Saturday, October 31, 2009

October, Nice To Know Ya

That's it for Owen Marshall Month folks.  But don't worry, November will be themed too!

In addition to having 'Mr November' stuck in my head for the next thirty days, I'll be writing more hundred word stories...

Thirty Ways of Looking at a Blank Page: 2009

Last November I wrote a self-contained story in 100 words every day and posted them on my blog. I enjoyed the process so much, I'm going to do something similar this year...

Marumaru South - A Portrait

This time my thirty shorts will be linked. Each story will centre on a different character in the fictional South Island town of Marumaru South (there's a real Marumaru in the North Island, somewhere on the East coast). In my mind Marumaru South lies somewhere between Timaru and Oamaru (hence the name).

That's pretty much all I know at this point. My hope is that each day the town will come a little more into focus, and that maybe one day I'll be able return to Marumaru South with more words to spare.

The Process

Unlike last year, I won't include the title of each story in the 100 word tally as each will just be the name (or descriptor) of the character the story is about. I don't think it's fair The Principal gets one more word to his story than The Opera Singer… And maybe there won't be any need for titles when the stories are all brought together at the end of the month.

Another divergence from last year is that I will post each story individually on (or as close as possible to) the day it is written, rather than using the sidebar.

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.

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.]

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Invisible Keywords, Hiccups, Geodes, Excel Formulae

Every so often I do a reading binge of stories published in the New Yorker. I go to the website, open the stories (making sure to click on "entire story"), copy and paste them all into the one word document and plough through them that way.

Somehow, in this copy and paste process, I end up with seven "keywords" under the title for each story which are not visible on the website. For a few examples, the latest story, 'Procedure In Plain Air' by Jonathan Lethem, lists the following keywords:

New York City

'Complicity' by Julian Barnes, from last week, had:
Love Affairs

This reeks of IT logic: In order to improve the searchability of short stories, you need to provide keywords for each story.

I'm sure no one is suggesting you can capture the essence of a story (not a good one, anyway) in seven key words or phrases, but it's still worth noting how misleading some of these keyword clusters can be.

Based on keywords alone, George Saunders' rip-roaring 'Victory Lap' from a couple of weeks ago looks pretty dire:
Crime, Criminals
Cross-Country Runners

A fairer set of keywords for this quirky story would surely include: geodes, over-parenting, and imaginary baby deer.

Cynics may point to the stultifying sameness of the fiction published by the New Yorker (George Saunders aside) and say that seven keywords is enough to guess the contents of the story. (Perhaps that's why the keywords are not visible on the website?)

But I approach it from the other direction: with a bit of cut and paste, you have at your fingertips a database of story ideas. Hiccups, gloves and a love affair? Sounds like enough to get you started.

(Here I should acknowledge the similarity of this suggestion with the world-famous-in-New-Zealand, Wellington,IIML-Graduate-circles 'Six Things Exercise'.)

Don't want to be limited to odd convergences in a single story? (Probably wise…) Pick and choose from several sets of keywords (or let Excel and its RAND and IF formulae do the choosing for you).

Someone more web savvy than myself could write a code to randomly generate a set of New Yorker keywords. This may be a service to the writing community, or it may lead to a spate of stories prominently featuring hiccups being submitted to lit-mags everywhere...

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Coming Home In The Dark

This is not a review of Owen Marshall’s short story collection, Coming Home In The Dark. Last week, I did not review The Lynx Hunter as part of Owen Marshall Month here at This Fluid Thrill.

Coming Home In The Dark

Published 1995 (Marshall's sixth full short story collection)

27 Stories, 215 Pages (an average length of 8 pages per story)

The vibe

Coming Home In The Dark packs plenty into its 215 pages. As in The Lynx Hunter, the first four or so stories look and feel like what one may call ‘realism’, but we soon get pieces like ‘The Lenny Fudge Bibliography’ (which, as the name suggests, is a list of books featuring, or perhaps by, Lenny Fudge) and ‘Recollections of MKD’ which is the transcript of an interview between an academic and a school friend of a recently deceased writer.

