Manual Owen - A Short Story

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Marshall is too versatile, too adept at adjusting his narrative technique, ever to be described as a formulaic writer, but the body of his work does reveal certain themes, characters and settings recurring.


For example, the unlovely Ransumeen family, and the fictional town of Te Tarehi—the focal point of a predominantly Pakeha rural community—weave threads of consistency through segments of his work. Marriages, families and small-town life are often the focus, as is the relationship between the individual and those exclusive male preserves—societies of schoolboys, rugby players, farmers or war veterans— that dominate and confer identity in provincial New Zealand.

And at the centre of many of these stories is a solid moral core of esteem for individual integrity. Against this backdrop Marshall frequently fastens on the outsiders—the loners and misfits, underdogs and losers—who fail to conform. Marshall is acutely aware that his early stories have a male emphasis that tends to portray women as aggressive, self-righteous and hypocritical. Time, marriage and the birth of two daughters have tempered this, and recent depictions of women elicit a broader spectrum of responses and evidence a wider range of narratorial sympathies.

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Often labelled a realist writer, Marshall prefers to think of himself as an impressionist, and experimentation with narrative technique is a hallmark of his writing. With Sargeson, Duggan, Frame. The novel, set in twenty-first century New Zealand, begins with Christchurch dentist Aldous Slaven—out house-painting precariously close to live power lines—narrowly escaping electrocution.

Her Heart's Desire

While recuperating from burns Slaven discovers that his near-death experience has gifted him with powers of oratory so compelling that he can spellbind crowds for hours, although afterwards he has no recollection of what he has said. Slaven escapes, however, re-establishes himself as the head of his Coalition for Citizen Power, and resumes his mission to put a sense of moral community back into politics. The insidious political process triumphs as Slaven begins making the kinds of compromises all too familiar in recent New Zealand politics—negotiating potential coalitions with mainstream parties in return for concessions on his ideals.

Marshall was also the recipient of the Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellowship. One of New Zealand's most long-standing and prestigious literary awards, the fellowship is offered annually to enable a New Zealand writer to work in Menton, France. There was always an epidemic in Marshall's fictive world, in other words, a neurological disorder called the human condition Marshall was editor of two anthologies of short fiction published in In Author's Choice , New Zealand writers choose a favorite among their own short stories, and comment briefly on their choice.

Gordon McLauchlan writes in the Weekend Herald 'Owen Marshall has the gift of telling stories that take hold of you in a personal way and bring echoes of people, places and events you have known, but not paid enough attention to at the time. Marshall's stories I think often operate within that moment, in finding the place and the phrase that most reveals by what does not occur, page 72 that draws out the subtle fact that we are seldom revealed by total acts, and that — as Chekhov of course clicked to a hundred years ago — personality can be defined by a discarded thought, an aside, a nudge at the right time.

Which is why Marshall is so masterly at marriages, at relationships about to dissolve, at those evasive moments when power is asserted or ascendancy lost, and why his many stories about teaching and schoolrooms might very well be shelved under 'Horror'.

Saturday short story: Refuge in the present, by Owen Marshall

One feels in reading this extraordinary diversity of situations and human unease that his dominating interest is in how to suggest most economically the shape of a life, to find an occasion which is also an image — how do we read others so that the weighting of perhaps a single act is not a falsification? A too simple thing? The answer is that we probably can't, yet all fictions proceed on the supposition that we can. Which is where literary theory's concern with verification, with verbal slippage and with the unrealisable ideal of a text that is totally free of the referential, is to some degree to reformulate, to bring under a different and more exclusive terminology, what most decent writers have enacted in their fictions anyway.

For an artistic decision is at some point both a pragmatic and a philosophical one as well. As Owen Marshall says of events as they occur, and as we then recall them, There is no way of knowing what is being chosen to represent our lives in later years. We expect to remember this and that; instead strange, random things are put before us with a clarity the conscious mind cannot deny.

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Or in Marshall's last collection, the epigraph from Wilde, still the sharpest and least acknowledged of English theoreticians: 'One's real life is often the life one does not lead. His interest rather is in the fluctuations, the variable charge that the sign carries on this occasion or that — a matter of force rather than coincidence, which critical discourse is far less anxious to instruct us on. For narrative on the move is always a current, a much trickier matter page 73 to talk about than some kind of mirror analogy.

