OM – pride of the south, Sue McCauley

Watch of Gryphons and Other Stories
Owen Marshall
Vintage, $27.95,
ISBN 1869417062

Occasional: 50 Poems
Owen Marshall
Hazard, $25,
ISBN 187727089X

In 1979 I reviewed – I think for the New Zealand Listener – a slim book entitled Supper Waltz Wilson and Other New Zealand Stories. Some of those “New Zealand stories” had appeared in that same magazine, but beyond that the writer was unknown. There’s a particular satisfaction in reviewing – appreciatively – a writer’s first book. Unreasonably, you give yourself some credit for discovery. A quarter of a century later, asked by New Zealand Books to review Owen Marshall’s latest publications, I went into a funk. Marshall, I bleated, has been hi-jacked by the academics and so is out of my league.

Or I could have put it this way – in the course of a writing career deservedly studded with critical approval and literary prizes and awards, Owen Marshall has become a literary icon, entitled to weighty reviews by critics of intellectual standing. Either way it was distressing. In the main, literary iconship and reader affection do not go hand in hand. Accessibility and a bent for storytelling are not the attributes required; an icon should arouse awe and a degree of bafflement (smart new writers, their sights set on literary greatness, cultivate these abilities from the start). I’m happy to leave these literary maestros to minds more highly tuned than mine.

But Owen was ours. A literary loner, impervious, it seemed, to fashion or fancy. A writer of stories that are stylistically conventional and achingly authentic. The steady observational eye, the stern decency, the ability to choose subject matter that is both unexpected and utterly familiar, the humour (not fashionable irony, but something gentler – a poking-fun-at): these are qualities we’ve come to recognise – in fact, to expect – from an Owen Marshall story. This is the man who gave voice and depth to rural and provincial New Zealand, finding emotional significance in even laconic silences. Restrained emotion, of course, of an essentially male kind. Marshall is not a writer who slips comfortably into the minds or hearts of the opposite sex.

And, even though he’s moved on to broader territory, in both a geographical and artistic sense, we doggedly continue to equate the writer with empty spaces, the hinterland, modest utilitarian endeavours … . Witness the heart-tugging covers of these two books: on one, Grahame Sydney’s Road West, Ida Valley; on the other, an inset photo of a stolid windowless bus stop on the outskirts of any small town.

It’s not that he’s turned his back on us or – more to the point – on the kind of short story that has become his hallmark. In the main – reassuringly – this latest collection features “classic” Owen Marshall stories. But the truth is we don’t understand why he wants or needs to try other prose styles and genres. When you have carved your niche out of something you do superbly well, why waste time on other ventures?

Yes, I know there are many good reasons for a writer to diversify. Glaringly obvious ones like the desire to stretch creative muscles or earn a living. Novels sell better than short stories, and shorter short fiction is a better bet than longer short fiction in that it is likely to find a place in the kind of publication that pays real money. And brief humorous prose or verse is a fine thing to have on hand for those important public readings. Also – evidence that the writer is capable of being playfully cerebral and postmodern could raise his esteem in important quarters … .

Possibly Marshall just hated being pigeon-holed, no matter how fondly. These days it’s hard to think of a fiction style or genre he hasn’t tackled. Novels, satire, science fiction, whimsy, postmodernism: he’s had a whack at all those and, for the most part, carried it off with aplomb. Which is a worry, really. Might the pride of the south, the incorruptible literary loner, end up as a byword for wit and urbanity? A trendy Owen Marshall?

In the meantime, if we include the two “selected” collections – The Divided World and The Best of Owen MarshallWatch of Gryphons and Other Stories is the writer’s 10th volume of short stories. This although the short story collection is considered to be a notoriously risky publishing prospect. An extraordinary achievement and surely testament to the respect and affection of his readers. Despite the apparently inexhaustible Mansfield industry, it might now be said that the OM, not the KM, short story is the hallmark of New Zealand short fiction.