There’s moments of fun and cajolery, but there’s a dark heart to this collection. In the third story, ‘Cometh The Hour’, James Cumuth confronts an escaped convict, “the nation’s galvanised degeneracy,” and comes off second best. In ‘Flute and Chance’, Rabber likes to talk in non sequiturs, but one day meets his match in a razor-wielding misfit for whom randomness is not confined to the verbal. The title story, which closes the collection, features another criminal intrusion into ordered life, this time giving the criminal, Mandrake, a chance to argue his case for nihilism and bloodshed. At the conclusion of this story, the sedate Coming Home In The Dark title seems much darker. A story like ‘Goodbye, Stanley Tan,’ in which the narrator returns to Singapore with his wife and recalls his time there several years ago, working in an illegal pig abattoir, suddenly seems to be saying more than it did on a first reading.

My five favourite stories in the collection

Working Up North

The opening story in the collection. Exhibits many common features in an Owen Marshall story: first person male narrator (university student) doing a character sketch of a passing acquaintance; temporary job (fish splitter in Nelson for summer holidays); unlikely character names (Mr Trubb, which I believe is the scum they skim off the top of beer during the fermentation process). The strength of the story is its conciseness, in both plot and language. The sudden death of Mr Trubb is the first of many explorations into the seemingly arbitrary nature of misfortune. [Selected by both Marshall and Vincent O’Sullivan in their anthologies.]

A Part of Life

One of the longer stories in the collection. Middle-aged Polly spends the summer cleaning a motel in Tekapo with her daughter. An older American visiting NZ with his sisters, complains that he cannot buy “womanly company”, and after a time Polly and he agree on a transaction. Interesting stuff and deftly handled. Dark, too, when you think about it. [Selected by Marshall but not O’Sullivan.]

Growing Pains

“When I was fourteen I began suffering cruelly from lovesickness,” the story begins, and it goes on to detail all the girls and women the narrator has fallen for. Marshall often uses such frames for character sketches, and I’m a sucker for these stories: they seem to align just as well with the way we recall life as a story centred around a character (‘Cass Robbins’) or an event (‘Day One’) rather than a theme. This story in particular is full of quotable lines and exacting detail: “Mrs Lassiter liked me: she said I had a cheeky face. With a thrilling freedom of language, she said bugger and shit… She smelt of silver paper and fabrics dried in the sun.” [Selected by O’Sullivan but not Marshall.]

This Man's Army

There’s so much detail in this story of a man’s recollection of National Service that you can’t help but wonder how autobiographical it is. Who cares when you get this sort of thing: “The best letters I got were from Debra Eastcliff… almost everything around me as I read her letters, or replied, or thought about her, was incomprehensible to someone not living it. That particular sound of the chain through the trigger guards, the two guys who had started bumming in the showers, the MP’s Land Rover at three or four in the morning so that the barrack room was briefly lit with flashes through the windows.” [Selected by Marshall but not O’Sullivan.]

Day One

Owen Marshall is a master of the first paragraph. Look at how much you learn, or can infer, from this one:
“In the mid-60s I finished my thesis on extruded igneous dykes of Banks Peninsula and sat back to receive the plaudits and post-graduate study offer of the academic world. The academic world remained strangely mute and I accepted a job as assistant house-master at a traditional boys’ college. All the physical possessions that I owned into the world were crammed into my series E Morris and I drove up the day before the start of term one.”
[Selected by Marshall but not O’Sullivan.]

Thursday, October 15, 2009

A Blander Shade of Pale

My desk at work is on the twelfth floor. There's a sort of mezzanine-cum-thirteenth-floor above half of the twelfth, leaving the rest of my floor with double-high ceilings. I sit just beyond the point at which the ceiling doubles. It's a nice airy space, this double-high section, but the acoustics are terrible. Conversations within a ten metre radius are impossible to block out (thankfully most of this double-height area is filled by the finance team, so they're pretty quiet souls). Sometimes it can be very difficult to tell where sounds are coming from.

At moments throughout the day, I hear a radio. I've decided it's probably coming through one of the internal windows of the thirteenth floor above me. I don't think this person listens to the radio all the time (though I have no idea what people do on the thirteenth, having never been there), but every now and then the sound of the radio drifts over to me. Sometimes I can pick the song, and based on this sample ('Hey Jude', 'Summer Breeze', 'Do Wah Diddy', 'Sittin' on the Dock of the Bay'...) I reckon the station is Solid Gold FM.

Ordinarily, I would have no beef with the station but, due to some quirk of the acoustics, certain frequencies reach me easier than others. This, combined with the limited weekday playlist of Solid Gold FM, means I feel as if I am forever hearing the ocarina solo in the Troggs' 'Wild Thing'. It's a shame, because -- and I can say this with some authority -- it is the greatest ocarina solo in rock history, but hearing it disembodied on a daily basis is quickly becoming grating.

