Wish, Peter Goldsworthy

Brona’s AusReadingMonth Bingo, November 2019 – [SA]

Wish

Last week Sue/Whispering Gums’ Monday Musings was on the subject of deafness and Australian writing, and the very small number of works dealing with disability. Coincidentally, my next read for #ausreading month was Peter Goldsworthy’s Wish (1995), set in Adelaide, SA, which is on the subject not exactly of deafness but of communication by Auslan (Australian Sign Language).

Goldsworthy is (apparently) a well-known and respected Australian author, though not one of whom I was aware, and the subject of a glowing overview in the Introduction to this Text edition (I wonder what it says about Australian readers’ relation to Text Classics that the publisher gets a much bigger billing than the author or the title). Still, I found Wish uncomfortable reading, too long and boring in parts, and a protagonist who at times made me squirm – which may be my problem and not the book’s!

The protagonist, JJ, is a late 30s guy, living at home again – in Glenelg, on the beach – with his profoundly deaf parents after the failure of his marriage. Though not deaf himself, Auslan had been his first language as a child, and English only his second and not one with which he is ever entirely comfortable. As an adult he makes his living as a teacher of Auslan, mostly to people wishing to converse with deaf friends and relatives.

JJ’s marriage has failed, basically because he’s withdrawn from it, from both his wife and their teenage daughter. It’s not clear why, though it’s at least possible he is emasculated by his wife’s intellect and drive, and also by his discomfort with his own body shape (fat). At the commencement of the novel JJ, who has been away in the US, is offered a teaching job at the Deaf Institute, by a smart-arse who had formerly been his student.

There is a lot of discussion about Auslan throughout, some of it generated by JJ’s difficult relationship with his boss, who is not a native speaker, augmented by frequent sketches of hand positions. One of the features of Auslan is that everyone has an Auslan name, not just a transliteration of their name in English – which in any case can often only be rendered by spelling. So, the boss’s name, behind his back at least, is Miss-the-Point (the sign is a sweeping of one hand over the head, which you would think he might notice).

Another smug, high-beam smile. I had taught Miss-the-Point his first signs, and he wasn’t about to let me forget it. Some debts are too great to repay, let alone forgive.

Miss-the-Point gives JJ the beginners class in which his two best pupils are a 40ish sexy woman and her older husband, a famous animal rights campaigner. They, soon offer JJ part-time work teaching sign to their differently-abled foster daughter.

So the core of the plot is the triangle formed by JJ, the sexy mother and the daughter, for whom, and for only whom, JJ finds himself re-tumescing. The daughter, who is effectively unable to speak, blossoms as she learns sign. Between them, they choose for her the name ‘Wish’ and for the parents, the names ‘Star’ and ‘Saint’. Wish is past puberty and clearly has a crush on JJ. Star isn’t getting it from Saint, and when Saint goes overseas on book tour duty, makes it clear – in fairly humiliating fashion – that she wants it from JJ who has chucked in his job and is staying over. JJ is engrossed by his involvement in Wish’s progress, he thinks.

I slumped over the sink, wobble-kneed, paralysed. Horror at my actions filled me, the hands of sign-shame rose to hide my face. The noise of my coming would surely bring Wish down the stairs. I couldn’t face her; I could barely face myself.

He flees back to Glenelg, whose grey, almost landlocked waters are the only place he feels comfortable with his bulk

The first heart-stopping shock of cold quickly faded, and I felt only a warm glow as I floated beyond the surf line, sole swimmer as far as the eye could see. Less bouyant without my rubber suit, I was still unsinkable, more walrus than man.

Melanie at Grab the Lapels is conducting a one woman campaign against fat shaming in literature, which has certainly made me think more about representations of body shape. In this context it would be interesting to know if Goldsworthy is a) fat; and for that matter, b) fluent in Auslan.

The story takes a science-fictiony turn, a feature of Goldsworthy’s writing apparently, and maybe an early example of mainstream lit. turning to SF for inspiration, but only in the explanation for Wish’s behaviour. JJ returns. Wish refuses all attempts at communication, but when JJ goes to bed, there’s just one wall between them. It’s all getting too close to actual sex between teacher and adolescent student. I stop reading, at p 305 out of 377.

Sorry. If you want to know more you’ll have to read it yourself.

