Random House/Vintage, $24.95,
ISBN 1 86941 395 4
Y2K is past, the computer and the fridge are still working, but in Owen Marshall’s new novel Harlequin Rex the millennium has unexpectedly tossed up another problem, an epidemic called Harlequin which is working its way around the world early in the new century and is particularly effective, for some reason, in New Zealand. Like AIDS in many of its attributes – it, too, comes out of Africa – but without the component of sexual transmission, it baffles experts as to its origins. More than this, it seems to have a life, even a sensibility of its own, a ludic dimension to the forms it takes, the directions it moves in; the Rex of the title refers to this mordant playfulness.
More than anything else it resembles a plague of Tourette’s syndrome, that strange “disease of disinhibition”, as it has been called, which sees the primitive areas of the brain take over the individual’s more highly evolved capacities to restrain it. Sufferers of Tourette’s live otherwise normal lives and are often capable of high achievement, but cannot restrain themselves from certain obsessive behaviours that are often antisocial and disturbing. Oliver Sachs tells us of Carl Bennett, a surgeon from British Columbia, whose daily work is accompanied by a frenzy of tics, grimaces, compulsive body movements and obsessively repeated words and phrases that have no more meaning to him than to the people around him. Other “Tourettists” utter volleys of uncontrollable expletives throughout their day. There is simply nothing they can do about it; the disorder is neurological.
One can imagine Marshall reading about Bennett in Sachs’s An Anthropologist on Mars and tucking him away in his mind to grow and fester into a private version of the syndrome. The most typical, and most successful, of his stories have the same sense of something primitive trying to force its way through the niceties and superficies of our daily life and a pessimistic belief in atavism over perfectibility. So many of his characters are like Norman, the anal-retentive protagonist of “Algebra” in Tomorrow We Save the Orphans, who finds in an empty section only a few feet from the safety of a suburban street a strange, threatening family who accuse him of messing around with their pet rabbits. So many of his stories have the downward, unredemptive cast of “The Rule of Jenny Pen” in the same collection, in which the only hale figure in a geriatric home is the least intelligent, a vicious old bully whom the other geriatrics eventually conspire – pooling their few remaining individual abilities – to murder. There was always an epidemic in Marshall’s fictive world, in other words, a neurological disorder called the human condition: it seems that the eponymous plague of his new novel has been incubating for some time.
David Stallman, the novel’s protagonist, is an agent rather than a patient: Harlequin Rex opens with his arrival at the “Slaven Centre”, a sanatorium near Havelock, the tiny town at the head of Mahau Sound, where he is to become a nurse to the “Harlequins” (as they are known) who go there to jabber and twitch their way towards what is for most of them an inevitable death. Through David the text is able to look backwards and forwards at the same time, or in fact alternately, in passages set either in the novel’s present (the near future, barely postmillennial, for the reader of today) and his own past. In the present, we see the steady accumulation of the stricken arriving at the Slaven Centre for cure or, increasingly, death. And that, in plot terms, is pretty much all that happens in the “now” of the novel: Marshall fills these sections with what interests him most, about human beings, or at least their fictive equivalents: drawing and exploring characters with the kind of fullness of imagination – born of the true writer’s simple nosiness about other people – that we find in every one of his many stories. His narrative moves from David, its main focus, through the viewpoints of several of these patients as well as some of the staff. One of the former is Lucy Mortimer, a well-known television personality who has caught Harlequin and with whom (along with Peter Culhane, commonly known as Schweitzer, the director of the centre, it turns out) David has a rather plangent affair.
