Read Owen Marshall Selected Stories Online

Authors: Vincent O'Sullivan

Owen Marshall Selected Stories

BOOK: Owen Marshall Selected Stories
3.58Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Owen Marshall
selected stories

Edited by Vincent O'Sullivan


Introduction           Vincent O'Sullivan


Supper Waltz Wilson

A Southland Girl

The Tsunami

Descent from the Flugelhorn

The Master of Big Jingles

Mr Van Gogh

The Charcoal Burners' Dream

Cabernet Sauvignon with My Brother

Prince Valiant

Thinking of Bagheera

Requiem in a Town House

The Late Call

Kenneth's Friend

The Divided World

The Seed Merchant

The Paper Parcel

The Fat Boy

The Day Hemingway Died

Another Generation

The Frozen Continents

Valley Day

Mumsie and Zip


A Poet's Dream of Amazons

The Ace of Diamonds Gang



The Rule of Jenny Pen

309 Hollandia

The Rose Affliction

Heating the World


Supplication for Position

A View of Our Country

The Dungarvie Festival

Tomorrow We Save the Orphans

Working Up North

The Occasion

Cometh the Hour

Growing Pains


Peacock Funeral

Goodbye, Stanley Tan

The Birthday Boy

A Late Run

The Devil at Bruckners' Pond

The Language Picnic

End of Term

How It Goes

An Indirect Geography

Mr Tansley

Wake Up Call

Buried Lives

Facing Jack Palance

Family Circle



Minding Lear


Watch of Gryphons




ven when a publisher allows you sixty as a round number, to choose the ‘best' stories from a writer you greatly admire can turn out to be a tall order. The ones that have always stayed with you as particular favourites easily pick themselves. After that, it becomes the increasingly delicate business of balancing the variety that Owen Marshall's stories take in, with doing justice to the range of skills that go into their making.

No New Zealander has written anywhere near so many short stories, although their sheer quantity has nothing much to do with what makes them unique. What reading them brings home to you is that ‘Marshall country' is a distinctive and compelling place, pretty much like the one we live in day by day, and yet by no means a mere ‘©'. What his stories add to it is a remarkable clarity. We are shown more than we usually see in characters who look like us, talk like us, at our troubled best and our recognisable worst. To touch on what is so distinctive and appealing in these stories, I begin with what may seem a slightly odd angle to come from. But it is something at the centre of how Marshall tells a story.

When I think of how these narratives draw you in, I think too of how few writers tell you quite so convincingly what it is their characters
for a living. Take the strange and marginally sinister ‘Tomorrow We Save the Orphans', where the figure who interests us most works as night-watchman in a large factory. You cannot separate his emergence as a personality from what he does hour by
hour, what his body is occupied with as much as his mind (including killing a dog with his bare hands). Or consider how in several stories women establish the reality of their world not only by talking with each other. This is done as well by how they relate as workers, the ways in which a workplace doubles as emotional bullring. ‘Iris' as satire, ‘309 Hollandia' as finely balanced pathos; these are the kind of stories that scotch once and for all the occasional comment that Marshall is less effective when writing about women. He writes less often about them than he does about men, but that is a different matter.

Marshall knows a lot about how things are done, how various activities are pursued. He knows how work shapes and reveals the man or woman who does it. He notices how physical effort, whether for pay or by choice, defines. The conviction he brings to storytelling is from that kind of depth. If a man is an accountant we know what it is like to do accounts. We see and feel how a teacher teaches, a mechanic fixes motors, a cleric comforts, a pervert gets on with perverting. More than any other of our writers, he has taken out an imaginative franchise on a particular kind of New Zealand — mostly South Island — life, much as there is a David Malouf Queensland, or a Tim Winton Western Australia. His world by and large may be one we are familiar with. But how it is distilled, how it is dismantled and re-presented to us, is a matter of novelty and surprise, technical adroitness and penetration.

I've often been struck by how differently New Zealand's two finest short story writers go about their business. Marshall — I am guessing a little here — may admire Katherine Mansfield, but does not particularly like her stories. One isn't surprised. Mansfield's temperament, as we know it from her letters and notebooks, commands almost everything in her fiction: that glancing brush with events, her hovering refusal to insist or underline, the inheritance of post-impressionism that often defines her. She disliked the idea of fiction working towards a moral point as much as Marshall is
naturally drawn to establish one. In almost every way, what each wants from a story is remote from what interests the other. Except in one respect. When Mansfield spoke of her final intention as a writer, she said ‘We single out — we bring to the light — we put up higher'. It is there, I think, that she and Marshall, with their differences galore, are coming at much the same thing — a clarification that is larger than the single story, a way of telling that takes you further than the details of what you have read.

