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Sport 3: Spring 1989

Vincent O'Sullivan — The Naming of Parts — Owen Marshall and the Short Story

page 67

Vincent O'Sullivan

The Naming of Parts
Owen Marshall and the Short Story

For all its apparent variety, a great deal of recent literary theory concerns itself with what is really a problem philosophers have taken seriously, and yet not been fazed by, for centuries. What does it mean to name something? How close, or far apart, are my spoken or written words from what they speak or write of?

Richard Rorty, the contemporary American philosopher, has remarked on something of the old-hat nature of much critical theory in pointing out that it is only litterateurs who still think epistemology is classy. He is implying of course that philosophers, the real professionals, are not so naively chuffed by the question's difficulty as literary people so often seem to be. The problems of relating any text to 'out there' are large ones. But they are not so constraining as some academics insist, nor is the choice between theoretical and 'innocent' readings as clear cut as we are sometimes told. (I am not making too much for the moment — dog after all doesn't eat dog — of that contingent and diverting question as to how much energy currently expended in English Departments on this question may be a simple enough bid for power, a quasi-political question of who most controls the text, and the consequent elevation of the academic per se? The claims from within academe that we are in the golden age of critical discriminations, that the important 'writing' towards the end of the twentieth century is its theory, are remarkably seductive lines to murmur as one moves the collapsed referents of the text towards self-aggrandising mirrors. But it does nothing for clarity to gloss over the career structure that may be involved. Hence a point of mild wonder, when theorist Ronald Sukenick declares, 'Reality doesn't exist, time doesn't exist, personality doesn't exist. . . in view of these annihilations it will be no surprise that literature also doesn't exist — how could it?' [Quoted TLS, 16 January 1987, p.65.] Since all discourse is inescapably text, one may wonder why this thorough-going scepticism should stop short, why naive readings are so utterly preferred when page 68the signifiers happen to be, say, tenure, promotion, salary cheque?)

There is still however a certain kind of writer whose practice disputes these theoretical assumptions. Most of the larger names in English fiction, in fact. These are the. writers who for various reasons believe that writing is not only an inextricably social act, but who neither expect nor want text to cut its moorings from experience, to become so enfolded that its only points of contact are with other points of itself. The choice of course is not between theory and its denial, let alone between the excitements of sophistication and a flat bid for literalness. (To write fiction is at least as complex an activity as writing about reading it. Or am I naive in assuming that?) The question for most fiction writers I expect is how 'worldly' they intend those fictions to be, in the sense that Edward Said takes up when he writes how
Texts have ways of existing, both theoretical and practical, that even in their rarefied form are always enmeshed in circumstances, time, place and society — in short they are in the world, hence are worldly. ['The Text, the World, the Critic', in Textual Strategies, edited Josue V. Harari, 1979, p.165.]
Most fiction, I suppose, might be moved to the right or the left along I. a line with 'worldly' dominant at one side, and 'fictive play' at the other. Few works are simply one or the other, nor is the choice between Zola, say, and Calvino. But it is obvious that in a New Zealand depiction of that line, Owen Marshall would be placed where sociopolitical configurations are of great importance, where notions of consistency and what Henry James called 'density of specification' are consequently attended to, and at the other extreme one would find Gregory O'Brien's or Bill Manhire's recent short fictions pushing hard against the margin of the rarefied ludic. For whatever theory we might bring with us in reading Marshall, there's not much likelihood that we will judge 'the people' of his stories so differently from how we judge and respond to ordinary quotidian encounters. For all the textual patterning, a figure like Lady Macbeth makes us feel and think as we do in reading her because 'in real life', as we say, we would feel like that should we meet someone similar. That line of approach is as old as Aristotle. Yet it misrepresents such notions of 'realism' to say the world of the text claims exactly to reproduce on a one to one equivalence. It is far less troublesome semantically to regard realist fiction as what some would call a cognitive model, as a way of saying that what is going on here, within the text, tells you something about apprehending page 69what goes on there, where you are too. In other words, a text — apart from much else — is a way of making sense, a model of intelligibility that can only be coarsened by labelling it reductively as mere 'reflection' or 'imitation'. Although it's patent enough that stories of any kind must have an element of that as well, or that operative word fiction (i.e. not actually real) would mean very little indeed.

