In short, a master stylist, Bill Sewell

Coming Home in the Dark
Owen Marshall
Vintage, $24.95,
ISBN 186941 266 4

A Many Coated Man
Owen Marshall
Longacre Press, $24.95,
ISBN 0 9583405 2 8

Is it unfair to say that there’s such a thing as a typical Owen Marshall story? It’s very much a two‑edged compliment because on the one hand most writers want to create a style that is all their own and instantly recognisable but on the other they do not want themselves or their work to be “typecast”. It is often the recognition factor which makes writers marketable: their creation of an individual world which their readers are nevertheless able to share ‑whether they are phantasists like Tolkien or realists like Maurice Gee. At the same time, most serious writers do not want to solve all their problems in the same way; nor do they want to be written off as regionalists or miniaturists.

It is unfair that Marshall’s short stories have been seen as some kind of apprenticeship towards the novel. Certainly, his first novel has been awaited with bated breath, to the extent that it took on an almost mythical status ‑ like Sibelius’s 8th Symphony, which never materialised. But earlier this year the first novel, A Many Coated Man, did appear ‑ to a lukewarm and bewildered reception. As if to reassure his readership Marshall has now issued a new collection of stories, Coming Home in the Dark, as solid as anything he has ever published.

This collection also reinforces the conclusion that while there are many stories with that unmistakable Owen Marshall signature, elements which the reader comes to rely on and relish, there are many others which deviate from the expected style and which show the author to be an extraordinarily versatile writer who likes to flex his literary muscles.

What then is the typical Marshall story? Could a parodist or a forger bring together most of its elements in one piece? Probably. Such a story would have to be set in provincial New Zealand, in a town called Te Tarehi or Dungarvie. The town is populated by a strange assortment of people, with unusual surnames like Ransumeen and Hambinder: taciturn farmers; eccentrics, loners and outsiders; the old and the moribund. People who live quietly according to imperatives which may surprise or even disturb the rest of us. Alternatively, they are the adolescents who form gangs, taunt the loners and outsiders, explore their sexuality, undergo rites of passage and subvert the authority of school and family.

This strange world is presided over by an author who indulges its strangeness. Who observes closely and then describes precisely the sometimes minute behavioural characteristics which sum up a person. Who notes details like the makes of cars ‑ Marshall understands only too well the semiotics of car makes ‑ the varieties of wine, obscure academic pursuits. Who beyond that has an empathy for landscape, one that is lyrical and immediate and clearly fixed in New Zealand. Who often witnesses an abrupt violence and who often cannot resist pointing up some sort of moral The mode is realist, but there is always some distortion in the lens; the characters tends towards the grotesque; and there is an overlay of irony.

Much as Marshall is fascinated by this world, it is not enough. Thus we find science fiction pieces; prose poems; the adoption of different points of view (such as a woman’s); unexpected juxtapositions and the use of montage; and the borrowing of language and forms from outside literature. Even if these experiments don’t always work, they do prove that Marshall can be inventive as well as evocative.

Let us look at how the familiar and the innovative features figure in the new collection. In “A Late Run” we find Spruiker, the retired fanner living with his daughter and son‑in‑law, who is galvanised out of apathy and decay into becoming a very successful veteran athlete. ‘Clivo Sudamus in Ino” juxtaposes a headmaster’s prizegiving speech, with its usual upbeat message, and the reality of adolescent subculture as supplied by the narrator: “The new art teacher was called Tits Wilson for two points in her favour and also to distinguish her from Flat Wilson who was a biologist.”

“Growing Pains” recounts a history of longing and clumsy sexual experiments up to the first satisfactorily concluded bout of sexual intercourse. “The Tank Boat” on the other hand focuses on a brush with death. Two boys attempt to fashion a boat out of an old aircraft fuel tank. They have difficulty controlling it and abandon it. Two days later they hear that another boy had drowned with his legs caught in the same makeshift vessel. Then there is the menace of “Flute and Chance” in which a Dunedin student has an encounter with a razor‑wielding “misfit” in North‑East Valley; the matter‑of‑fact beheading in “Pendragon”; and of course the gratuitous violence of the title story, to which I shall return.