Many of Marshall's most memorable stories edge towards a conclusion where images come together in what one might call an iconic flare, images that the narrative has casually laid its charges for along the way. In ‘Valley Day' a boy accompanies his vicar father on one of his Sunday pastoral rounds in the South Island back country, with its ‘Few farmhouses, fewer cars to be met, and dust ahead a clear warning anyway.' Variously one reads of a one-armed survivor from the war, a church with a stained-glass window, a sheep station family where hymns are sung, and while services are conducted and aging parishioners consoled, the boy wanders off alone. He finds pine cones shaped like owls, visits a cemetery and reads the graves, comes back to lunch where there is talk of an old lady gored by a bull which, as the father instructs his son, could not be ‘blamed for acting according to its nature.' In that spare, difficult farm country, each family has its residue of loss or grief. The story ends with the boy sitting on an abandoned traction engine while his father, as his profession expects, comforts the afflicted. As he drifts into sleep, the boy's mind becomes the screen where the day's events coalesce.

A column of one-armed Lascelles was moving back up
the valley from the war, each with a poem in his hand,
and the accordion played ‘Rock of Ages' as they marched.
Mr Jenkins deftly knifed a wild pig, all the while with a
benevolent smile, and in his torrent voice Mr Oliphant
Called Home a weeping Ashley: deep eyes and woollen
jersey. A host of pine owls, jersey green and brown, spread
their wings at last
… Behind and beyond the sway
of the accordion's music, and growing louder, was the
sound of the grand, poppy-red bull cantering with its
head down from the top of the valley towards them all.

Marshall has compressed the events and moods of this typical ‘valley day' as if into the resonant details of a stained-glass window, distanced and symbolic and instructive in a way bare fact can never be. ‘What is life?' the boy might well have been asked, and that stream of images is his answer, the half-sleep that released what his waking mind only partly had taken in. I find this a rare and stunning story. Until its last dozen lines, its ‘reality' rings true at every point. Yet when it concludes it is quite beyond what it derives from. As Mansfield put it, something has indeed been raised to the light and turned.

When it was published in
The Lynx
, that story was placed just before another very different yet masterly narrative. Some may even think Marshall is at his best with the assumptions and promptings of the meagre mean-spiritedness that often characterises New Zealand life once we look beyond our self-flattering claims of aroha and mateship. I don't know any short fiction that so humorously, yet so coldly, takes on domestic and suburban malaise as does this displaying of our very own white trash. There is not a skerrick in Marshall of the sentimentality which is so often another of our national traits. The moral perspective of ‘Mumsie and Zip' is in its attentiveness, in getting detail and speech exact, in telling a nasty story dead straight. Zip's jitter-bug eyes are a perfect emblem as well as a disconcerting physical trait. They are his dodginess, his failure to focus on another, the ring-master's trick to force Mumsie's compliance. Yet how appallingly funny this story is as well; the exact pitch of its whinge, the sexual by-play. In its beautifully concise final sentence, Zip's chilling deviousness flickers implacably as a fact of
nature. Mumsie has been nagging him to fix a broken door.

‘All right, Mumsie,' he said, ‘I'll come and do it now,' but
he stayed sitting there, his hands on the table, his face
still once more, and only his eyes jit jittering as bugs do
sometimes in warm evening air.

Once you've taken these stories on board, you'll have more than a fair idea of what ‘Marshall country' is like, day by day, bedroom by bedroom. They encompass its preferences and personalities, its terrain and its aspirations, its narrowness and its imaginative ploys in transcending it. And as well as its ordinary decencies, should you want a take on what goes wrong when a deeply secular community grates on its limitations, Marshall is your man for that as well.


Marshall has never been perturbed by that handful of academic theorists who would love to call the shots for what creative writers actually do. For a time there in the eighties and nineties, critics who doubled as cultural boundary riders often over-estimated writing that stroked their political agendas, much as they undervalued what did not. Mere male pakeha ‘realists' came in for something of a drubbing. Part of this was almost a terror of aesthetic judgement, a deep reluctance to think there could be ‘significant' writing about what the fashion of the moment happened not to crave. The assessing of literature became politics conducted by other means.