The short story genre has another and distinctive cliche to contend with in that supposed 'fragment of life' which is quaintly or artfully turned to clinch an apercu. If that indeed were its primary value, then the novel with its more ample depictions, its time for expanding a similar situation to greater depth, would tend to make the short story small fry indeed. It's usually the opportunity of that 'fragment' being manipulated for moral rather than mere story-line effects that hold us, and 'moral' in that sense of worldly implication — the crossing, meeting, opposition of those various currents society sets up in particular instances. Because of its imposed brevity, that situation is likely to have a banality about it that Henry James thought intrinsic to the form — intrinsic and yet appealing in the demands it makes on art and simplicity. The 'privileged moment', the Mansfieldian 'glimpse', or however we want to phrase it, may primarily be a matter not of temporal intensity so much as iconic simplicity, a demonstration that something both pure and clarifying can be said about events which are always more complex than that moment actually reveals. As John Bayley makes so much of in his recent The Short Story: Henry James to Elizabeth Bowen, this is a genre where as much say as with a two dimensional perspective, the reader completes what the form necessarily gives us piecemeal.


There is a story in Owen Marshall's first collection called' A Southland Girl'. It is a story that does to begin with what every Marshall story does. It sets its place, its language, with a precision that is so convincing one can a little too easily overlook what a good writer it takes to do so seemingly casual a thing. The story's events are also ordinary enough. A stock agent in his thirties meets a young music student of considerable promise, and begins to fall in love. The girl's parents think the man an intrusion on her career, an element she is better off without. In that well-rehearsed country of New Zealand fiction, the narrow-minded set their sights on the imaginative, and the parents page 70warn the man 'to stop messing round with her'. Then there is a sentence towards the end of the story that pulls up the reader as precocious, as not quite coming off. While the couple lie together after making love, 'the glowing element caught the lines of his face in a pattern, in a moko almost, of resignation'. It's an unsettling image because its suddenness seems awkward and inappropriate, a nudge to remind one, is it, that this is a story by a New Zealand writer? Its point in fact is delayed. A few paragraphs later, only two sentences from the end, the girl says to the man who has told her how he dislikes the sea, 'I always thought you people loved the ocean. Vikings of the sunrise and all that.' Only then do we know the lover is a Maori, that the parents are racist, that so much in the narrative has to be reassessed because one defining word has been held over until the end. The narrative turns on itself, so that the story we have just read is not at all the story we have just read. And when in the last direct speech of the text the man says, 'Someday I'll tell you what the sea really is', we necessarily draw towards it a paragraph from a little earlier that had spelled out the seaward view across the peninsular. 'On the surface it was a reassuring sight, sheep and fences, earth and sky, all in their places; even the turnips the right side up, the leaves with their veins exposed to the wind. But Tinley had lost his boyhood trust in the benevolence of nature, and saw rather an isolating preoccupation with its own rotation of growth and decay.'

I'm reminded there of how close that perception comes to Keats's verse epistle to John Hamilton Reynolds, his moving along similar lines as he looks from a cliff-top onto the ocean, his mind suddenly alert to the voracious indifference of nature, his realising how this is incompatible with his delight in the natural world, and so the grim admission, 'But I saw too distinct into the core'.

The implication from Marshall's equivalent of that spreads, as did Keats himself, to our need to call things by the words that accurately define them as they operate in experience — realism you might say that the oppressed or the clear-eyed know about, and that the oppressor, the obtuse, can sentimentally cloud with the shifting loquacity of excuses. For that is what the sea in this story means, a concealing wash against seeing things as they are — like that almost coy phrase, 'Vikings of the sunrise'; like the awkwardness of the word 'moko' when its context has been denied; like a story whose defining word is concealed by the evasions the narrative moves in. But as the motorcycle at the end sweeps up the summit road, the girl and her page 71lover decided and free, the man sees 'the bulk of the land rise up before them.' The land which on his terms must represent all that the sea is not, a guarantor of possession and fixity, the proven lineaments of his own world. It is a marvellously subtle story, one that makes a great deal of fiction about Maori and Pakeha. read as simplistic and gauche.

