Fly-swat of the gods Linda Burgess

When Gravity Snaps
Owen Marshall
Vintage, $26.95,
ISBN 1869415280

A small piece of homespun advice before I start. It is not 
a good idea to play country/bluesy/folksy music quietly on your CD player as you read Marshall’s latest collection of short stories. As I listened to Jennifer Warnes singing wistfully, melodically, of shadows on the highway, of the melancholy time, and read Marshall’s insightful impressionistic depictions of shadowy highways and melancholy times, it was all I could do to stop myself putting my head in the oven. Meanwhile, on television and in the newspapers, world leaders were calling for war, and ordinary everyday people were reported blowing each other up, raping and murdering children and misappropriating the life-savings of pensioners. Thankfully, those are places where neither country music nor Owen Marshall care to go. It is not the blackness of men’s hearts that interests Marshall; it is the beigeness.

Anyone who has ever judged a short story competition will know that if you found a Marshall story among the offerings (we’re allowed to dream) you’d only have to read a paragraph before your pulse would be quickening. You’d slow your reading to a crawl to savour what was to come. He stands alone in this genre in this country for the sheer consistent quality of what he writes. He has that perfect combination of insight – that word is not strong enough to describe what Marshall knows about the way we are – and a rare talent with syntax and description. In a sentence he can tell you all you need to know about a character, as in this one from in “At Boxit”: “Penners was a small, despicable man with semi-transparent ears and a hunger to witness the misfortune of others.” The beauty of the sentence is in the ears. With one astute swipe, Marshall manages to break the “show don’t tell” rule by simply including those grotesque appendages. And he complicates. In “Father and Son”, a story from an earlier collection, not only does Marshall establish the character of the father by describing the finicky way he butters his toast, but also the character of the son, by showing the patience he shows towards the father.

There does seem to be a classic Marshall story. In “Father and Son”, a reflective protagonist looks at the behaviour of others and finds it … what can one say? “Wanting” implies a judgment of his fellow beings that Marshall does not make. His eye is ruthless but not cruel. In the title story to his new collection, the narrator is on a guided tour of Europe. He’s not just seeing the sights: “The Wisconsin Foursome were not vicious or immoral people, just two brothers who had married two sisters and, through excessive and humdrum wealth, come to the view that the world exists for their personal satisfaction.” Also on the tour we have Trevor who “had a quiff of hair, like a quail’s crest, and a habit of baring his teeth in a false yawn.” Meanwhile the bus is pulling up at Burano, famous for its lace.

The complexity of the stories is not in the telling but in the layering. Superficially straightforward, “Spring with the Sumerbottoms” has the narrator remembering a weekend during his first year at university spent with the family of a fellow student. The family, having fallen on hard times owing to some implied malpractice on the part of the dentist father, is attempting to make a new start running a bed and breakfast in a rundown wooden mansion near Hawera. The optimism of the mother is gut-wrenching as much for the narrator looking back over 20 years as for the reader. The smallness of the story – the single setting, the short timespan – contrasts with its wider message. Swipe goes the casual fly-swat of the gods.

The classic Marshall story does tend to have a certain kind of narrator. I’ve known Marshall’s central protagonist since he was a boy. Back then he had thick, straight hair cut rope-like across his forehead. A diffident boy, quiet, observant, good at sport, a captain of teams, aware of human fallibility and kind to others. Private. Never sentimental, never mawkish. He was often called Hughie. He ranked reasonably high in the vicious school pecking order – high enough to partner the second best girl, but not high enough to ensnare Fiona. He befriended the school rebels, the dark horses from dysfunctional families. Sometimes reluctantly, he understood that life is essentially unfair. He was steadfast in the face of the lure of late-night train whistles, the haunting call of the morepork.

