Rich repertoire, Lawrence Jones

Tomorrow We Save the Orphans
Owen Marshall,
John McIndoe, Dunedin, 1992, $24.95

Last year as I was working through a huge box of anonymous entries to the Bank of New Zealand Katherine Mansfield Award competition, I came across an ill‑typed, scrappy looking story entitled ‘Iris’ and began to read it with no very high expectations. However, it soon became clear that this seemingly casual, achronological fictional memoir of an eternally hopeful mother by her more worldly-wise daughter was actually a story of very high quality. The rightness of the social and physical details, the appropriateness of the language to the narrator, the control of the metaphor, the implication of a humane, sympathetic, ironic, humorous author behind the seemingly artless narrator, and, less important but most characteristic, the use of place names (Te Tarehi) and proper names (Astral Pruitt) – all of these convinced me that, despite the uncharacteristic use of a female narrator, this was a well‑disguised Owen Marshall story. As such, it seemed to me a good Marshall story. Not as good as such superb stories as ‘The Seed Merchant’ or ‘The Master of Big Jingles’, but still a story that would take some beating. In the end there was one story (by Kate Flannery) that I thought was an even better individual story, and as the contest was not for the best body of work but for the best single story entered, I found myself in the somewhat anomalous position of awarding second place to our best active short story writer. (‘Iris’ later took second prize in the Mobil/ Dominion Sunday Times contest.)

There are several other stories in Owen Marshall’s Tomorrow We Save the Orphans that I remember first encountering elsewhere. The delightful ‘Heating the World’ stood out like a piece of granite next to fluorescent coloured plastic toys in a toyshop window in the post-modern anthology in Landfall 177. And the title story of the collection held its own very well indeed amidst distinguished international company in Soho Square IV. These three stories are among the strongest of the 23 pieces, but there are others almost as good in a volume which reveals the extent of Marshall’s achieved range and mastery.

When The Divided World: Selected Stories appeared in 1989, it consolidated Marshall’s achievement and gave critics the chance to assess it and to speculate on the direction of his development. Vincent O’Sullivan’s eloquent appreciation in Sport 3 ended as placing Marshall ‘with Sargeson, Duggan, Frame’ as one who ‘in the mainstream of New Zealand tradition… constantly tests and breaks expectation’ and ‘drives the form and its possibilities’ further than it has gone before. Other critics tended to assume that Marshall, having used so fully the mainstream realistic tradition, might have to move beyond it to develop. Michael Gifkins in the NZ Listener thought that Marshall ‘must be wondering where to go’, while Lydia Wevers in The Oxford History of New Zealand Literature saw a move away from realism and ‘culturally familiar ground’ towards a form which ‘pushes more explicitly at the shapes of realism’ while presenting an ‘idiosyncratic, unfamiliar, and menacing environment’ in which the characters are ‘deprived of … comfortable identifications’. Similarly, Patrick Evans in The Penguin History of New Zealand Literature describes Marshall as ‘catching up’ with contemporary writing of absurdity and discontinuity, ‘producing stories that stand teasingly in the cusp between a traditional realism and a post-modern self-referentiality’.

This latest collection does not move towards post-modernism, but rather continues, as O’Sullivan has indicated, in further developing the resources of mainstream realism. Marshall is the Wynton Marsalis, not the Miles Davis, of New Zealand short fiction; his work develops not by sudden breaks and new starts in style and mode, but by the gradual extension of a cumulative repertoire as his mastery further develops. Thus he retains that wonderful sense of exact realistic detail (which, as in past collections, finds its visual analogue in a Grahame Sydney cover), rendered by a precise diction and syntax and a wonderful command of metaphor and simile:

Patterns of dust and fine debris had formed, and there was a pink sweatshirt which had been lying there for a long time, for it was much faded and set in rigid folds like the skin of an animal long dead by the roadside.

But he uses it in new ways: in this example (from ‘Aubade’) to express the character’s preternatural awareness of irrelevant detail just before she commits suicide; in ‘Iris’ as a signifier in the discourse of sexual politics (‘as I lay on my back on the carpet, I grew tired of looking at the unvarnished underside of his desk with the lines of the carpenter’s pencil still clear’); in ‘The Rose Affliction’ as the interior images marking the progress of Myra’s terminal illness; in ‘Heating the World’ where Tucker Locke can neither comprehend the world of his new wife and her daughter nor see his own critically.

That these four last-mentioned stories all deal with sexual politics in a way implicitly critical of male actions and values indicates that Marshall is scarcely trapped within the confines of a narrow male realist discourse. ‘Heating the World’ is told primarily through male dialogue at a sequence of male rural ritual occasions, and shows Marshall’s command of the idioms, artifacts, and activities of rural male culture, but at the same time it implies an ironic attitude towards that culture’s gender blindness, while the other three are all from the woman’s point of view (as is the excellent story, ‘309 Hollandia’). From a non-ironic male point of view, ‘Don’t Wake Beside Me’, on the other hand, sensitively explores some of the ambiguities of male sexuality.

Sexual politics is only one of the areas explored in the collection; sympathetic and ironic realism are only two of its modes. Satire and moral fable, power struggles among the aged and self-deception among students – Marshall’s rich repertoire offers much else to the reader in this splendid collection.

 

Lawrence Jones is Associate Professor of English at the University of Otago.

 

 

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