Carnival Sky, by Owen Marshall (Random House: Vintage, 2014), 296 pp., $37.99
Two recent novels I’ve read – Owen Marshall’s Carnival Sky and Javier Marias’s The Infatuations – each explore middle-class neuroses, New Zealand- and Spanish-style respectively. Is this a coincidence, or are more novelists nowadays writing about themselves and their milieu – that is, self-absorbed neurotics – as Marias’s narrator suggests? These two novels uncover two different kinds of neuroses: Marias’s against a backdrop of bourgeois Madrid, and Marshall’s against the suburbs of Alexandra. The warm climates in which the novels are set imbue a kind of sunny bleakness in which the predicament of the main character is at odds with the bright weather.
The central character of Marshall’s latest novel is Sheff Davy, a disillusioned journalist with whom there are obvious similarities to Maurice Gee’s Raymond Sole of Sole Survivor. Fortunately for Sheff there is no Duggie Plumb to serve as a counterpoint. In fact, all the people in Sheff’s life are thoroughly decent people who highlight his unconscious self-pity. To all outward appearances Sheff is a grumpy hypochondriac with introspective tendencies, bearing more than a passing resemblance to another of Gee’s angst-ridden narrators, Jack Skeat of Going West. Like Raymond and Jack, Sheff appears to be constructed as representative of a white middle-class male malaise, but his melancholy comes from personal tragedy rather than the unacknowledged shame and displacement of Gee’s male narrators.
Carnival Sky is a surprisingly absorbing narrative about an ordinary middle-class Pākehā family, in which an impending death brings together the elderly parents and their two middle-aged, childless children, Sheff and Georgie. The reunion becomes a protracted wait for the death of their father, Warwick, and what begins as a painful inconvenience for Sheff turns into an opportunity for self-knowledge, redemption and resolution of an all-consuming grief.
The omniscient narrator’s initial characterisations cleverly give false first impressions: with his selfish thoughts and neuroses, Sheff is portrayed as a post-existentialist Man Alone; his sister is irritatingly self-righteous; and their dying father, through Sheff’s reminiscences, is portrayed as heroic throughout his life and in his inevitable death. Sheff’s thoughts at the end of each chapter direct us to his memories and, like many memories, are touching if somewhat misleading insights into the other characters.
As the story unfolds we are eventually put right about these wrong first impressions. Georgie is brave and loving; Sheff’s self-absorption is the result of an overwhelming loss from which he has no resources – emotional, spiritual or otherwise – to recover; and their dying father is not as virtuous as he seems.
The narrative begins with Sheff’s angry protest about tacky journalism and the descending standards of the press. As a journalist of integrity he rails against the soul-destroying nature of his profession but his soul is already in a poor state of repair, and Sheff lights upon a professional problem to articulate the unspeakable loneliness of his personal life. After his resignation, his ride on a high horse to Alexandra to visit his dying father unexpectedly provides Sheff with the strength to tackle the real problem. The narrative’s impetus – the agonising wait for the death of a terminally ill parent – may sound heavy, but the novel is full of dark humour and slapstick comedy. It would make a rather good TV drama, and if there is one criticism of the narrative style it is that it reads much like an under-edited play, with its detailed (and sometimes mundane) conversations and long list of unnecessary characters who end up playing little or no part.
But back to Sheff. He really is out of sorts with the universe. He is rained on and abused, attacked by an elderly spaniel and suffers a painful collision with a careless skateboarder. He plagues his long-suffering sister, an oncologist, with queries about trifling medical issues. Sheff’s ‘minor misadventures and random indignities’ are reminders of life’s little hassles within the wider tragedy of disease and death, and the world’s indifference to the suffering of others. But while they feed Sheff’s self-pity for a time they are omens warning him to mend his heart and ways, or else.