Essential New Zealand Short Stories by Owen Marshall

That is why the epiphanic flash, the vigorously communicative 'illumination', takes one only a limited distance in talking about the short story. The point of that 'moment' is dependent on what just as deliberately doesn't seem illuminated around it. The life of the schoolmaster for example in 'The Beginning of an Old Man', so drably fixed before the vivid and ugly coupling with his landlady shows us quite how drab; or the memorial on the Otago skyline that the old shepherd begins in 'Monument', which of course can only be truly monumental when he is not there to be aware of it; or a parent's life in 'The Seed Merchant', so neatly explained yet largely missed by that dismissive nickname used by a father's mistress's sometime lover.

In other words, the defining instant, the romantic 'spot of time' that pushed modern short fiction towards the lyric, Marshall too lays claim to. But what he usually wants it to show us is the absence of romance, a brief and admittedly partial focusing that does not necessarily teach us anything beyond the fact that certain things exist and are endured.

To take again 'The Beginnings of an Old Man'. After perhaps the least erotic screw in New Zealand literature, the aging schoolmaster knows 'he had ceased to puzzle over the random incidents which had made up his experience and was secure in his small philosophy that reality is a mirror image, sharp and detailed, but allowing nothing to be read.

About the Author

There's an implied critique there at which one might begin or end in talking of realism as a narrative mode. A place to end, if one wanted to persist with that rather silly notion that because part of realism's procedure is to pack the recognisable, then there is little room for more than that to occur.

Or a place to begin, should one regard realism primarily as a stylistic choice rather than an epistemological mode, so that talk of mere reflection is rather beside the point. I mentioned the iconic as one defining mark of 'realist' fiction. Another is the assumption that a design however fabricated can extend to a world where parallels are not meant to be exact, but where the force of experience is accepted as a relevant and continuing field of reference. Faulkner's famously repetitive 'and' of course can be read as a great novelist's reluctance to accept that any narrative is ever complete, realist or not. Yet each 'and' partakes of a kind of faith that this time he is closer to what he intends, closer to that penetration of page 74 time by language in the make-believe that because one is so ostensibly controlled, then the other too is somehow mastered.

There is a Marshall story called 'Valley Day' where this occurs with what one might call text-book clarity. The commanding images in the story are run together as a coda, a raft of re-emergence, an hallooing of names which are now invocatives as well, figures in an equation that the story has tested and now revives as something else. A column of one-armed Lascelles was moving back up the valley from the war, each with a poem in his hand, and the accordion played Rock of Ages as they marched.

Mr Jenkins deftly knifed a wild pig, all the while with a benevolent smile, and in his torrent voice Mr Oliphant Called Home a weeping Ashley: deep eyes and woollen jersey. A host of pine owls, jersey green and brown, spread their wings at last, while old Mrs Patchett escaped again and accused her kin of starvation as she sought an earlier home. Behind and beyond the sway of the accordion's music, and growing louder, was the sound of the grand, poppy-red bull continuing with his head down from the top of the valley towards them all.

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With the possibility of numerous variations, that represents the Marshall story at its best. When Marshall defines himself as on occasion he does in interviews as intractably Kiwi, heterosexual, middle class, Pakeha, South Islander, a writer who values character now as he once did cleverness and beauty, and whose stories regularly confirm those allegiances, it is possible to take any of those as drawing him to the tried and the vigorously defined, rather than to the experimental or the free-wheeling. What, one might ask, of post-modernism's plurality, its elusive signifiers, its self-referential shadow-play?

Well, as a matter of fact they are there all right, and in stories like 'The Divided World', 'The Lynx Hunter', 'Wyldebourne at the Frontier', or 'The Visualiser', are there with impressive ease. Yet good as they are, these stories remain his second-string achievement. In his first volume of short stories was published.

Two years later, his first novel was published. Wister was fascinated with western culture and the lore of the west and spent several summers in Wyoming. His visit to Yellowstone in helped establish his natural inclination toward western fiction. Many fish were still in the pool; and though luck seemed to have left me, still I stood at the end of the point, casting and casting my vain line, while the Virginian lay and watched.

Noonday's extreme brightness had left the river and the plain in cooling shadow, but spread and glowed over the yet undimmed mountains. Westward, the Tetons lifted their peaks pale and keen as steel through the high, radiant air. Deep down between the blue gashes of their canons the sun sank long shafts of light, and the glazed laps of their snow-fields shone separate and white upon their lofty vastness, like handkerchiefs laid out to dry.

Opposite, above the valley, rose that other range, the Continental Divide, not sharp, but long and ample.