Thursday, October 22, 2009

Watch of Gryphons and Other Stories

This is not a review of Owen Marshall's short story collection Watch of Gryphons and Other Stories to go along with my 'not reviews' of The Lynx Hunter and Coming Home in the DarkAll part of Owen Marshall Month here at This Fluid Thrill.

Watch of Gryphons and Other Stories
Published 2005 (Marshall's eighth full short story collection)
19 Stories, 316 Pages (an average length of 17 pages per story, more than double Lynx Hunter and Coming Home)

The vibe
According to the back cover, "[s]everal longer stories give Watch of Gryphons a special depth and resonance…" There are six stories longer than twenty pages: -- 'Buried Lives' (23), 'A Kind of Living' (25), 'Family Circle' (23), 'Minding Lear' (41), Journey's End (29), 'Watch of Gryphons' (27) -- all of which are longer than the hitherto longest story in the Owen Marshall catalogue according to
Peter Simpson ('The Rule of Jenny Pen' from 1992's Tomorrow We Save the Orphans). Some of these stories are more successful than others (check out my top five below for the successes) but it is definitely length, and the extra development of plot, character and/or setting it allows, that stands out in this collection

My five favourite stories in the collection

Buried Lives
After "a breakdown in my third year at university," the narrator moves out to his aunt and uncle's farm in North Otago. Gradually we learn about the entanglement in the lives of a pair of twins, Richard and Rebecca, that led to his departure from university, and also of his fourteen months on the farm and his relatives. Most touching are the scenes with his Aunt Sonia, who he discovers played the viola and went to Sydney on a scholarship, but hasn't played the instrument for thirty years: "When you do something really well," she tells him, "there's no satisfaction in doing it at any lesser level at all." A long story to open the collection and a hard one to forget. [This collection came out after Marshall selected his best of, but Vincent O'Sullivan selected it for his.]

Passing Triptych
The second story in the collection, which is three character sketches sown together by a man's memories of unskilled labour, first in a factory that made wallboard, then as proof reader for a newspaper, and finally on the grading belt at Iceveg. A kind of companion piece to 'Joining the Ishmaelites' from The Lynx Hunter, which argues that a writer should experience a myriad of varied and menial jobs to source material for fiction, especially the last paragraph of 'Passing Triptych': "…sometimes my eye is caught by the Situations Vacant section of the newspaper, or my ear by the job talk of my family, and I wonder at the possibilities of character, the wonderful variety of companionship." The strength of the story, however, is not it's exploration of occupations, but the singularity of each of the character sketches. A special mention should go to 'Images', which comes later in the book, which achieves a similar feat in terms of the narrator's father. [Not selected by O'Sullivan, though 'Images' made the cut.]

Minding Lear
The big daddy of the book. A cash-strapped student gets a job minding an elderly man with dementia while his daughter and husband go on a much needed holiday. At first, the sequential nature of the narrative is disconcerting. The story feels looser, flabbier, than 'classic' Marshall. But this slow build is necessary; the repetition of routines and embarrassments crucial to the effect the story achieves. [Selected by O'Sullivan.]

Only five pages and far more whimsical than the rest of my top five, 'Hodge' tells the story of a man who was "a sort of lightning rod that deflected misfortune from the rest of us." The many ways in which Hodge's relatives met their fate is nothing short of hilarious, and Hodge's own demise, crushed by an overweight woman who leapt from a building to kill herself (she survived to become a "born-again Christian trauma consultant"), should be a hoot, but instead it's sombre and touching. I guess it's the difference between Schadenfreude and sympathy; there's a bit of Hodge in all of us. [Selected by O'Sullivan.]

Watch of Gryphons
Paul, a kiwi in Perugia as a consultant on the construction of a new reservoir, forms a friendship with his neighbours, Giancarlo and Maria. She doesn't speak a word of English, and Paul doesn't speak Italian, Giancarlo, who is in a wheel chair is virtually stuck in their second floor apartment, is fluent in both. There are many other aspects to this story—what it's like to work in a foreign country, dealing with Italian bureaucracy, the depiction of the old Etruscan city—and there's even a sort of twist near the end concerning Maria. A great example of a longer story: intricate, humane, poetic. [Selected by O'Sullivan.]

1 comment: said...

One of my favourites from this collection is "A Kind of Living" - somehow three losers, Michael, Rik and Budgie (the biggest loser) head to Queenstown for a weekend, and try to score - their appalling behaviour somehow elicits sympathy rather than scorn from the reader, even a teensy bit of empathy perhaps (and I've tested this story out with some very strong-minded women, who all, even on repeat readings, love the story, and understand it)and laugh... really it is a laugh out loud story which is the surprise - how Marshall manages to almost cross the line at one particular momentin a motel with two lads on the make and one poor hapless overweight girl, the desperation really of the moment and yet the poignancy too, and the futility of the whole weekend, in the end.

In his latest collection "Living as a Moon" - a short piece entitled "OE calls home" had me laughing out loud - a light short piece that nails it really - if you're a baby boomer and a parent (like me).