Entertaining and well‑crafted as these stories all are, it would not be unkind to say that many could as easily belong in any of the earlier collections like Supper Waltz Wilson (1979), The Master of Big Jingles (1982), The Day Hemingway Died (1984), The Lynx Hunter (1987), and Tomorrow We Save the Orphans (1992). In one respect, however, they do differ. Marshall is these days more inclined to allow the story to speak for itself where earlier he liked to make an explicit point. Compare the ending of the title story in Hemingway, which is very much a summing up:

That’s how it was for me on the day that Hemingway died. I had meant to give it all a humorous gloss and get in a bit of sex: bedsprings and muffled cries. That’s what people like in a story. But it remains much as it was. Cold and wet, horseshit and broken eggs, no heat in my room and a landlady I disliked crying aloud in the kitchen.

with the ending of “Prairie Nights”, a wistful and at the same time exhilarating story in the new collection:

Think of the effortless power of the wind across the land of grasses and wildflowers, the gliding shadows and the cool linen of the moon over the dips and long upward sweeps of the high plains. Think of the tremors you might feel from the ground as, far out of sight, the vast herds of bison rush through the night with the white wolves of the moon in silent pursuit.

This is the lyrical ending to a story about a man who is condemned to the tedium of jobs he is unsuited for, and who compensates by allowing his imagination to roam free.

But in another respect “Prairie Nights” is typical of Marshall: it expresses eloquently his notion of “the divided world”. This is of course the title to one of his best known pieces ‑ a prose poem rather than a story ‑ the enormous wit of which disguises a painful reality: that we live in a world which is essentially dualistic, where there are disjunctions, interiors and exteriors, and one consciousness cannot truly meet another. It is significant that Marshall has also twice used as an epigraph Oscar Wilde’s maxim: “One’s real life is often the life one does not lead.”

It is tempting to ask what Marshall’s “real life” is like. I would hope that it is not in the violence and the sometimes lecherous sexuality which his stories often depict. I would prefer to think that it is in the poetry which lifts his work with equal frequency above the darker side of life. Marshall not only writes pieces which are poems in all but name, but he inserts into the most prosaic of his stories passages of a heightened and rhythmical nature which can only be called poetic. This quality is found not only in “Prairie Nights” but throughout his work ‑ in “Tomorrow We Save the Orphans”, for instance, or “Requiem in a Town House”, or even, in its brutal way, in that study of marital oppression “Mumsie and Zip”.

Coming Home in the Dark also shows Marshall ranging more widely in language and form. In “Minutes”, for example, he uses committee‑speak to reveal the dynamics of the management committee of the Colenso Squash Club: “The chair said sometimes he wondered why he bothered putting in the time and effort and would the Misses Oliphant quit fiddling with the heater and give their attention to committee matters.” In “The Lenny Fudge Bibliography” he simply lists a fictitious bibliography. In “Pendragon” he attempts a parody of Shakespearian language contrasted with contemporary idiom: “‘My lord,’ said the duke’s seneschal, ‘The minstrels are without.’ ‘Choice,’ cried the duke, ruler by divine right and by the possession of the best pikemen in Europe.” In “Recollections of MKD” he uses the interview form to show how people can talk past each other and miss the point. The interview concerns a fictitious literary figure who, the reader discovers, was a plagiarist.

Two of the stories are written from the point of view of a woman. This is a particular challenge for Marshall because the impression he gives is of being a very male writer. “Living at the Belle Monde” is a piece of satire which mocks the predatory woman of the nineties and begins, “I need a lover …” It is too brief to require rounded characterization and the context is in any case a humorous one. “A Part of Life” is a different matter. This is one of the longer pieces and it concerns a middle‑aged woman of modest means who spends the summer as a cleaner at a motel in the Mackenzie Country. There she meets an elderly and wealthy American who expresses a desire for “womanly company”. The cleaner, after some hesitation, offers herself, because she needs the money. The transaction, instead of being sordid, however, is oddly satisfying and out of it a kind of human warmth emerges.