Marshall has always outflanked the kind of naïve categorising that caged him as simply ‘social realist'. It was rather too easy to forget that ‘realism', as a genre a writer chooses to work in, is in itself neither more nor less imaginative or ‘writerly' than fantasy, symbolism, postmodernism or any other mode. That by far the greater part of good
fiction still occurs within that category tells you how extensive and various its possibilities are. The mistake in thinking that Marshall came along simply as yet another inheritor of what Frank Sargeson attended to sixty or seventy years back is easily enough countered by reading half a dozen stories. Marshall's ‘realism' in that traditional sense consistently catches the nuances of what is local and regional. But to note that is only to begin. What makes his stories impressive beyond the depictions we acknowledge as ‘the very thing' comes down to what he does sentence by sentence, the glinting reach of his metaphor, the compelling turns of phrase. And how much depends on their comic flair, the deftness of their wit, the extent to which he rings the changes on vernacular speech. (Look at ‘The Language Picnic' for a brilliant send-up of those who fancy Kiwi lingo covers all occasions.)

And what of that unmistakable moral groundswell that is almost a constant in Marshall's fiction? That quiet but firm template that a story insists is part of its implied ‘world view'? This is something far more generous, far less judgmental, than anything you would call a mere set of rules. It is more perhaps what you might think of as a consistent cast of mind, as the stories unravel how and why we humans behave this way or that; how personality is defined by the social niche we inhabit and the choices we make. Sometimes the characters are aware of these complexities. If they are not, you find that the author's voice may take you aside, confiding what it is good and necessary for you to know, while the turns of the narrative justify that confidence. Yet clearly something else is involved, a disposition, you could say, that is the author's as much as the story's. In Marshall's fictional universe there is a deep conviction, beyond its appearance in any particular story and pervasive throughout so many, that the daily business of living is, among so much else, a coming to terms with disappointment and loss. It is a matter of what suffices. What sets this so far beyond casual despondency brings us back to the verve with which a story is told, its sly comic slant, the bite and élan 
of its perceptions, the acceptance that what we read is close enough to life for us to be absorbed in much the same way.

A stoic humanism is one way you could describe Marshall's take on experience. Yet there is another shadowy presence. I mean it totally as a compliment, and an artistic one at that, when I say how often he brings to mind the great tradition of English and American fiction whose moral ancestry is unmistakably Protestant, although by now a Protestantism relieved of dogmatic weight. It is there in what you could call the sternness of the stories, the certainty of where their values lie. So many, especially those about adolescents and loners, are accounts of individual testing, of initiations into a darker wisdom than where they began. There is the insistence that an act carries with it, always, an ethical trail. ‘Watch very carefully,' as we might imagine a magician advising, ‘there may well be a moral hidden under the Jack.' What his forbears would have put down to Original Sin, Marshall, with equal insistence, and rather more humour, uncovers as depravity shorn of its theological fleece.

It is part of that clear-eyed, unsentimental inheritance to call shit for what it is. Which is also as good a way as any to describe the compulsive, perverted energy exposed in a story like ‘The Rule of Jenny Pen', or the small meannesses and diluted malice in dozens of others. If Marshall is good at touching quite what it is that our suburban or rural lives take seriously, and what the limitations to that seriousness may be, he's as much of a dab hand when it comes to what most threatens simple decencies.

I quite expect that another editor choosing sixty of Marshall's stories might finish up with at least half that are different from the ones I've selected here. There are many that could well be represented which leave probability behind and let fantasy rip, or stories that are driven by the sheer gusto of language. There is at least one masterpiece of this kind which, if pressed, I'd put among his finest half-dozen narratives. ‘The Divided World' riffs and descants by setting up oppositions with exuberant linguistic play. Its listing of opposites,
that balancing of what one of his more solemn characters might even call ‘the wise harvest of experience', is a mix of smart one-liners,
insights, satiric scorn, seen-it-all cynicism, comic inventiveness — and of course, that ‘wise harvest' by the cartload. What holds the piece together in an almost liturgical way is the insistent yet richly varied rhythm of its sentences. Only a very good writer could bring it off, only a sustained comic current keep it afloat. I can't think of any New Zealand writer other than John Clark who manages that kind of wit, or has the quirkiness of eye and voice to keep up the performance between its confiding opening chant, ‘The world is divided between you and me, you and me babee, you and me,' and its neatly echoing conclusion that you had better get it right, for you've only got one shot: ‘The world is divided between you and me, you and me for a time, you and me.'

BOOK: Owen Marshall Selected Stories
3.58Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

Covenant by Crawford, Dean
Very LeFreak by Rachel Cohn
I'll Be Here by Autumn Doughton
Arsenic with Austen by Katherine Bolger Hyde
Tainted Bride by A.S. Fenichel
TemptedByHisKiss by Tempted By His Kiss
Halfling Moon by Sharon Lee, Steve Miller
What Just Happened? by Art Linson