Something technically similar is there in most Owen Marshall stories. For example there is both a finely detailed and yet finally unspoken theory of otherness that directs 'The Master of Big Jingles', that story of the crude semantic exchanges which are more compelling than friendship when loyalties change at adolescence. Or in the very brief 'Meeting Lucky Wally'. The few early defining details about a rather drab shopkeeper are repeated at the story's close: 'Wally had seven metal buttons on his cardigan, a hapsburg jaw, and was lucky at the races.' But these, as we know by then, are merely what describe him. What defines him, what gives him his moral and his social stance, derives from that incident where his wife has sex with his friend at the back of the shop, observed fleetingly by the narrator who reiterates those buttons, the jaw, the luck with horses. Everything, in that sense in which a short story's network of signals is so complete because so inevitably scaled, everything depends on the furtive act that Wally mayor may not be cognisant of, but either way is similarly confirmed by. Marshall's severity is that he does this kind of thing continually, and to the point of discomfort. And it isn't the severity of the judge but of the utterly clear observer, which of course is a far cooler thing than judgment, if only because so much less is expected of it.

Take another example. There is a story in The Lynx Hunter called 'Mumsie and Zip' that seems to me one of the finest New Zealand short stories, a narrative of sexual meanness and female subjection that makes even Sargeson's gender exchanges comparatively thin. There may not be the theatricality here to suggest Flannery O'Connor's flamboyantly grotesque moral monsters, yet the effect is not so dissimilar. 'What a world' Zip says, the purveyor of violence in that no-man's-land where intention and actual event coalesce under the hanging illumination of verbal threat. One reads this story and is reminded of Jung's observing somewhere in his autobiography that the bank teller who enjoys bringing down his window as you come in just before closing time is potentially the killer guard at Auschwitz. Marshall's stories I think often operate within that moment, in finding the place and the phrase that most reveals by what does not occur, page 72that draws out the subtle fact that we are seldom revealed by total acts, and that — as Chekhov of course clicked to a hundred years ago — personality can be defined by a discarded thought, an aside, a nudge at the right time. Which is why Marshall is so masterly at marriages, at relationships about to dissolve, at those evasive moments when power is asserted or ascendancy lost, and why his many stories about teaching and schoolrooms might very well be shelved under 'Horror'. One feels in reading this extraordinary diversity of situations and human unease that his dominating interest is in how to suggest most economically the shape of a life, to find an occasion which is also an image — how do we read others so that the weighting of perhaps a single act is not a falsification? A too simple thing? The answer is that we probably can't, yet all fictions proceed on the supposition that we can. Which is where literary theory's concern with verification, with verbal slippage and with the unrealisable ideal of a text that is totally free of the referential, is to some degree to reformulate, to bring under a different and more exclusive terminology, what most decent writers have enacted in their fictions anyway. For an artistic decision is at some point both a pragmatic and a philosophical one as well. As Owen Marshall says of events as they occur, and as we then recall them,
There is no way of knowing what is being chosen to represent our lives in later years. We expect to remember this and that; instead strange, random things are put before us with a clarity the conscious mind cannot deny. ('Two Causes')
or of the problematics of characters in 'A Test of Time':
The surface of their life was glossy and unremarkable, and even Ormond, neighbour as boy and man, had only hints and muted signals over many years that he had been thankful to disregard one by one.
Or in Marshall's last collection, the epigraph from Wilde, still the sharpest and least acknowledged of English theoreticians: 'One's real life is often the life one does not lead.' At least for the writer, semantics is not finally a question of degree of equivalence, the relationship of the sign to the signified, because he must assume that is more or less in hand or he would hardly begin to write. His interest rather is in the fluctuations, the variable charge that the sign carries on this occasion or that — a matter of force rather than coincidence, which critical discourse is far less anxious to instruct us on. For narrative on the move is always a current, a much trickier matter page 73to talk about than some kind of mirror analogy. That is why the epiphanic flash, the vigorously communicative 'illumination', takes one only a limited distance in talking about the short story. The point of that 'moment' is dependent on what just as deliberately doesn't seem illuminated around it. The life of the schoolmaster for example in 'The Beginning of an Old Man', so drably fixed before the vivid and ugly coupling with his landlady shows us quite how drab; or the memorial on the Otago skyline that the old shepherd begins in 'Monument', which of course can only be truly monumental when he is not there to be aware of it; or a parent's life in 'The Seed Merchant', so neatly explained yet largely missed by that dismissive nickname used by a father's mistress's sometime lover. In other words, the defining instant, the romantic 'spot of time' that pushed modern short fiction towards the lyric, Marshall too lays claim to. But what he usually wants it to show us is the absence of romance, a brief and admittedly partial focusing that does not necessarily teach us anything beyond the fact that certain things exist and are endured. To take again 'The Beginnings of an Old Man'. After perhaps the least erotic screw in New Zealand literature, the aging schoolmaster knows 'he had ceased to puzzle over the random incidents which had made up his experience and was secure in his small philosophy that reality is a mirror image, sharp and detailed, but allowing nothing to be read.'