Marshall saves the title story till last. “Coming Home in the Dark” is a tour de force which moves from middle-class cosiness to unimaginable horror, played against the backdrop of the Southern Alps. It offers something of a bridge to his novel in its realisation of a human world which is unbearably bleak and of a natural one which is simply indifferent.

A prosperous Aucklander takes his wife and twin sons on a South Island holiday. They visit the Mackenzie Country and Mount Cook and much of the story is devoted to recreating that landscape, its crispness and starkness: “The mountains of black and white rose up ahead. There was a fixed intensity in the delineation of shapes and colours; no compromise, no merging.” After an exploration of the area around the Hermitage the family finds a picnic spot and relaxes in the afternoon sun. It is then that their holiday takes a vicious and final turn as they encounter two criminals on the run. The violence which follows, though abrupt, is not totally gratuitous.

One of the criminals is something of a philosopher who (like a character in a Quentin Tarantino movie) gives a running commentary as he offhandedly dispatches his victims. His reasoning is simple: “I want you to see me, to take me seriously,” he says. But more than that: he expresses an unyielding nihilism which is born of that divided world to which Marshall returns again and again. The world is divided here between prosperous Aucklanders and those who don’t get the chance (and perhaps don’t even want it). The criminal represents “the night”, “the other side of the coin”, as he puts it; but he also represents another, terrible, aspect of the beauty which is the Mount Cook region. And finally he takes to its logical conclusion the indifference not only of nature but also of the community, even the family, to show “how little connection there is”.

It is this lack of connection which forms one of the main themes of A Many Coated Man and of its protagonist, the unlikely orator, former dentist Aldous Slaven, who for a brief period almost persuades a sizable portion of the New Zealand populace to become a real community. Slaven is almost electrocuted one day while painting his roof. He recovers to find that his hands are useless but that he has a calling to overcome “the irrevocable sense of isolation he assumes all to feel” and to make “a secular redemption possible through empathy and cooperation”. More important, he also discovers that he has the gift of the gab.

Slaven soon spawns a movement which attracts hundreds of thousands of followers who gather at meetings all around New Zealand and creates an organisation, the Coalition for Citizen Power (the CCP), which attempts to influence the political parties but does not itself run for office. This influence is, of course, seen as a threat by elements within the ruling élite who try various means of neutralising Slaven, including committing him to a psychiatric institution. Events take an inevitable course and the novel ends in “rioting and looting in the inner city”.

Slaven appears initially to be something of a naif because he peddles a philosophy which amounts to little more than that people should be nicer to one another. But as the novel progresses Slaven becomes more and more aware of the dangers of the forces which he unleashes. One of the two epigraphs to the novel is taken from Demosthenes (significantly, a celebrated ancient Greek orator) who warned of “[t]he three most intractable beasts; the owl, the serpent, and the people”. The serpent, in particular, insinuates itself to an increasing degree: Slaven glimpses “the great cobra of the crowd which he can raise up, but which settles at its own whim… There are fleeting, facet images there of Colosseum christians, Jacobin ecstasy and stadium hooligans.” And so it proves: the novel ends in chaos; the vision of renewed community which he attempts to realise collapses. It is a conclusion not so far removed from the nihilism of “Coming Home in the Dark”.

There is much in A Many Coated Man which breaks the Marshall mould. It is, of course, his first published novel and a dense novel it is too, eschewing chapter breaks and written in a markedly more florid prose style. It has an overtly political theme (though that is far from the whole story); and it is futuristic, set in a New Zealand of the first half of the twenty‑first century (though he has flirted with science fiction and fantasy in earlier pieces like “The Visualiser”). But there is also much in A Many Coated Man which will be familiar to the Marshall aficionado. It has a very strong sense of place, for instance, which happens to encompass practically the whole of New Zealand. The novel is punctuated by 13 often lyrically descriptive interludes which range from an arid Central Otago to seedy suburbia to a dealing room and in spite of the novel’s twenty‑first century setting, they reveal a New Zealand which is not so very different from that of today.

