Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Short-a-Day: Owen Marshall's "The Frozen Continents"

Originally published in A Public Space, No. 4, 2007. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 1.

[Part of the FOCUS: Antarctica series.]

I found it an odd sensation at first; standing waist deep in Antarctica as we dismantled it. I pointed out to Beavis the clear symbolism relating to man's despoilation of the last natural continent and so on. Beavis in reply told me that fourteen people were killed in a stampede when a fire broke out during a wedding ceremony at Unye in the Turkish province of Ordu.

A pure concept of a story, Marshall quickly establishes the situation -- our narrator has been put on a PEP (unemployment work-relief program of the 1970s and 80s in New Zealand) that involves working with fellow PEP-er Beavis to dismantle a series of panoramas in a local museum. Over the course of this day, the protagonist fantasizes about a girl with "seductive earlobes and dark, close curls" and Beavis continues to reply to any sort of comment with a listing of natural disasters and accidental deaths: "'More than one hundred people drowned when a boat capsized in midstream on the Kirtonkhola River near the town of Barisal in Bangladesh,' said Beavis." None of this really amounts to much; Marshall just enjoys the poetic sentiment of our two workers setting fire to some of the plywood ocean bits in order to warm up. The very ending overreaches, too: "How should they know that the frozen continent was to be found right here in the midst of our city after all," he writes, an untethered conclusion that, at best, works on our own sense of modern anonymity and isolation to resolve itself.

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