There's an implied critique there at which one might begin or end in talking of realism as a narrative mode. A place to end, if one wanted to persist with that rather silly notion that because part of realism's procedure is to pack the recognisable, then there is little room for more than that to occur. Or a place to begin, should one regard realism primarily as a stylistic choice rather than an epistemological mode, so that talk of mere reflection is rather beside the point.


I mentioned the iconic as one defining mark of 'realist' fiction. Another is the assumption that a design however fabricated can extend to a world where parallels are not meant to be exact, but where the force of experience is accepted as a relevant and continuing field of reference. Faulkner's famously repetitive 'and' of course can be read as a great novelist's reluctance to accept that any narrative is ever complete, realist or not. Yet each 'and' partakes of a kind of faith that this time he is closer to what he intends, closer to that penetration of page 74time by language in the make-believe that because one is so ostensibly controlled, then the other too is somehow mastered. There is a Marshall story called 'Valley Day' where this occurs with what one might call text-book clarity. The commanding images in the story are run together as a coda, a raft of re-emergence, an hallooing of names which are now invocatives as well, figures in an equation that the story has tested and now revives as something else.
A column of one-armed Lascelles was moving back up the valley from the war, each with a poem in his hand, and the accordion played Rock of Ages as they marched. Mr Jenkins deftly knifed a wild pig, all the while with a benevolent smile, and in his torrent voice Mr Oliphant Called Home a weeping Ashley: deep eyes and woollen jersey. A host of pine owls, jersey green and brown, spread their wings at last, while old Mrs Patchett escaped again and accused her kin of starvation as she sought an earlier home. Behind and beyond the sway of the accordion's music, and growing louder, was the sound of the grand, poppy-red bull continuing with his head down from the top of the valley towards them all.
With the possibility of numerous variations, that represents the Marshall story at its best.

When Marshall defines himself as on occasion he does in interviews as intractably Kiwi, heterosexual, middle class, Pakeha, South Islander, a writer who values character now as he once did cleverness and beauty, and whose stories regularly confirm those allegiances, it is possible to take any of those as drawing him to the tried and the vigorously defined, rather than to the experimental or the free-wheeling. What, one might ask, of post-modernism's plurality, its elusive signifiers, its self-referential shadow-play? Well, as a matter of fact they are there all right, and in stories like 'The Divided World', 'The Lynx Hunter', 'Wyldebourne at the Frontier', or 'The Visualiser', are there with impressive ease. Yet good as they are, these stories remain his second-string achievement. It is in what begins in the mains team New Zealand tradition, I suppose, of a fiction that is deliberately and recognisably cognisant of the writer's own assured world, that his range and his fineness lie. That is where he constantly tests and breaks expectation, where he drives the form and its possibilities further perhaps than any other New Zealander apart from the three it is necessary to think of if one wants to place him correctly. With Sargeson, Duggan, Frame.