About Jesus Wants For A Sunbeam
Written in an evocative, haunting style, this moving tale of loss and the relationship between parents and child was first published in the collection Little Deaths in 1993. Tailor-made for reading groups, it is a unique publication which includes an introduction by an acclaimed Australian author, an interview with Goldsworthy and room for note-taking.
About Peter Goldsworthy
Peter Goldsworthy was born in Minlaton, South Australia, in 1951, and grew up in various country towns in which his father was a teacher, and later, a high school headmaster. His mother also trained as a teacher.
In a 1996 essay ′A Country Childhood′, Goldsworthy described his earliest memories of country landscapes and activites, and childhood illness. ′I loved to ride the tractor in the harvesting season but I never lasted in the driver′s seat for long. My nose would run, then I would start wheezing. The local doctor, Paddy Reilly, liked to sit on my sickbed and reassure me. "Don′t worry lad, nobody ever died of asthma." This dangerous lie at least had a calming effect - and of course he didn′t have much else to offer besides comforting lies. These were the days before inhalers and nebulisers.′
Goldsworthy finished his schooling in Darwin, the setting for his widely acclaimed novel Maestro. ′Dostoevsky says that the best education for a writer is a single glowing memory from childhood. The moment of illumination in my case might be my arrival at Darwin airport at two am on a wet season morning in 1966. The air was hot and humid. The scents that enveloped us as we walked towards the unimpressive terminal overpowered even the fumes of aviation fuel that make most airports indistinguishable. The smell of Darwin was a mix of tropical fecundity and rot - a sweet and sour compost smell. It has a climate that tires humans but encourages all kinds of insect and botanic life.′
Darwin saw the beginning of Goldsworthy′s dual career as a writer and doctor, with a little help from his father. ′At school I was good at sport and shone at maths and science. I was set to be a zoologist or maybe a physicist. Then two things happened which changed the priorities in my life. A friend and I started a club called The Freethinkers - I began to read for the first time the books that my dad had given me years before. The other new development was that I lost interest in maths. I shared a desk with a girl in the back row and we prefereed to explore other areas of knowledge than matricies and probability theory. When exams were a few months away, my father realised I was going to fail maths and therefore would not be able to pursue the career of my choice. He crossed the boundary between school and home and commandered my evenings and weekends. My friends went hooning around, I stayed indoors with the calculus textbook learning integration by the only way that delivers results - solving a thousand problems. I passed well enough to get into medicine and became a doctor. I have my father to thank for not giving up on me and for retaining some influence over me at a time when I was victimising the other teachers and generally being obnoxious.′
Goldsworthy went on to graduate in medicine from the University of Adelaide and has devoted his time since equally to medicine and writing. He married a fellow graduate, and has three children. He has published three collections of poetry, including This Goes With That: Selected Poems 1970-1990, and four collections of short fiction, including Little Deaths. He is the author of four novels: Maestro, Honk If You Are Jesus, Wish, Keep It Simple, Stupid, and a novel written jointly with Brian Matthews Magpie. He has won numerous awards including the Commonwealth Poetry prize and an Australian Bicentennial Literary Award. His novels have been translated into many Asian and European languages.
Goldsworthy doesn′t believe medicine and writing are as disparate as some people feel. His medical life provides a privileged exposure to people that he draws on extensively for his writing. ′I think medicine teaches us to observe people in some extent, which is probably good for novelists - part of the art of diagnosis is observation.′
These days Goldsworthy feels more at home in the city than the countryside of his childhood. Again from ′A Country Childhood′: ′Fourteen years after we left Minlaton, I revisited for the first time. I ended up in the local hospital with a severe asthma attack. It′s as though I′m allergic to my roots.′ Despite this Goldsworthy still believes that a country childhood has its benefits, ′The city suits me now and the bush has changed. It′s probably still the best place for kids though. The best place to acquire a nose for bulllshit, to learn how this countryy came to be what it is, and to learn the basic connections - that milk comes from cows, meat from animals, canes from canefields. There are more miracles out there per hectare, and enough room for all kinds of childhood creativity.′
Questions about Jesus Wants For A Sunbeam
1) ′Of course we have to concede that all literature is reductionist in essence - it seeks to capture and to simplify a world that is rich and varied beyond the scope of language. Any description is, necessarily, a simplification.′ Peter Goldsworthy.
Goldsworthy has often said that he is interested in the ′precision′ and ′perfection′ of storytelling. Do you see these qualities in Jesus Wants Me For A Sunbeam?
2) The notions of balance and harmony appear frequently in Jesus Wants Me For A Sunbeam. Would you agree? What do you see as their significance - as both thematic and stylistic devices?
3) Goldsworthy′s prose has been described as ′scalpel-edged′, ′clinical′ and ′tightly controlled′. He has been criticised for not showing his character′s emotions more and not imbuing his prose with enough ′warmth′ and ′empathy′. Is this apparent lack of emotion and compassion a justified criticism of Jesus Wants Me For A Sunbeam?
4) In the novella Rick and Linda lead very sheltered, protected lives, isolating themselves from the troubles of the world. Would you say the novella criticises this lifestyle, because through Emma′s illness Rick and Linda are forced to confront the tragedy of the world they have sought to avoid?
5) What does the novella say about the relationship between parent and child, and the ′responsibility′ implied within that relationship?
6) Peter Goldsworthy is also well-known for his poetry and many critics consider his prose to be poetic. What do you find poetic about Jesus Wants Me For A Sunbeam? What similarities and differences do you see between Peter Goldsworthy′s poetry, such as ′Songs on the Death of Children′ and the novella itself?
7) What role does Reason play within the text? Are the final decisions ′reasonable′?
8) How strong is the sense of family within the novella? What does the novella mean by its depiction of the ′shrine′ of the family?
9) What does the novella say about the power of books? Do the books of Rick and Linda - Dickens etc - fail them? Or does the novella offer a glimpse of ′the word and its powerful role in Western civilisation′?′
10) Some readers consider the denouement of Jesus Wants Me For A Sunbeam to be ′extreme′, an exposure and contemplation of social taboos. What do you see as taboo in the story? How does Goldsworthy present this transgression?
11) In what ways do Rick and Linda represent a particularly baby-boomer attitude and/or awareness of themselves and others? Is their attitude to their children different to that of their parents′?
12) It has been suggested that the novella presents the breakdown of the Christian belief system in the face of death. Do you see the story as challenging issues of spirituality - with the failure of the Church to address the young couple′s needs and the emergence of their own beliefs?
13) ′Novels, I decided, were little more than a patchwork quilt of poems and short stories and character sketches and fragments from the writer′s notebook, sewn loosely together into what was - after all - a marketable commodity. The poem seems a more natural literary form, as old as song. The short story likewise: as old as the joke, or the campfire yarn. But the novel was surely unnatural, an invention of publishers.′ Peter Goldsworthy.
What qualities in ′Jesus Wants Me For A Sunbeam′ do you see that resemble a novel? Or a short story? or a poem? In what ways does it distinguish itself from these narrative forms?
About Peter Goldsworthy