The story is interspersed with the omniscient narrator’s wisdoms. Following the string of platitudes to which Sheff politely listens at his leaving function, the narrator notes that ‘people tend to encourage daring in others if it has no risk of adverse consequences to themselves’; this will resonate with anyone who has spontaneously chucked in a job they can’t stand. More seriously, the narrator observes that the dying are so attached to the identity of dying by those surrounding them, it is as though their lives as vital individuals cease to exist even while they still live. The penultimate tragedy for the dying person is that he or she becomes severed from this former self while continuing to be a living, breathing human being.
Pain in any form encourages self-absorption, the narrator also suggests, but this is not necessarily a universal condition. The philosophical diversions expressed through Sheff’s consciousness are to be taken with a grain of salt, like those of Marias’s heroine in The Infatuations. But there are also plenty of truths lurking among their neurotic obsessions. In both novels too, the serious content is punctuated by comedic episodes. In the Carnival Sky, for instance, the narrative is regularly intercepted by the bizarre and threatening Pamela Rudge, who intermittently takes centre stage like a bad fairy in a Christmas pantomime.
As you would expect, the reader is treated to Marshall’s typically poetic language: ‘… the rain was a fine drizzle that drifted as pale haloes around the street lights and elsewhere gave fluidity to the darkness’ describes a soft wet Auckland night, in contrast to the brazenness of a Central Otago storm where ‘[d]ark massive clouds tumbled before the sun so that the room dimmed suddenly and then lit up richly, and thunder growled a long way off.’ Marshall’s evocative and exacting phrases are positioned perfectly within the narrative, such as the ‘sad awkwardness’ of carrying Warwick’s body bag up the garden path. The rhythmic phrase ‘the tapping, the lighting, the lifting and lowering’, enhances the simple pleasure of smoking a cigarette, and there is poignant alliteration where the discarded morphine syringe pump is ascribed as ‘father’s final friend’.
From Sheff’s characterisation, it is initially hard to see how he could ever have been the loving husband and father he once was, let alone a responsible and affectionate brother and son. But just as we start to lose sympathy for him he begins to make amends by questioning his motives – particularly those around Jessica, the attractive single mum whom he assumes to be available for sex as well as coffee. His path to redemption is further cleared after his meeting with an old school friend, another disgruntled and obsessive divorced man, in whom Sheff sees himself reflected.
Through his sister’s gentle coaching, Sheff’s emotional intelligence grows. The novel therefore becomes, like many of Gee’s, a manual on how to be a better son, husband and brother. Sheff’s tragedy is that he was permitted to be a father for only a fraction of his life, with his daughter’s death recalibrating his existence from that point onwards, transforming him from a contented husband and father to a cantankerous single man and, with the help of those around him, back to being a loving human being.
While Sheff’s quest for salvation is the central driver, the novel describes a sadly common scenario – the protracted death of a terminally ill parent. As the narrator explains, to witness the long suffering of a loved one is itself a form of torture. Death brings release to the sick person as well as to those caring for him or her. Sheff and Georgie’s decision to end their father’s torment is carried out as much for themselves and their mother as it is for Warwick. When the waiting is finally replaced by grief and loss, the proper order of things is restored.
The family’s lack of spirituality – a feature of post-puritan Pākehā society – adds to the family’s emotional difficulties in the period leading up to Warwick’s death. Georgie’s scientific explanations of their father’s apparitions in which he sees and speaks to his deceased mother is an example. But what she lacks in spirituality, Georgie makes up for in sisterly love as she helps Sheff understand that grief and relief combined are natural and justifiable feelings. Georgie, the sensible doctor, represents the wise and humane side of a non-religious society. But despite the novel’s steadfastly secular vision, religious imagery is used to describe Georgie as a virginal ‘satin-blue sister’ as she administers her father’s coup de grace.
Warwick’s one whimsy, his polished stones in the carnival sky of the novel’s title, also represents that which is inexplicable yet real and true. The stones, resented by Warwick’s wife, symbolise the secret and interior world of an otherwise unimaginative accountant living and working in provincial New Zealand. When Sheff gives the stones to Emma, a sort of de facto daughter, it leads if not to complete redemption then to a better place where Sheff can grieve, and be happy at least some of the time.
Patricia McLean is a freelance writer and editor based in Dunedin: www.waxeyewriting.com