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.]

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