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.

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