Hugh’s in his sixties now. Nothing much has changed for him. He’s comfortably off, able to afford bus tours in Europe. He’s at the age when nostalgia burrows in. People he knows have begun to die. He’s curious to find out what became of friends and contacts from long ago. He’s married – usually just the once – to someone with whom he has a comfortable, steady if not passionate relationship The grown Hughie – still capable of a handy game of tennis – would be wry in his acknowledgement of this. Only occasionally does Marshall look at that most dangerous of yearning, the longing for missed opportunity in love. His character’s hands are clamped firmly over his ears; he is more comfortable looking outwards than inwards. The morepork’s still out there but he’s chosen not to hear. Not yet, anyway. He’s more vulnerable than he was as a boy: of course he is, he knows more. As the narrator of “Diseases of the Strong” observes:

When he was young he’d thought that eventually you reached some plateau of internal comfort in your life, with apprehension and confusion quite resolved, but he’d come to understand that all was a dancing flux of delight and agony, boredom and transformation, and that you needed to hold hands with those close to you, or be quite swept away.

To generalise is not to demean Marshall’s sublime skill with characterisation. Hugh is far from the only eye through which we enter Marshall’s terrifyingly accurately perceived world. However, it is when we get the Hugh-eye-view that I feel I’m reading the quintessential Marshall, the Marshall that I love. Selfishly, I don’t want him to try anything different, get almost cross with him when he does. I want to be with his quiet, compassionate observer; I want my chest to tighten – not with dread exactly, but with apprehension. Characteristically, this happens when I am about two thirds of the way through the story. It is at this point that I fear I am going to be told – again – that all is not well in this world of ours.

Marshall’s latest collection holds no real surprises – no picnicking family is murdered by crazed louts, though the devil does turn up during a casual copulation. (I’m crossing my fingers that this flirtation with magic realism is a one-off.) And his take on life is not always tinged with melancholy. Marshall can be extraordinarily funny.

A stand-out story in the collection is “The Language Picnic”. I could all too clearly imagine the origins of this story, seeing Marshall in a 7th-form English classroom, writing lists of “New Zealand words” on the blackboard for perplexed adolescents who’d never heard of being up the boohai behind a Taranaki gate in their lives. Then I saw him in the Humanities common room at the university, slyly noting the power play.

“The Language Picnic” is an exquisitely written story of a university English department going on a picnic to celebrate the publication of “the fourth and final volume of Antipodean English: Growth of a Variant”. In the hands of a lesser writer it would be a one-joke story, but in Marshall’s safe hands it is a joy:

“Yeah, why the fuck not,” said Dr Fell. “Out in the boohai, eh. As long as us sheilas aren’t expected to bring all the grub.” She preferred not to socialize with her academic colleagues, but knew what was politic in establishing a career. Also she found something generically plaintive in picnics: they reminded her of the desperate efforts her mother had made to placate family disharmony by such occasions.

Even when Marshall has us laughing, his empathy for the human condition is never far away:

“Yeah, bog in mate,” said Dr Podanovich. He experienced a sudden poignant moment of déjà vu. The smell of sausage and burning driftwood, and the astringent fragrance of the sea, occasioned a memory that rose like an ache in his heart: his last fishing trip with his father before the latter’s death. Maybe it was an omen that even his father’s fishing skills had been unavailing that day, and he’d cooked sausages on the very same skillet. His father had been emaciated by radiation treatment, and although he laughed with his son he had tragic, imploring eyes.

Marshall is a very quotable writer, one whose exact phrases spring unbidden in the mind. “Ugly country breeds ugly people,” he wrote in one of his classic stories, “Prince Valiant”. Though obviously deeply attached to rural New Zealand, he can be a dispassionate, unromantic observer of small towns and the people who live in them. His feeling for the landscape, however, is something else. Nature’s beauty is often heightened at times when emotions are being, if not repressed, then carefully dealt with. In “Cock-a-doodle-doo is Dead”, as Felix cautiously asks his brother about an impending operation, he notices:

There was birdsong from the gully running down to the inlet estuary, and the moulded sweeps of low tide mudflats gleamed in the last of the light. There was no cloud in the sky and it had an aching, darkening depth to it …

The evening had the fresh smell of early summer, the bird calls had dwindled, the mangroves far below were indistinct. Almost it seemed the world had stopped spinning in one direction, and was about to start turning the other way.

Which sums up, if one ever can, what Marshall is writing about: the moment – often unobserved at the time – that the world stops spinning in one direction and starts to turn the other way – when gravity indeed snaps. The man’s a genius. We are so lucky that he’s ours.


Linda Burgess is a Wellington writer.


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Posted in Fiction, Literature, Review, Short stories
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