Authors: Peter Goldsworthy
‘In us we trust.’
The reader might begin to browse through this volume and discover that the novella at its centre is very short and has been published before. The question might then come to mind: why publish it anew? The answer to that is simple:
Jesus Wants Me For A Sunbeam
is one of the best things written in Australia in the modern era — it would not be too strong to call it a masterpiece. When first published in 1993 as one in the collection of stories,
the quality of the work was immediately recognised by perceptive critics like Andrew Riemer and hailed as a
tour de force,
but collections of short stories are not as popular in the market as they once were and many readers, even admirers of Goldsworthy’s earlier work, remain unaware of the fact that a brilliant gem lay buried in an otherwise unexceptional volume.
The novella has long been the Cinderella form of Australian letters and
Jesus Wants Me For A Sunbeam
demonstrates just how much it can be made to do in the hands of a maestro. Although
runs to no more than 14 250 words it has the dramatic intensity and thematic richness of a much longer work. It also does that very difficult and rare thing in fiction which is to create a convincing portrait of a good man. The young lovers at its centre, Richard and Linda, are exemplary offspring of the white Protestant middle-class, as nice a young couple as the leafy suburbs of Adelaide can nurture.
‘Solid, nice, good: these were the specifications of their world.’
Sweethearts since their student days they do everything together in a blissful symbiotic cocoon which, for all that, is not entirely complacent. They know there is suffering out there and they do their best to make the right gestures — sponsoring a child in Bangladesh — but for the most part theirs is a life that knows no disturbance other than the horrors of the nightly news. To this they respond, characteristically, by disposing of their television set, and spending the evenings reading aloud to one another from the classics.
Into this ordered affectionate world they bring their own two children; first, Ben, and three years later, Emma. In their own minds the ideal of themselves as sensible and virtuous is further confirmed by the perfect symmetry of this reproduction. A boy and girl at first try: it seems a just reward,
‘if their good fortune was not exactly planned, it was, she felt, at least deserved. It was earnt’
and their son’s smile
‘seemed to bestow on them God’s personal, unspoken benediction’
. But despite this Protestant sense of the Elect, intimations of mortality persist in haunting the margins of their lives. Linda especially is resistant to these and finds herself, after the birth of her daughter, unable any longer to go to the movies,
‘disturbed, she explained, by their increasing violence’.
Another door is closed on the world as the young couple strive to protect themselves from misery and death. Here is a portrait of family life as control, order, exclusion; of the suburban ideal as a first line of defence against pain.
When things go wrong for the charmed young couple their instinctive response is to look for a rational explanation of cause and effect. Theirs is the modern mind, resistant in every way to the idea of blind Fate or Divine Will. Though churchgoers (an interesting detail on Goldsworthy’s part) their faith is thin. It’s an habitual — one might even say, social — religious observance rather than true spiritual passion, and when placed under stress it evaporates. The clergyman who comes to console them is shown to the door, and Rick announces that from now on they will have to rely on themselves. In this sense
is a portrait of the secular mind at its heart’s centre — stripped of any of the great master narratives that confer meaning on life (such as the Christian notion of Redemption) the family has only itself to fall back on, hence the touching depiction of the family room (that ubiquitous legacy to domestic architecture from the Seventies) as a kind of shrine:
‘… it occurred to Rick that this room had always been their true place of worship, not Church — and that these three people, his family, his ideal of Family, had always been the core of whatever he believed in.’
Peter Goldsworthy has long been our pre-eminent poet of suburbia, of its ethical and metaphysical terrain, and
is a moving meditation on the terrifying abyss that lies beneath the decent and the ordinary. In the thirteen sections that make up the novella Goldsworthy sets out with almost clinical spareness an unbearably affecting portrait of a father’s love for his child, and at the same time the spiritual desolation behind it. In the most mundane of suburban settings he gives us a story of madness and heroism, not on any epic stage — on the battlefield, or the streets — but in the most ordinary of homes. He does this by taking a common idea — that our children are a part of us, and we of them, and extending that idea to its most extreme point. I can think of no other work in literature that so powerfully reflects on what it means to be a parent; to love a child and to be, in every sense, responsible for that child. Where does that responsibility end? What do we mean when we say that we ‘love’ our children? What are the boundaries of that love? Its breaking point? What is the role — if any — of Reason in arriving at answers to these questions? Is love beyond the rational? Ultimately Rick comes to a decision to protect his daughter in a way that is both quite rational and yet utterly insane. How can it be both at once?
Throughout the novella there is a great play on the question of what is and isn’t reasonable. How far can the human
take us? What has it given us that we can fall back on in the moment of our extremity? Can it save us? This is the great Enlightenment project, stripped of all spiritual authority and it has been one of the seminal themes of Goldsworthy’s
Science and Reason were meant to compensate for the loss of divine redemption but Science, as Goldsworthy demonstrates in his fiction elsewhere
(Honk If You Are Jesus, Wish)
is all too fallible. It merely generates ever new and mutating moral dilemmas to which Reason can offer only a series of free-floating rationalisations. One of the most remarkable things about
is the way it takes these grand themes and scales them down to a suburban setting without any affectation or straining after effect. Consider the way in which even that epicentre of Enlightenment rationalism at its most extreme — the French Revolution — is effortlessly absorbed into the texture of the narrative, simply and poetically echoed in Rick and Linda’s reading of Dickens’
A Tale of Two Cities,
and Rick’s ongoing image of his daughter as a prisoner in tumbrils.