Marshall himself has commented on the importance of establishing and expressing mood in his shorter fictions, but Harlequin Rex makes it clear that the tonal quality of his work knows no bounds. The novel builds less a sense of mounting plot and impending revelation than a particular feeling or tone, one which, curiously, transcends the individual population of the novel and long before its conclusion has expressed itself onto the landscape in which it is set. The writer constantly moves away from his characters to produce a meditative, painterly passage like this:
Across the public road, down a runnel of a track through the matted grass and stiff, yellow-brown rushes to the shore. Short rushes, thick as an upturned scrubbing brush, and holding aloft small pieces of driftwood and other flotsam as a sign of some stormy high tide. The mud was there all right, a dark kidney lying heavily inert, but there were also tide channels across it where the currents swept away the mud, and the bed gleamed with runs of compact pale sand, blue-grey stones, shell pieces, dark shards of wood heavy as the stones. The whole mudflat was pocked with crab burrows and, as the first of the group came down, the crabs stopped fossicking and fighting, and scurried home. One receding flicker of movement across the wet slick, and then nothing for a time. The sea way out was very blue: a child’s ocean beneath the sun, but flexing and with fleeting pinpoints flashing white, violet, gold, because of the breeze blowing up the sound.
The effect of these interludes is to turn the novel almost into a verbal equivalent of the unpeopled paintings of Grahame Sydney, Marshall’s friend and fellow-southerner, or of earlier painters – McCahon, Woollaston, Sutton – who wanted to express the dominating, determining presence of the land in the country. That “kidney” of mud is revealing, of some sense of the life of the land and its ocean; like the land and its bleak flora, the local fauna, whether crustacean or human, get their modest allocation of time. The perspective is Naturalistic, with Man diminished and Nature indifferent; the novel’s setting, at the dead low water of the Sound, represents its entropic, end-of-the-world feeling, its persistent, mournful sense of elegy. This is where we are all going to be washed up; here is where our collective story ends.
But it is not until we have read the novel backwards, so to speak – through the slow accumulation of its alternating past scenes – that we can understand why Marshall should bring his narrative to this curious point of ennui and stasis. These retrospective scenes recount the story of David Stallmann’s life. He has been the sole heir to Beth Car, a North Canterbury farm that has been in his family for some generations; after his graduation from university, his father’s death and his mother’s retirement to Auckland, he returns to the farm to run it alone. Soon, under the influence of a friend but primarily through his own weakness, his chief cash crop is cannabis. His new trade brings him into contact, just, with the fringe of an underworld of drug-dealing and professional crime. But, significantly, this aspect is of little interest to Marshall, who is far more intrigued by the capacity for corruption that is in ordinary people.
As evidenced in David Stallmann, this hardly amounts to a dark, inner emptiness or a capacity for evil, and this I take to be Marshall’s point: David goes off the rails simply because of his moral emptiness, his essential vacuity, his inability to care whether his decision to grow and market cannabis is right or wrong. His only concern is whether he is likely to get caught, and even this seems unreal to him. Things seem little more real when he is busted and jailed, and loses both his farm and the future his university degree seemed to promise. Jail, rather than being a source of shame and guilt, is something to be got through by enduring and not attracting attention. Once out, he drifts into a truck-driving job which takes him regularly to Kaikoura and there drifts equally desultorily into an affair with a married hairdresser. Unfortunately for the hairdresser, her fisherman husband drifts in upon them during sex and beats her to death. A bummer: you get days like that. David is on the run from this when he arrives at the Slaven Centre at the start of the novel. It’s somewhere to go, something to do next.
What can we make of the relentless pessimism of this novel? It is important, I think, because it expresses – in the full length that the novel form allows – the vision of life that informs Marshall’s short fiction but which that brevity of form leaves in glimpses and implications: for all its latter-day appearance, it is the back story to those stories, the cyclorama to all his writing. Life, he makes clear, is hard work; human relationship is essentially destructive; love, if you can find it, is with someone terminally ill, who is sharing her favours with someone else, is “that singular form of suffering which moves concern from yourself to another, so that you are freed for a while from stultifying selfishness”, as David realises near the novel’s conclusion. Redemptive this isn’t; but nonetheless it expresses a vision of life which much of the most significant writing of the century to which Marshall is bidding farewell has given expression during its course, a kind of stoical pessimism in which humanity is seen as something that endures rather than something that prevails. By bringing its peculiar plague from the world to New Zealand, by playing out the end of the century at our end of the world, Harlequin Rex enlarges the boundaries of our fiction towards the dimensions of those works.
Patrick Evans teaches in the English Department at the University of Canterbury.