December 01, 2008

Savouring the Location

Filed under: Archive,Books

Everything I Knew
by Peter Goldsworthy
Hamish Hamilton/Penguin

Universe, Milky Way, Solar System, Earth, Australia, South Australia, Penola, Church Street, 26, December 63.” These are the opening lines of Everything I Knew, Peter Goldsworthy’s excellent new book set in the South East in the mid 1960s. His narrator begins with a kind of GPS mantra – spiraling from the universal to the locally, prosaically particular. The lines nicely echo Stephen Dedalus in that other bildungsroman, or novel of education, James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, but they also perfectly capture what many of us remember writing in diaries, journals, exercise books and other secret tomes as we struggled to work out who we were and what we knew.

In this, Goldsworthy’s seventh novel, the young Robert Burns is looking about himself. Describing himself as “a centaur of bicycle and boy-flesh, n he and his Aboriginal mate, Billy Currie enjoy the temporary freedoms of a carefree life where happiness, the book tells us, is a default state.

The author remembers well, capturing the piquant details of pop culture and domestic life in mid-1960s South Australia- pikelets and jubilee cake, stirrup pants and duffel coats, Super Elliotts and Vespa Scooters, the Beatles and Audrey Hepburn -images and epiphanies that are fizzing in the busy imagination of Robbie, the young incipient artist It is a world ripe and warmly rendered. But, neither boy, nor man, nor bicycle, Robbie Burns, with a head full of ideas, sci-fi scenarios, hazardous chemical experiments and erotic delusions is moving ever more recklessly into collision with a world he observes, and often ogles at, but doesn’t understand.

As his mother says to the young Paul Crabbe in Maestro, “You know so much for your ageand so little.” This is Robbie when he meets the young, inspiring and unbearably fetching Miss Peach-his teacher, muse, siren and, as you will discover when reading the book, tragic life-long preoccupation.

This book is filled with singular characters – the Misses Burke and Hammond, Doc McKenzie, Merv the woodwork teacher, Geoffrey Barry the narcissistic poet professor. But the deep satisfactions in reading Goldsworthy’s novel are in the assurance and subtle implication of its unfolding, almost dual, narrative where hilarious, sunny things happen but also the dark and terrible. The book is many things at once: disturbing, problematic, philosophic and laugh-out- loud funny.

The everything that the careless,sometimes cruel, Robbie Burns knows, may be a fateful insufficiency- as, for any adolescent, it is bound to be. But the everything that Peter Goldsworthy brings- its human vulnerability and foible, its sexual compulsion and foolishness- is a Chaucerian plenty. It contains multitudes, and, as Terence said in the classics, nothing that is human is alien to it.

This book very successfully contains the many facets of Peter Goldsworthy’s writing- as speculative fictioneer, scientist, ethicist, chemist, physician, dramatist, and, perhaps most of all, poet- not the blue remembered hills kind, but the no-ideas-but-in-things kind. The result is intelligent, complex and deeply affecting.

“Savouring the location”, The Adelaide Review, No.346, December, 2008, p.26.

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