The last two mornings, the organ from 'Whiter Shade of Pale' by Procul Harem has caught my ear. It’s another great song (one about which I had a long talk with a work associate in Brisbane, who turned out to be a collector of vintage organs) which seems set to make my Endangered Greatness list.

While the specifics of my situation would not be that common, there is something typically 'office life' about having songs you quite like being systematically ruined by unseen forces.

The challenge, as I see it from the sanctuary of my study during my leisure time, is to notice these snippets of 'office life' and distil them into useable fiction, without letting the office beat me.

Monday, October 12, 2009

The Lynx Hunter and Other Stories

This is not a review of The Lynx Hunter and Other Stories. There will be two more posts this month which will 'not review' Coming Home In The Dark and Watch of Gryphons.

Why did I choose these three books to 'not review'? Because these are the three Owen Marshall short story collections I have read most recently, so the impressions are fresher in my mind. A full review without payment of three older collections seems like thankless work, and I'm all for expedients.

It helps that these three collections are spread over a period of eighteen years, as I want (with a minimum of effort) to give some picture of how Marshall manages to imbue each of his collections with a distinct character. In part, I'm trying to justify my argument against relying on the two Owen Marshall's Greatest Hits anthologies
to find the real Owen Marshall.

In these 'not reviews' I will also list my five favourite stories from the collection and compare this with the Best Of selections. A brief description of my favourite stories will hopefully serve as advertisement enough for the collection, and may also highlight my prejudices when it comes time for me to do a proper review at the end of the month (Marshall's latest collection, Living As A Moon).

The Lynx Hunter and Other Stories

Published 1987 (Marshall's fourth short story collection)
23 Stories, 171 Pages (an average length, therefore, of 7.5 pages per story)

The vibe
I bought my copy at this year's Second Hand Book Fair at the TSB Arena, so it's actually the most recent collection I've read. Owen Marshall selected 11 of the 23 stories from this book for inclusion in his The Best of Owen Marshall (2002 edition). Vincent O'Sullivan selected seven. The big surprise for me was the amount of experimentation in the collection, given the bias towards realism in the anthologies.

The epigraph for the collection comes from Oscar Wilde: "One's real life is often the life one does not lead."

Stories such as 'The Castle of Conceits' and the title story look at these internal lives. They follow a logic, but it is a logic foreign to stock standard realism. According to the Book Council's profile of Marshall, "the narrator of 'The Lynx Hunter', who is walking to work, sets up in free indirect discourse a series of surreal self-representations, projecting himself onto his external environment, then interrogating and evaluating the self he sees reflected back."

'Melodrama at Closing Time' is experimental in style (a five part melodrama) and out-there in subject matter (futuristic politics and oratory). 'The Visualiser' looks more like a standard story, but centres around the main character's dreams of the Krools (who are farming humans in a Matrix-before-the-Matrix way). 'Chevalier' is less than two pages long, talks of armoured crusaders, Saracens and chocolate, and went completely over my head.

By my reckoning, ten of the twenty-three stories are out-there in terms of style, content or both. It feels like the weighting is even higher.

My five favourite stories in the collection

Convalescence in the Old City

The first story in the collection. The first paragraph was enough to win me over ("…And in that city there was a faint scent of the past — desperation and unrequited injuries — which mingled with the steam from sewer covers, the smell of new baked saasi bread and sprays of blue, upland lilies carried to the sanctuary, and the sleeping breath of crowded people.") Nothing much happens: a kiwi teacher is convalescing in a small hotel (we are not told why, just as we are not told where we are exactly), and has a passing acquaintance with a Polish engineer who is accused of robbery and arrested. As the narrator says early on: "I can't claim any general knowledge of the country, just the experience of a short time in the city" and his story captures the truth of being a stranger in a foreign city. [Selected by Marshall for his Best Of but not by O'Sullivan.]

Another Generation

A satire set in a future where the younger generation are obsessed with money the way kids-these-days
are obsessed with sex. In fact, physical contact with notes and coins seems to have replaced the act of sex itself. There are obvious jokes, like the dude's name being Franc (aside: before the Euro, there were so many more opportunities for currency puns), but like the best South Park episodes, it's the fresh perspective you're left with that matters. [Selected by O'Sullivan but not by Marshall.]

