortlessly between comedy and compassion. This lightness of touch also allows the novel to sidestep the temptation to moralise about many of the most unsettling questions surrounding the treatment of animals. Although J.J. is suffi ciently appalled by Clive’s descriptions of factory farms and intelligent pigs to give up bacon, these horrors are kept largely offstage, intellectual abstractions discussed and responded to but never experienced or described directly.

The book internalises and reproduces the rhetorical strategy J.J. ascribes to Clive, his ‘debating trick’ of using a low voice and matterof- fact descriptions as a means of ‘having cake and eating it, his cool words only fuelling the reader’s emotional heat’. At one level this is deliberate: if nothing else the average reader’s tolerance for the visceral and confronting reality of the treatment of animals in factory farms and elsewhere is likely to be limited. But it also underlines the fact that Wish is as much about language as ethics.

Goldsworthy’s poetry has shown he is fascinated by language, and its role in shaping thought and meaning. But in Wish this is allied to a larger investigation of the ways in which language shapes our identities. This is most obvious in the novel’s treatment of Sign, and in particular its insistence that we engage with this often-neglected language, both through J.J.’s descriptions and through the many diagrams included in the text. At first glance these diagrams may seem little more than a gimmick. But they are intrinsic to the novel’s design, demanding the reader step out of the realm of verbal language and engage with Sign as a physical, gestural system.

For those not fl uent in Sign this encounter is likely to be revelatory and chastening. While it is diffi cult not to be amazed that a world of meaning so different from the one we inhabit lies close at hand, it is equally diffi cult not to be aware of how this amazement underlines mainstream society’s casual marginalising of the deaf and their culture – and how our ignorance of deaf culture points to a failure to comprehend the possibility of other, quite different ways of being that are all around us. For even as we strive to teach dolphins and birds to speak and apes to sign, our solipsism blinds us to the possibility that these creatures may exist in richly complex worlds of meaning quite unlike our own.

This recognition is the flipside of Wittgenstein’s observation that once you teach a lion to speak it is no longer a lion. And it is also part of a larger ambivalence about language that pervades the book as a whole. Language, the novel suggests, is both liberating and confi ning, a creation capable not only of
communicating but of isolating.

This is most obviously true in the case of J.J. and Wish, each caught between worlds by the ways in which their respective encounters with language have shaped them. But it is also evident in J.J.’s relationship with his parents, the way his ability to speak separates him from the two of them, and indeed the way in which their shared disability binds them together, ‘two small, neat people in a small, neat house, most comfortable, fi nally, just with each other’. And – albeit in rather different form – in the novel’s awareness of the tension between language and life, and the profane and the profound. Certainly it’s no accident that Wish’s first symbolic utterance is a scatological insult.

Nor is it an accident that Wish is both Goldsworthy’s most vernacular novel, and the novel in which his fascination with language and its possibilities is most intrusive. The fluid opening page swiftly conjures the instrumental poetry of Sign: ‘The fist, thumbs up, is the Good Hand, shaper of good things. The Good Hand unfolding and tapping at the heart: Kindness. The Good Hand touching the brow: Knowledge…The observance of good is also in the exception. The Good Hand jerked over the shoulder: Fuck off.’ Goldsworthy’s prose is economical and powerful. Yet J.J.’s narration often evinces a curiously anxious, almost needy relationship with language: the noise of pipes is ‘water-music’; J.J. in the ocean is ‘a buoyant cork at the whim of the sea’; adjectives and similes abound, reminding us of the difficulty of pinning meaning down, and of the complexity contained in every description.

In the two decades since Wish Peter Goldsworthy has published three novels and several collections of short stories, as well as libretti and poetry, each of which has extended his considerable talents in often surprising directions. Yet in many ways Wish remains his greatest achievement, and the most eloquent distillation of his many interests. Brave, brilliant, as intellectually challenging as it is playful, it is testament to a restless and unpredictable imagination.

Wish by Peter Goldsworthy, with a new introduction by James Bradley, is out now from Text Classics, RRP $12.95.



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