The Lynx Hunter and other stories by Owen Marshall
John McIndoe, 1987 171pp
Reviewed by Ronda Cooper
"One's real life is often the life
that one does not lead."
Reading an epigraph as a definition or illumination of the work to follow can be dangerously reductive. However, the Wilde quote which prefaces The Lynx Hunter, Owen Marshall's fourth collection of short stories, does offer useful insights. It suggests a perspective centring on alternatives and compromises, regrets and impossibilities, decisions and wonderful dreams. It warns the reader to be sensitive to dualities and ambiguities in a character, and to be aware of tensions or even outright conflicts between different priorities, different necessities in the stories' situations. It echoes rather eerily Marshall's own circumstances, dividing his time and energies between two careers.
The difference between the life being led and the 'real' life of intensity and importance is drawn with delicacy and poignancy in a number of stories. 'Trumpeters' shows the anguish of a man alienated from the land his family have worked and lived on for generations. His new life in town, while outwardly successful, lacks meaning compared to his life on the farm: 'Neil joined Lions, and had his photo in the paper several times with a salmon on opening day.' In 'Foreign Service', memories of clean, crisp South Island scenes overwhelm a minor diplomat trapped in an unglamorous tropical posting: "Dainty sweat flies gathered at his neck and he could hear the cries of fruit bats, like badly played violins. Cockroaches appeared as if in answer on the boards..."
Equally miserable, equally seedy, is the sad round of a small-town vicar in 'The Republic in Decline'. Dealing with the pain and ugliness of domestic violence, or the pretensions of suburbia, the Rev. Willis maintains a complex private life in the intricacies of early Roman history. 'A Poet's Dream of Amazons' presents the wheezing, sweaty Esler, terminally ill and living in shabbiness in the former laundry of his parents' house, but animated by dubious erotic visions and by his passion for literature.
The gulf between the valuable, sustaining things and the inadequacies of the life being led can also manifest itself in the difference between present and past. 'Essie' details a meeting with a former lover, building up an unbearable atmosphere of what might have been. 'Babes and Brothers in Arms' takes place at a reunion, showing more destructive resurrections of the past, with an eroding marriage set against the wife's memories of a previous relationship:' "Do you know... why you're booked in at the hotel? ... She came with Garrick Hall when they were engaged..."'
The husband in this story retreats into a 'mild and non-committal' role to try to avoid unpleasantness. But his deliberate evasiveness leads to the deeper distancing ('He felt his Interest and his thoughts slide away, despite his virtuous intentions. He felt isolation, as if passing into shadow') experienced by many of Marshall's characters. The gaps between people are evident In the gaps between what they say to each other. For Marshall, conversation is as often a means of maintaining distances and differences as of communicating. Sometimes such dislocation can be comical, as in 'The Frozen Continents': "As we worked I explained to Beavis the Celtic influence In modern poetry, and he told me of the bush fires in south-east Australia, and the earthquake, six on the Richter scale, which killed at least 20 people in India's Assam state."
But more often Marshall's purpose is to develop the darker sides of such alienation. 'Mumsie and Zip', for example, one of the most tautly chilling stories l have ever read, explores the no-man's-land of habitual non-communication. There is conversation in this marriage, but its purpose is deflection, procrastination, self-protection-the 'real life' here is a subtext of frustration and despair only marginally contained by Mumsie's continual inanities and Zip's cynical acquiescence.
Marshall includes a tell-tale indication of the fragility of the status quo. "Mumsie noticed how the pupils of his eyes jittered the way they often did, although his face was flat and still... his black eye spots continued to jiggle, and the focus wasn't quite right..." Zip's nervy inability to focus marks the point where alienation edges into nightmare. Marshall's sensitivity to things which are 'not quite right' leads to various considerations of such borderlines and the people who have crossed over them. The dying poet Esler, Beavis grimly quoting disaster statistics, the seductive heroine of 'The Castle of Conceits', or 'Wyldebaume at the Frontier' struggling with the unravelling threads of his story's narrative all have lost touch with the tangible, normal realities around them, lost control of the lives they are leading, inhabiting instead the more extravagant realms of the imagination. For 'The Visualiser' and the protagonist of the title story, such dual levels of existence can come to threaten life itself, as hallucination clashes, irresistibly and corrosively, with the ordinary world: "The broom and gorse to Cedric's left wilted and became the tightly clustered, purple coils of the vegetation of the second galaxy. And the line of the morning sun on the slopes to the west of the river faltered as he heard the dry rustle of the space wind."
The demands and pressures of conventional reality-the need to make one's life 'commensurate with humdrum expectation'-constitute an unavoidable imperative for many of Marshall's characters.
But he also proves the equally powerful urgencies of the alternate realities just beneath the surface. His characters' other lives may sustain them and provide necessary romance- drab Mumsie dreams of starring in 'This Is Your Life', an aspiring author in the magnificently ironic 'Joining the Ishmaelites' dreams of becoming another Jack Kerouac. More often though, leading another kind of life is a scary, risky business-reliably ordinary things can become unnervingly precarious:
"So he comes... diminished only by perspective, drifting through vibrations of mirage. Convections well away; the ripple patterns of decaying vision which are harbingers, and presumed reality twists and floats..."
This sort of surrealism and the concentration on bizarre, ambiguous and painfully alienated characters may appear to be something of a departure from Marshall's earlier stories. However there are precedents and connections with the other books-'Mr Van Gogh', Raf In 'Cabernet Sauvignon with my Brother', 'The Takahe Man', or the dual protagonists of 'The Guppy Breeder's Flag' are perhaps the most immediately obvious. And there is the same scrupulous crafting and technique as previously. Marshall always achieves total credibility, even when his material evolves into the exotic and the extraordinary. His attention to detail is important here-seeming trivia such as the paths worn in the kitchen lino by Mumsie's feet, or the way Zip squats to tie the cover over the car (i.e. they can't afford a garage), can convey an impressive amount of information, sharply, cleanly, yet unobtrusively. The dialogue is always convincing; the narrators interesting and believable. Authorial judgements or explanatory intrusions are extremely rare. Such consistent skill- quite apart from the disturbingly powerful characters and scenarios In the stories-makes Owen Marshall a writer to be followed very closely.