The Frozen Continents

A combination of realism and out-there. The narrator is charged with cleaning out the Antarctic display at a museum with a fellow named Beavis who only speaks in disaster soundbites ("Typhoon Agnes hit central Philippines on November 5 claiming more than 800 lives"; "More than 500 died when a liquid gas depot exploded at San Jaun Ixhuatepec, a suburb of Mexico City"). Beavis seems unable to look after himself, catches cold in the freezing Antarctic display, and the narrator nurses him back to his disaster soundbite ways. The story succeeds because the narrator does not comment on the unusual nature of his colleague, nor does he spell out what the nature of "the PEP scheme" that has bought them together to labour in the museum. There's enough mystery to make you believe what you are being told, but also to step back and question why these things (disasters, Antarctica, male bonding) are being placed together. [Selected by both Marshall and O'Sullivan.]

Joining The Ishmaelites

I freely admit this story appeals to me mainly because I'm a writer. It begins, "True literary achievement depends upon extremes in life; the gathering of emotional and social copy." The narrator is planning to live the life of Jack London, Maupassant and Melville; to work as a male stripper, reptile house curator and nasella tussock grubber to get this copy. These are thoughts I'm sure all writers have from time to time. There was a personal ring of truth when the writer says, "Accounting… government service at greater than subsistence level, are the ways in which genius and literary commitment are bled away." But the examples of jobs and lifestyles befitting a writer are so plentiful, so specific, so wack, and the case argued so eloquently, that one is forced to consider the opposite. After all, wasn't Owen Marshall a boring-old school teacher for all those years before he became a full-time writer? In the end, it's a backhanded argument for the power of the imagination. That a writer can have an accounting degree and work for the Ministry of Education and still come up with some worthwhile copy. That's my (optimistic) reading of it, anyway. [Not selected by either Marshall or O'Sullivan.]

A Poet's Dream of Amazons

Like 'The Frozen Continent' the story is told by a first person narrator to give it the ring of realism, but there's a character who refuses to fit into the narrow confines of the real world. Esler is dying, or so he says. He's dreaming of a Big Woman smothering him; "a preammunition of death" as his mother puts it. But it just seems like another asthma flare up. "Perhaps," the narrator says near the end of the story, "Elser is simply dying of his poets' amazement at the world in which he finds himself." The collection begins with a specific description of an unspecified city — the "mucus domes upon the cobbles" that look like "fish eyes" — and ends with a world so full of wonder it might be fatal. Nice. [Selected by both Marshall and O'Sullivan.]

Notable omissions: 'Mumsy and Zip' has been paid canonical reverence by several critics, and it is a fine story, but one I am unable to gush over. 'Valley Day' is similar in that it sticks to really real realism, excels at it, but in this collection it seems over-powered by stories that reach beyond the norm.

[For those looking for a proper review of an Owen Marshall collection, a visit to his website might be in order.]

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Do we read enough Kiwi-made?

The Sunday Star Times recently did a piece for NZ Book Month called Why Don't We Read Kiwi-Made?  

The piece begins by saying "...only 5% of the fiction we choose to buy is published in New Zealand," which seems to contradict the assertion we don't read Kiwi-made.

5% isn't nothing.  It could be a lot more.  But then the percentage of NZ books borrowed from libraries could be higher.  Maybe that's why Brian Edwards was so pissed off a few weeks ago.

[Aside: Took me a while to find the link to Brian's brain explosion as he later removed all traces of it from his website (and conspiracy theories abound about the affair's disappearance from wikipedia).  More info on the saga here.  Got to love a) Google's caching abilities and b) a classic case of blogger's remorse].

Who cares about the percentage, anyway.  The real question we should be asking, once we've decided what a Kiwi-made book is (NZ author? published in NZ? printed in NZ? about NZ? some combination of these?), is: What do NZ books do that books from elsewhere don't?

There's that whole 'Telling Our Story' boilerplate which underpins so much of our arts funding, but I think there's something less tangible that comes with reading work by local writers.

After graduating from university with (amongst other things) a BA in English Lit, I could still probably count on my fingers the books I had read by New Zealand authors.  I purposely avoided the NZ lit paper without ever thinking through my prejudice.  Shame on me.  As a late-teens, early-twenties male I felt NZ literature was staid and unexciting.  I know now I hadn't read widely enough.

