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JJ’s marriage has failed, basically because he’s withdrawn from it, from both his wife and their teenage daughter.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)