More than any other Australian writer I can think of, Peter Goldsworthy is absorbed in the now, a conscientious chronicler of his age and generation. Like those other writers who were doctors, Chekhov and (for a time) Maugham he is not much interested in archetypal romances and mysteries and still less in mythopoeic histories. From a daily practice of looking at the wound(s) up close he seeks to make sense of the way we live now, to explore the meaning of the contemporary moment. And it seems to me that
is a story that only a baby-boomer could have written. The post-war generation grew up in the most prosperous and optimistic period of this century, and the most secular, in which affluence guaranteed freedom from hunger and gave rise to a naive faith in science and technology which included the promise of a cure for all our ills. Population growth meant new suburbs where increasingly the nuclear family became the intense focus of everything and the untidy, asymmetrical groupings of the extended family a thing of the past, at least in the white Anglo household. Added to all this, the women’s movement of the 60s and 70s helped to create a generation of men who believed in more involved fathering. Steven Spielberg’s radical rewriting of the Peter Pan story in his movie
is really about the baby-boomers coming to believe that there is no greater imperative in their mature adult lives than the psychological nurturing of their children — which is not to say that earlier generations didn’t love theirs, but fathers then were harder pressed to put food on the table. They had more children to spread their affections around and they had less expectation of immunity from modern medicine. I think it can be argued that now, more than any other time in history, the child is the projection of the utopian secular Self, and the agnostic’s only claim to immortality. A lot is at stake. Goldsworthy doesn’t judge this, he simply holds up a mirror to our own obsessionality, and then takes it one step further.
That so much in this short novella is achieved in so few words is one of the marvels of its form. Goldsworthy’s style has a clarity and simplicity — one could even say, humility — as if it came to the reader direct from the gods with the writer there as mere conduit of some special grace. This of course is an illusion the writer has worked hard to create. In reality such a style requires immense discipline, not to mention acute timing (the way a crucial word is dropped into the narrative in such a way as to fall like a hammer on the reader’s heart). In its self-effacing control it can be compared to the regularity of the heartbeat — one false word, one awkward rhythm in the phrasing and the mesmeric spell of the narrative, the sense of inescapable Fate, is broken. Paradoxically, it’s a kind of writing that gains its distinctive strength from the fact that while it must rely on words to come into being it has at the same time a very great distrust of them. Not the least of
riches is that it can be read as a meditation upon textuality itself, upon the word and its powerful role in western civilisation as a source of meaning and consolation. During the middle stages of their ordeal the young couple, Rick and Linda, read aloud to one another from
A Tale of Two Cities. ‘It’s afar better thing I do than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest I go to than I have ever known.’
At first they find this fortifying, for here in the heroism of romantic literature is a marvellous echoing of their own dilemma. But ultimately even their beloved books fail them. Too many dead children. ‘A
volume of Dickens lay discarded on the floor; another waif had died; he had become unreadable.’
Still, in the final moments before the denouement the young parents resort once again to the consolations of reading, this time the Bible.
‘Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me …’
Though Rick is sceptical, something in the very vibration of the words, in their music, affects him. ‘
… he might believe in little beyond family love, but these words seemed the culmination of all their nights of book-readings, as if those thick books — Dickens, George Eliot, Thackeray — had been a preparation for this moment, this last distillation of the written word.
What is this mysterious distillation of the written word that the book offers us? What is the meaning — in the Biblical sense — of The Word in our culture? Why write? Why read? Why would a doctor set aside his ‘useful’ work to spend hours re-arranging words on a page? Is it all just so much blather and distraction or can books make a difference — this is an argument that the writer goes on having with himself, from year to year, and book to book. And while it may sound at first like a somewhat self-referential project, the very best books are the ones that succeed, through the alchemy of storytelling, in offering that argument to the reader as a form of the sublime. In so doing they draw the reader into their world with such profound intuitive artistry that the process of reading itself becomes an act of communion. It’s a rare book that can accomplish all this, and
JesusWants Me For A Sunbeam
is one of them.
AMANDA LOHREY 1999
ichard and Linda. Benjamin and Emma. To outsiders, the Pollards seemed more a single indivisible organism than four separate members of a family: a symmetrical unit.
Examined from any angle that unit presented the same number of faces to the world: mirror faces, crystal facets. Two adults, two children. Two females, two males. A father, a mother. A son, a daughter.
Simple statistics, perhaps — unimportant, even trivial, in themselves — but to Rick and Linda, in love with each other and in love with their children, they were an emblem of something larger: of the balance and self-sufficiency of their lives. It seemed to the young parents that not much else was needed, that
thing else — a third child, a live-in grandmother, a dog, a cat, even a pet-rock — would be somehow excessive, and unbalancing.