There are the unusual names: Aldous Slaven himself, of course, but also Royce Meelind, the political adviser; Gebrill, the Muldoon‑like ex‑Prime Minister, Fassiere, another political leader; and a Iago Thomas. There is the rather dubious sexuality: Slaven’s son Cardew who spends his life “shagging”; or the unworldly and generous “goose girl” who gives herself to Slaven, because it might relax him. There is of course the humour and satire: Aldous Slaven coins his first “Slavenism” on p24 (“Government is just a process, not an end”.); people who electrocute themselves in emulation of Slaven are called “fryers”. Finally, there is the violence, which both opens the novel ‑ with the electrocution ‑ and closes it ‑ with the riots in Christchurch.

All this is vintage Marshall; and yet somehow the novel does not work. It is difficult at first to figure out why. It could be the lack of tension which stems from a plot which holds no real surprises ‑ unlike so many of Marshall’s short stories ‑ and which plods towards its inevitable end. Other reasons relate to the suspension of disbelief and the problems of transition from short story to novel.

Although the reader might be able to accept the event which boots the whole plot ‑ Slaven’s electrocution and the possibility that it creates “extra connections” and “new pathways” in his brain ‑ it is more difficult to accept his charisma. The problem is that he mouths platitudes and no matter how much we are told that he moves the crowds, the words ‑ unlike Churchill’s, for instance, or even Hitler’s ‑ are never compelling enough to make Slaven anything more than the rather colourless dentist which he is. Similarly, it is difficult to understand why people are drawn to him, especially the cynical octogenarian millionaire Miles Kitson, who at the beginning shuns most human company, yet becomes his close friend.

This leads to another problem: characterisation. In short stories character can be sketched in rapidly; often there is no time for the rounded being; and that is not necessarily a disadvantage, because atmosphere (which Marshall is so adept at creating) or incident will carry the day. But in a novel like A Many Coated Man, which goes to such pains to create a palpable and detailed world, it is important to have characters who are similarly palpable. Slaven and Kitson fail to convince and other central characters are little more than ciphers. Slaven’s wife Kellie is the good organiser; the oversexed Cardew, the good‑for‑nothing son; his sister Sarah, the vacuous but good‑hearted daughter. Only the sympathetic Caretaker at the psychiatric institution, who is introduced as a voice in the dark, begins to really interest the reader.

Another difficulty is one presented by the novel genre itself, namely structure. Marshall uses two techniques to hold the novel together: one is the lyrical interludes, already mentioned; the other is the recurring motif. The most obvious example of the latter is the popular song by the Hoihos, “Half Moon Bay”, which is seared on Slaven’s brain at the time of his electrocution. Snatches of its lyrics appear throughout, sometimes to comment on the action, and sometimes gratuitously. Another motif is of dog excrement which again plays a commenting role. Unfortunately, both techniques are overused to the point where they seem contrived and awkward and if anything they draw attention to the novel’s more ponderous passages.

But perhaps the trouble also lies with the expectations of Marshall’s readers. His shorter prose pieces are so good that we expected a novel which would somehow transcend them. That may be unfair. A Many Coated Man is much more than a promising first novel. It is, in spite of its weaknesses of structure and characterisation, a very accomplished piece of writing, which projects a readily recognisable New Zealand into the not‑so‑distant future; which is at times funny, at others highly evocative and even moving. Above all, it is the work of a master stylist who has both documented faithfully and enriched our already fertile New Zealand variety of the English language. Here is a final sample to savour:

There are ridges and faces and gullies and spurs that don’t appear on maps. They’re given names by the family who have to climb them and when the people go they take away the names. There’s a place where beech were sledded down to make their first houses and there’s a place in the creek, a small falls, where the biggest boar was stuck whose tusks hang over the shearing shed and glint in the evening sun. No matter who does the muster, no matter how keen the dogs, there are a few old woollies on every place that never come down to the yards. But you know all that.

Bill Sewell is a Wellington legal researcher and poet.

Owen Marshall is the 1996 Mansfield Fellow.

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