Then I moved to Australia and I could walk around as if NZ books didn't exist.  My time in Australia was punctuated by a nine month stint back in Wellington where I got a taste of the local writing scene and discovered a few more local writers, but the desire to read NZ authors only really struck me while living in the UK. Blogging about writing and books and reading other NZ lit-bloggers had something to do with it. Getting published in NZ literary journals and websites had something to do with it. The Scottish Poetry Library's great collection of NZ poetry had something to do with it.

These all seem like entirely personal reasons, and I wouldn't want it any other way.

All I can say is: why not make 5% of your books this year Kiwi-made, and if you like it, go from there. I'm ready and willing with some recommendations.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Best of Owen Marshall?

If you haven't read Owen Marshall's short fiction, I suggest you pick a collection at random, but don't pick either of his 'Best Of's:
  • The Best of Owen Marshall's Short Stories, 67 stories chosen by Owen Marshall, first published in 1997, reprinted in 2002
  • Owen Marshall: Selected Stories, 60 stories chosen by Vincent O'Sullivan, published 2008
As I discussed last week, although short stories are able to be digested individually, there are joys to be derived from their combinations. If you'll permit me to extend this food metaphor (and even if you don't): a good collection should be like a banquet, with all the dishes of the highest quality but moving through are variety of flavours and textures. As with goat's cheese petit fours and chocolate mud cake, stories with the most pronounced tastes need to be carefully placed and their quantity precisely determined.

Not all short fiction writers follow this banquet maxim. Instead, they serve up roast pheasant after roast pheasant: excellent stories of unquestionable quality, but after a while, I find myself craving a peppermint magnum or a stick of chewing gum.

I don't know about Owen Marshall's culinary abilities, but he sure knows how to put together a literary banquet.

In the coming weeks I will briefly discuss three of his collections (The Lynx Hunter, Coming Home in the Dark, and Watch of Gryphons), and how they each provide different reading experiences, before looking at how his new collection, Living as a Moon, advances his oeuvre while finding that all important point of difference.

When I read stories from several collections in the one anthology (be it Marshall's selection or O'Sullivan's), however, I find the banquet is somehow diminished.

As Vincent O'Sullivan says in his introduction, another editor may have included more of Marshall's stories which, "let fantasy rip, or stories that are driven by the sheer gusto of language." To O'Sullivan, these experimental stories, for lack of a better term, are minor successes.

And I agree that the most memorable and most affecting of Marshall's stories could be described as realist (or roast pheasant, perhaps). But those of Marshall's stories which are more concerned with language and form rather than their characters do serve a purpose within each collection.

'Wyldebaume at the Frontier' in The Lynx Hunter and Other Stories (1987) is sandwiched between two stories that play their realism straight. In 'Essie', a middle-aged man runs into the eponymous character, who was both a lover and a promising high diver many years ago. In 'Babes and Brothers in Arms', Frank accompanies his wife to a reunion and the imperfect nature of his marriage is laid bare by a friend going through her own divorce. 'Wyldebaume', in contrast, describes how the narrator, a law clerk in the office of Laystall, Zimmermann, Laystall and Clone, was fired for taking his shoes off. Already, from the names and the subject matter the difference to its neighbouring stories is apparent. The text itself announces its experimental, metafictional nature in the first line:
           "I (persona rather than alter-ego) had worked part-time in the old Clerk's Room…"

We are soon told that the narrator will "imagine [what sort of work he did in the office] later so as not to detract from the forward movement of this opening section." The story, it seems, is being created before our eyes.
The reader, addressed several times during the story, is given definitions and snippets from notebooks which link in with the story, if only at odd angles. The notebook entries, dated between 1981 and 1986, invite the reader to consider an author beyond the "I (persona rather than alter-ego)" of the story. Are these actual entries in the notebooks of Owen Marshall? It's a game, of course, in a story full of tricks and gimmicks. A purging of the puckish energies Marshall must restrain in stories such as 'Essie' and 'Babes and Brothers in Arms'. But, having concluded 'Wyldebaume…', one cannot quite forget him (Wyldebaume and Marshall), and the restraint and detail in the following story are drawn out when otherwise they might be overlooked.

In The Best of Owen Marshall's Short Stories, the reader gets 'Essie' followed by 'Wyldebaume…', but 'Babes…' is omitted. Instead, 'Wyldebaume…' is followed by 'A Poet's Dream of Amazons', in which the narrator visits a fellow poet who claims to be dying, in part due to his dreams of being smothered by a "Big Woman." The story lies somewhere between leaden realism and untethered experimentation. It's funny and contains wonderful details and observations, such as 'I knew Mr Esler becomes desperate late at night when all the sports programmes end; when he finds himself with hours ahead and no team to join, and none to hate". But some of that friction between 'Wyldebaume…' and 'Babes…' is lacking. The frisson is lessened by the removal of an admittedly average story.