In 2003, OM was the first recipient of the Creative New Zealand Writer’s Fellowship – the first truly substantial literary grant in many years. The award would enable him, Mashall said at the time, to write the longer short stories that were not economically viable for a working writer (except, presumably, Alice Munro). It seemed like the perfect project. The saving of an endangered literary species by the New Zealander best qualified to do so.

Watch of Gryphons is an outcome of that fellowship. Nineteen stories, some of them long (30-40 pages), some of conventional length, a scattering of short pieces. As I said the majority are McCoy Marshall: subtle, absorbing, beautifully crafted and resonant with what Lawrence Jones describes on the back cover as “unfashionable … moral and psychological weight”. And – despite the push for New Zealand writers to take on a global voice – these are, even when the setting is elsewhere, distinctively New Zealand stories. I like that. Marshall and I were born in the same year, shaped by the same provincial and national realities. Too late to pretend otherwise.

My favourite story in this collection – there’s always a favourite – is “Minding Lear”. This portrait of a retired engineer buffeted between rationality and the bewildering indignity of Alzheimer’s is a perfectly judged combination of subversively hilarious and achingly sad. In two of the longer stories –“Fellow Citizens” and “Buried Lives” – the author explores the way in which (even in this small country) diverse social spheres exist, as self-contained and isolated as planets. That Marshall trick of showing us something we know in a way that makes it fresh and intriguing. “A Modern Story” – a deadpan take on modern life and the media – is delicious. It pushes the margins, yet remains identifiably a Marshall story. “Journey’s End”, another of the longer stories, is a whodunnit with a cliff-hanger ending. Move over Ruth Rendell. But, not being a particular fan of crime fiction, I’m hoping this story isn’t a trial run for a lucrative career swerve into that genre.

Occasionally I had trouble with endings that seemed to have gone a sentence or two, or a paragraph, too far. A “summing up” that wasn’t required. This happens in the loose-jointed “Passing Triptych” and, less obviously, in “Buried Lives” and “Family Circle”. But then, by way of a perfectly magnificent ending, there is this from “Minding Lear”:

As I rode down the drive I had a last view of Dad standing in the hot sun in his black, gunslinger’s greatcoat. In all that mundane suburban scene he was the innocent and hapless harbinger of howling winds, swordfish, lilies and rats, womenless wars and the high cliff before the chasm.


Then there are the “literary” pieces: the fragmentary “Voices With a Common Theme”; the slickly entertaining “Facing Jack Palance”; the savage “Arnal Retent and a Place in History”. I didn’t want such offerings in this collection. Alongside stories like “Minding Lear” and “Watch of Gryphons”, they seem weightless and slightly absurd – literary exercises that Marshall might have set for his students and undertaken for his own amusement. Yet each of these pieces has merit, and if presented in a separate collection (The Cutting Edge Owen Marshall?) to which the reader could bring a different set of expectations … .

As one does to Occasional: 50 Poems, Marshall’s first poetry collection, and the latest volume in the delectably presented Hazard Poet series. A number of the poems have been previously published and/or presented – memorably – by the poet at readings. It’s an eclectic collection; there are strangely old-fashioned poems where you sense Alfred Lord T hovering, and others that feel so intimately personal you are startled into checking the cover – can this really be …?

There’s much Marshall humour, from the now-famous “God/ Don’t let me die in Auckland” (“South Island Prayer”) to the sardonic “Advertising Life”:

But that’s not all! Apply now and you will
be eligible for special package opportunities
of fame and fortune …


There’s also a pervasive vein of melancholy, disillusionment and disappointment, and it makes me wonder about the effect on OM of the 26 years between Supper Waltz Wilson – with its commonplace flyleaf claim that the stories “make good reading” – and Watch of Gryphons, which comes garlanded with heavyweight superlatives.


Sue McCauley is “back on the farm” and working on a novel.


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Posted in Fiction, Literature, Poetry, Review, Short stories
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