Always a price to pay, Elspeth Sandys

Living as a Moon
Owen Marshall
Vintage, $34.99,
ISBN 9781869792510

Opening Owen Marshall’s latest collection of short stories, beginning, somewhat apprehensively, to read, I wondered if the faint niggle I always feel when I read Marshall’s work would stay with me. The niggle has nothing to do with the quality of the writing. I am and always have been a huge admirer of Marshall’s economy, the brilliance of his imagery, the range of his (mostly male) characters, and the confidence with which he creates worlds I can see and hear, touch and taste.

Indeed, it’s true to say that Marshall seldom puts a foot wrong. In this collection – to call it his best so far is simply a way of avoiding superlatives – he conjures up worlds as widely different from one another as those of territorial soldiers, office workers, Kiwis on OE, tree surgeons, academics, school kids, motel owners, grieving widows and widowers, boarding-house inmates, celebrity impersonators, mentally challenged supermarket employees, financially strapped touring actors, and husbands and wives in both collapsing and aspiring marriages. There’s even a killer on the run to add spice to the mix. And a disturbing taste of the future in “Bunsen Versus the Republic”, in which we glimpse a world where environment law rules, and the eating of vegetables has become a crime.

So why the niggle?

It’s partly my response to the overall tone of the stories. Thoreau’s line, “most men lead lives of quiet desperation”, is never far from my mind when reading Marshall. Frequently described as a realist (Lawrence Jones places him firmly in the New Zealand tradition of “morally concerned humanist realism”), Marshall himself prefers to use the word impressionist. “What vision I do have tends to the tableaux,” he has been quoted as saying. My quarrel with this is that when I think of the Impressionists I think, overwhelmingly, of light: an ordinary scene transfigured by the artist’s luminous imagination. When I think of Marshall’s work the colours that come into my mind are variations on grey.

His characters (mostly) make do, hold on, accept that their yearning for “a gift unsolicited and undeserved, a lightning strike that would galvanise [their] world” (“Segue Dreams”) is about as likely to happen as the sun colliding with the moon. Not that all the stories in this collection, or indeed any other by Marshall, fit this mould, but enough do to create, in this reader anyway, that sense of a predestined outcome, not entirely gloomy, but not exactly cheery either, where life is coped with and dreams are lost sight of in the realities of daily living.

But there is something else that colours my response, and that stems from the fact that I am a woman. So convincing are the male worlds Marshall creates that, though he creates female worlds too, it’s the male domains that stay in the mind when the last page has been read.

Of course there are exceptions. One of my favourite stories in this collection is the one titled “No Stations of Remorse”. Following a recently widowed woman on a pilgrimage into her past would have been a trap for a less skilled writer, but Marshall handles the story with touching sensitivity, bringing his central character, Margaret, alive in ways that make the reader care about her. The last sentence of this, the longest story in the collection, reads, “Margaret decided there was no guilt: no guilt and no true death until the last of those who love you dies.” Reading that, I understood what Gordon McLachlan meant when he described Marshall’s stories as achieving a “magical heightening of the ordinary”. And I wished there had been more such moments.

The fact remains, though, that, of the 25 stories in this collection, only two are told from a woman’s point of view. The first I’ve already discussed: the second, the title story, shows Marshall at the peak of his ventriloquist powers. Writing in the first person (Marshall’s preferred “voice”), the author brings to vivid life a young woman stuck in a dead-end job, whose life appears to take a turn for the better when she discovers her skill as an impersonator.  That things only appear to improve is quintessential Marshall. Genuine new beginnings do not within his “bending sickle’s compass come”: there is always a price to pay. “I could’ve done a lot worse,” the narrator concludes, as she weighs the cost of change in her life. To which my response was, yes, and you could have done a lot better too! You could have experienced a “lightning strike that would galvanise [your] world”.

The responses to Marshall’s work in general, and to this collection in particular, which I have described so far, are for the most part subjective. What I want to talk about now is the writing itself, about which it is possible to be considerably more objective.

If, as is often claimed, good writing is the successful marriage of subject to style, then Marshall has to be up there with the very best. In story after story he finds a voice which is entirely appropriate to the world he is creating. In this collection it could be said there is an over-reliance on the first-person narrative, but this is merely further proof of his skills, already mentioned, as a ventriloquist. That Marshall can inhabit so many different worlds with such authority is nothing short of phenomenal. Not for a moment does the reader doubt either the authenticity of the story she is reading, nor the author’s deep knowledge of the subject.

I could go to almost any story to illustrate the uniqueness of the voice, and the author’s success in devising objective correlatives to direct the reader to the emotional heart of the tale. But here are just a few – pieces of gold taken from a seemingly inexhaustible creative seam.

First, two lessons in how to create character in a minimum of words: the first from “Vapour Trails”; the second from my favourite story, “Freezing”. The character being magicked into life in the first is Mr Cusip, the senior employee in a photo-copying office: “Cusip was like a rabbit in a burrow, fearful of the ferret. In all the time I worked there he never addressed us as a group, but sidled up to us individually if there were instructions to be given.” If we didn’t know this man already, we know him now, and will recognise him when we see him again.

The second, from “Freezing”, where the title refers both to what has happened to the narrator’s computer, and, in the wake of his wife’s death, to his heart (a perfect example of the objective correlative), concerns the narrator’s encounter with the man in the computer repair shop. The “young guy” he has to do business with is described in these words: “He had a quiff of hair like snow tussock, and elongated nostril apertures showing darkness within as if they bored deep into mahogany.” That the “guy” is virtually monosyllabic, and utterly indifferent to any sign of distress in his customer, is exactly what we would expect from a writer as averse to sentimentality as Marshall.

Returning to “Vapour Trail”, I want to highlight another quintessential Marshall moment. The narrator, who has developed an unhealthy interest in the lives of the drifters visible in the alley below his office, is suddenly struck by the futility of his own life. “I felt a sort of panic rising because my life was unchanging, yet passing in futility day by day. It would move through me like a liquid shiver and leave just dull despondency.” That “liquid shiver” is perfect. In those two words we are let in on the heart of the story, the fear of change, the fear of no change. At the end of the story the narrator is still trapped between action and inaction, reassuring himself, while watching the “vapour trails of the planes above: strings of silver Christmas tinsel dissolving slowly in the blue”, that he is at least better off than the street people.

This is a superb collection, deserving of better production values. By the time I had thumbed my way through the book a couple of times the spine was beginning to loosen. Nor was the editing all it should be. I found repetitions, omissions, and the occasional over-reliance on colons.

But I want to finish by returning to the words of the master story-teller himself: the final paragraph of “Freezing”; sentences that could have been written by no one else:

So, no resolution, no epiphany that would ensure understanding between us, just father and daughter getting through the winter as best we can, and lucky enough to have each other. Meetings and partings, dreams and memories, love and loss: hold on tight, that’s all you can do in life.


Elspeth Sandys is a Wellington writer and reviewer.


Living as a Moon was a fiction finalist in this year’s New Zealand Post Book Awards.


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