 

Peter Goldsworthy, Wish, first pub. 1995. This edition Text Classics, Melbourne, 2013

see also: Lisa/ANZLL’s review of Goldsworthy’s memoir His Stupid Boyhood (here)

 

36 thoughts on “Wish, Peter Goldsworthy

  1. I really hadn’t heard of this book Bill. I read and really liked his Three dog night before blogging, and have always wanted to read Maestro. He’s a doctor I believe, and is very much into music. He’s written libretti (I think I’m right) and his daughter Anna Goldsworthy has written a well-received memoir which Lisa has read I recollect. None of this is much to the point re this book except that I’ve aways thought of him as one of our good writers, so your discussion of this has me intrigued.

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    • Interestingly he uses the expression three dog night in this book too, as though it’s new and needed to be explained (looking up the band, Three Dog Night, formed in 1967, I see they ascribe the name to Australian Aborigines) which is not much to the point either. But I remembered Lisa admired his work, and although his writing didn’t set me on fire, it’s quite possible the problem was with me and not with him – watching Seinfeld for instance, I would quite often walk away if the characters were making me feel embarrassed.

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    • My family routinely criticise me for getting embarrassed by situations on the TV. So I’m sure the fault is mine. I can’t imagine enjoying ‘uncomfortable’ reading. I mightn’t (maybe shouldn’t) have published a review at all, but I did want to cross that SA square in the Bingo card, and I thought I might regard it as an experiment in form. We all DNF from time to time.

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      • Oh, that’s not true! You read (if not “enjoy”) uncomfortable reading all the time OR are you not made uncomfortable by indigenous stories of dispossession? I know you are! Or would you not call it discomfort, but something else – anger, frustration?

        Oh, and at least Melanie won’t have to ask you what you thought about this one.

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      • Yes, by uncomfortable I mean embarrassed, which I mostly feel when middle class men get themselves into stupid situations. Indigenous writing engages me, makes me angry. I imagine I could and maybe should be embarrassed for the things white men do, but that is another feeling again.

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  2. Were you deliberately avoiding a ‘spoiler’ by not identifying who (or what) Wish actually is? I agree that this is a confronting book, but I’m finding it thought-provoking and fascinating. And, BTW, Peter Goldsworthy is a long skinny streak of a man, not fat at all. Not that this has anything at all to do with the book. It’s called imagination.

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      • Oh Bill, that’s another porkie!! What about all that sci-fi you read? That’s ALL imagination if you ask me! (Sorry, couldn’t resist – I’ll stop now otherwise you’ll be removing me from your sidebar!)

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      • Well, imagining the future, doesn’t impinge on other people’s stories; and is a way of commenting about the present. Deserves a longer answer, but I’ve been wary of inflicting SF on the (frequently critical) denizens of my sidebar.

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      • My argument, or perhaps my preference, is for literary writers to write from experience. Will you post the results of your reading group? A review is more of an introduction than a discussion.

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      • Sure, Bill, I’m happy to let you know the results of my book group discussion. It’s a U3A group, with ages ranging from late 60s to early 90s, and the members have a wide range of backgrounds. I suspect they will feel as you do about this book, but they often surprise me! (BTW, I agree with you about the cover – a serious mistake, IMHO.)

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  3. I was quite excited to see that you were reviewing WISH, as my book group is doing it next month and I was hoping for some useful commentary and insights. Oh well.

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  4. Hey Bill,

    I read this many moons ago (I think when it first came out) & thought it was a bit off. I have yet to investigate this, but I think Goldsworthy has a trend of writing about disability (his latest book is about blindness – I’m interested in reading it to see how he treats the subject). I think he’s a bit overrated as a writer, but plenty of people would disagree with me.

    Cheers,
    Jess.

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  5. What’s this awful cover?

    Reading your review, I wouldn’t read this either: the teacher/student relationship is a turn-off and the love triangle too.

    Sometimes it’s better to quit.

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  6. Just got to this post; thanks for the shout out! Not only am I fighting against using fatness as a way to make characters look lazy, greedy, and evil, but to show that they often live very normal lives. It’s societal fat shaming that creates stigma and shame. I’m interested in this book because in addition to being a fat lady, I also can’t hear for shit. I have hearing aids and struggle with teaching people how to help me hear in their presence. Thanks for reviewing it!

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    • JJ, the central character, feels inadequate. His fatness is part of that, which is why I wondered out loud whether or no the author was writing from his own experience. He’s not apparently. So then you have to question whether he expects fat people to feel inadequate. He doesn’t suggest that JJ should go on a diet to find love, but he at least implies that he won’t until he does. As for the signing, it’s a really interesting part of – at the centre of, really – this book, though it’s used with someone who can’t speak rather than can’t hear.

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