Thursday, October 29, 2009

Review: Living as a Moon by Owen Marshall

According to a character in the story ‘Another’s Shadow’: “Realism is only one portal to the depth of life.”  The delightfully named Crocetta Tengalia is discussing the work of Eco and Calvino, but could equally be referring to the short fiction of Owen Marshall.

In looking for new portals to the depth of life, each of Marshall’s short story collections contain a wide variety of styles and modes of storytelling.  The individual stories are, by their very nature, hit or miss for individual readers, but the success of the collections rides on the force of the ‘hits’.  

‘Freezing’ is surely one of the hits in Living as a Moon, Marshall’s ninth full-blown collection.  As the narrator says himself, the story is “just father and daughter getting through the winter as best we can, and lucky enough to have each other.” Sad, understated, poetic, but perhaps lacking that one stand-out feature, that point-of-difference, which differentiates good stories from memorable ones. 

‘Bunsen Versus The Republic‘ certainly has that point-of-difference: in the future, it seems, eating plants is considered serial murder, and Liddel Bunsen is charged under the Death, Damage or Detriment to Living Organisms Act of 2062 for eating broccoli (among other things). The story is a wry commentary on consumption and the shifting nature of morality, in the vein of ‘Another Generation’ (in The Lynx Hunter, 1987), but it ends suddenly without ever exposing the true moral compass of the story.

Two more hits, ‘Travelling in Eden’ and ‘Mid-Canvas Figures’, feature recovering alcoholics.  In one the narrator looks back at the characters of his parents; the other reflects on his landlady and fellow boarder in a house they all shared in the Aro Valley.  Taken in isolation, these stories succeed, but after digesting both, it’s hard to recall which alcoholic reminisced about whom.

‘No Stations of Remorse’ strives to be the beating heart of the collection.  It’s the longest story, placed squarely in the middle of the book, is mentioned on the back cover and links with the title (the idea of living as the reflection of another).  Soon after the death of her husband, Peter, from a terminal illness, Margaret drives from Invercargill to Nelson to attend a friend’s wedding anniversary.  Unlike road trips with Peter at the wheel, Margaret takes her time on the journey north, stopping off at various places with a connection to her past. At one point she recalls Peter’s advice not to live in the past after he goes.  “But,” the narrator tells us, “overall it had been a past worth living in.”  The story is gentle and muted; another success, if only a minor one in terms of Marshall’s canon.  

The problem this time is not internal to the story, or within the collection, but that it is hard not to draw comparisons with Marshall’s ‘An Indirect Geography’ from When Gravity Snaps (2002).  Both stories contain road trips and a woman looking back over her life. ‘An Indirect Geography’, however, has that spark of difference (the narrator has passed away and is watching her relatives drive down for her birthday).

Marshall has never been shy about revisiting settings or scenarios in subsequent collections in an attempt to ‘do it better’.  In Living as a Moon we get another school teacher story (‘The Detention’), several more male academic protagonists (‘Segue Dreams’, ‘Another’s Shadow’, ‘Blunderer’, ‘Anacapri’), and stories that prominently feature rural landscapes and communities (‘No Stations of Remorse’, ‘Brian and Baz’).  Familiar names and places pop up throughout the collection (Te Tarehi, Powys Street, Esler, Posswillow, Flowerday, Budgie) to further remind us we are in Marshall country.  

But as with ‘No Stations of Remorse’, the links to Marshall’s wider work are often more disconcerting than comforting.  

‘Another’s Shadow’, the eleventh story in this collection, is strikingly similar to ‘Watch of Gryphons’, the last (and titular) story in Marshall’s previous collection.  Both stories are set in Perugia and are temporarily fascinated by the ancient Etruscan well in the city.  Both feature a male protagonist from New Zealand who doesn’t speak much Italian. The stories have their differences too, perhaps the most significant being length (‘Gryphons’ is at least three times longer).  Of course the longer story has more developed characters.  Of course the longer story is able to paint a more detailed and poetic picture of Perugia.  Of course the stories differ in many ways, but one cannot help feeling that the more recent story is the shadow of another, rather than a new portal into the depth of life.

‘Sojourn in Arles’ and ‘Anacapri’ are also set in the Mediterranean, clearly a source of great inspiration for Marshall, but another case of diminishing the ‘hits’ through repetition. 

‘Don Fernando Motels’ is the rather entertaining story of a long term resident at a motel who turns out to be an unscrupulous novelist researching a novel.  For other stories about the unscrupulous writers see ‘Recollections of MKD’ from Coming Home In The Dark and ‘Poetic Licence’ from Watch of Gryphons.

Not everything feels rehashed, however. The title story, which opens the collection, offers a female narrator and an Australian setting. The narrator explains how she became a celebrity impersonator when Estelle Page (a fictional TV personality from Darwin) became famous.  The other celebrities mentioned are all real – Kevin Rudd, Rove McManus, Ricky Ponting – and give the story a very contemporary feel.  

The problem, however, is ‘Living as a Moon’ never quite escapes the limitations of its narrative voice: it feels muddled, repetitive, suspended in time; there are virtually no scenes, nothing for a reader to grab hold of.  Aside from the musings of the Australian Elton John which lend the story and the collection its title (being a celebrity impersonator is about reflecting another’s light rather than producing your own), ‘Living as a Moon’ is little more than a failed exercise in ventriloquism.
In ‘Coming Right’ a young couple are struggling to get ahead until Ian gets a second job as a phone sex operator. Interesting idea, but I was tripped up by the opening scene where little things (they’re eating KFC, so the drink would be Pepsi, not Coke) highlighted the distance from the author and his characters. 

Later in the collection, ‘Brian and Baz’ is more successful as it narrows the focus down to a day in the life of the owner of a small mill and his offsider. Again the protagonists are not rocket scientists, and their aspirations are humble, but their labour (felling a windbreak of macrocarpas) is treated with greater respect and much less flippancy.

Another reader will no doubt compile a different list of hits and misses in this collection, which is the joy of reading Marshall’s short stories.  I certainly wouldn’t warn anyone off reading Living as a Moon and suspect I may be suffering from a bit of Marshall fatigue after reading and re-reading so many of his stories recently.  Whatever the reason, I was disappointed that the joys I found in this latest offering were muted by the knowledge that I had peered through a similar portal before.

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