In O'Sullivan's selection, we only get 'A Poet's Dream of Amazons'.

The anthologies, no matter how generous, are that little bit more sterile than Marshall should be. Even though Marshall includes half of the stories from Coming Home in the Dark in his Best Of selection, the sheer volume of stories that precedes them somehow diminishes the sense of variety.
Such a generous selection from one collection also threatens the experience of reading that collection as a whole, if you ever get around to it. As with musical Greatest Hits collections, there's always the temptation to move on to something new rather than buy an album from which you already own the best tracks. How much more is there to Jimi Hendrix beyond his 20 track best of? Another 40 tracks, perhaps one or two ('Highway Chile', 'Are You Experienced') deserving of a spot alongside 'Wind Cries Mary' and '6 was 9'…

O'Sullivan's selection of 60 stories represents one third of Marshall's short fiction output over 30 years: surely you can just read those sixty and move on to 'Living as a Moon', right?

Yes, you could. But you might be surprised when you read 'Living as a Moon'. The writer you thought so earnest, so faithful to his Southern towns and Southern men, is suddenly writing about female, Australian, celebrity impersonators? And what's this story told in the form of a one way phone conversation? This, dear reader--this combination of covert and overt craft, humour and pathos--is the true Owen Marshall.

Monday, October 5, 2009

BNZ Katherine Mansfield Awards 2009

Congratulations to...

  • Karen Phillips, winner of the Novice section, for her story, 'The Visit', as judged by Carl Nixon.
  • Emma Robinson of Awatapu College (Palmy represent!), winner of the Young Writer section, for her epistolary tale, 'Skipped The Censor', as judged by Kate De Goldi.
I now know how to use jump-breaks, so you'll have to click 'Read More' if you wanna year about the ceremony...

Friday, October 2, 2009

How do you read short story collections?

There are two basic ways to read a short story collection:

1. In order from first to last
2. Out of order

There's only one way of doing option 1 and many different ways of doing option 2 (if my high school maths is correct, the number of different orders in which you could read a collection would be equal to the number of stories squared, so an 18 story collection has 324 different order combinations - - correct me if I'm wrong). And then there's those collections you don't ever finish, regardless of which order you read them.

I used to read collections out of order, jumping ahead to titles that took my attention or stories whose length matched the reading time I had available. Over the last few years, however, I've taken to reading them through in order. I'm not sure if this is because my reading has become more targeted (I have to read x number of books this month), or because I was beginning to compile my own short story collection and was forced to think about order (one day I might discuss my own ordering…). It may just be that I'm reading faster and more often these days, so picking a story to fit my reading time doesn't seem an important consideration any more.

One argument for reading short story collections in order, which only just occurred to me (so I can't claim it really factored into my shift away from reading on shuffle), is that there's a higher chance you're reading the book in the same order as someone else. That is, for all the 324 different orders in which an 18-story collection can be read, the order presented in the book is likely to be the most predominant. If you're going to review a book, discuss a book with someone, or even read someone else's review, you might want to do everything in your power to assure as much common ground as possible. Or not.

For this argument to have any sway, one must concede that the order in which stories are read influences your reading, understanding and enjoyment of said stories and the collection as a whole. I doubt there's any empirical evidence either way (when was the last time the book industry approached anything scientifically?), and even if there was, it would probably conclude: in some cases.

OpportunityThe obvious case where reading in the order specified by the author (and/or their editor/publisher) is a linked collection. I read Charlotte Grimshaw's Opportunity (2007) in order, and I got the feeling that the payoff of some of the connections (e.g. marginal character X from story 2 returns as narrator in story 7) was down to the order. It may well have been the same payoff if things were reversed (narrator of story 2 appeared as a marginal character in story 7), but what about the spacing between the stories? If the character returned in the very next story, that might be too soon. Part of the payoff with those sort of connections is the reader feels a flush of pride in recognising a returning character and being able to bring a little extra information to the table. If the stories are back to back, it doesn't exactly flatter the reader's abilities. And conversely, if the stories are too far apart, it may be too much work to recall who character X was way back at the beginning of the collection.

I won't spoil it for those who haven't read Opportunity, but the final story in the book only really works as the final story. It places a frame around all the preceding stories that gets you questioning what actually happened.

SingularitySo there are definite incentives to reading a linked connection in order. One may look upon these books however as not quite short story collections. Grimshaw herself referred to Opportunity (and even more so it's follow up, Singularity which is in my to-be-read pile) as more of a novel with a huge cast of characters than a short story collection, or what the kids these days are calling a novel-in-stories. Perhaps linking short stories is an attempt by novelists and novel-mad publishers to enforce order on the reader's experience? Perhaps they're missing the point of short story collections? Should every piece be able to exist on its own. Cadbury does not specify the order we must eat Roses chocolates in, though they may well have a theory about which order maximises utility.

But to argue that all orders are created equal ignores the fact that even un-linked story collections have an order imposed upon them by the author (&editor/publisher). Decisions were made. Books were printed and there was no going back.

I now believe, having worked through the process of ordering a short story collection (and seeing two other short story fiends mould their collections during my MA year) that there is something more to be gained by reading a collection in the author's chosen order. It's one of those' the whole is greater than the sum of its parts' ideas. Looking at the order, you could guess that the author thinks certain stories work well together. Or the author thinks the reader should start of with a happy story, or a brief story, or a violent one. The author may not have got the order bang-on for your tastes, but by reading it their way, you might glimpse a bit more of them as a writer.

I was once told by an agent (in the middle of a rejection letter), "I like your brain". This still rates as the best praise I have received in the book world (followed closely by "You're a freak"; my editor at Random House upon learning the year of my birth). While I'm down with the show-don't-tell mantra and would hate for anyone to think I am a chauvinist just because I wrote a story about one, I do think one of the joys of reading short story collections in getting a multi-faceted view of a writer. I feel like I can step back after reading a short story collection and say, "I like this writer's brain."

I felt as if I could say, "I like Owen Marshall's brain," after reading whichever of his collections I read first, and find particular joy in discovering new facets, or old facets expressed better, to this brain in subsequent collections.  Some of this is obviously to do with the stories themselves, the genres they broach, the voices they project.  But some of it comes from from the pairings of like or unlike stories, and the placement of the more memorable (like the brutal 'Coming Home In The Dark' to end the collection of the same name).

In the coming years technology will also factor into how we read short story collections. While the uptake of e-readers is unlikely to be universal, just as not everyone today owns an mp3 player, there'll be a swathe of readers out there who won't have to worry about front and back covers and physical bookmarks. Novels may be better served by a glorified pdf format, but short story collections may suit a web-format where each story is linked from the contents, and at its conclusion you return to the contents page and choose another story. You could even have a shuffle function so that you read stories from different collections and different authors in an order determined by fate (or an Apple algorithm).

I suspect that the further away one steps from reading a collection in its entirety, the greater risk one runs of losing a sense of what makes that book special or worthwhile. Then again, musicians everywhere probably think the same thing about albums, and when was the last time I listened to an album in sequence and uninterrupted? (Actually I'm listening to one now - Jarvis Cocker, Further Complications… trying to decide if I go to his show in December...).

For the time being, most of us will settle for a nice paperback (and paper-inner), but the question remains: what order will you read it in?
For collected editions or anthologies containing more than one author, they often take the easy way out, using chronological or alphabetical orders. Chronological order can be useful in charting the development of a writer (Lorrie Moore's Collected Stories goes backwards, but the intention is similar) or a particular literature (like Essential NZ Short Stories or The Penguin Book of Contemporary NZ Short Stories). Alphabetical works well for reference material which you'll dip in and out of, but in terms of creating a reading experience, it's no better than a random order, so why stick to it? (I think alphabetical order in journals like Sport and anthologies like Best NZ Fiction is just a way of not stepping on people's toes, but I digress.)

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Owen Marshall Month

To celebrate NZ Book Month, the recent launch of Owen Marshall's 13th short story collection*, Living as a Moon, and the fact I purchased it from Unity Books today, I hereby declare October Owen Marshall Month** on this blog.

Tomorrow I will post something general about short story collections, then throughout October I will drip-feed items about most recent Owen Marshall collections I have read, before reviewing Living as a Moon at the end of the month.

Promises, promises.

* I think my maths is right (9 proper stand-alone collections and 4 collections containing stories that appeared in other collections)

**random posts about kiwifruit notwithstanding.