Janet Frame Essay - Frame, Janet (Vol. 6)

Frame, Janet (Vol. 6)

Frame, Janet 1924–

Janet Frame is a New Zealand novelist, short story writer, and poet now living in England. After years of intermittent mental care and hospitalization, she was at last able to confront directly her great need to be "an apprentice to solitude and silence," to pursue salvation by "making designs from my dreams." Her first novel, Owls Do Cry was considered the first important novel by a New Zealander; this work and her subsequent fiction has secured for her an important place in contemporary letters. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

Janet Frame is one of those dogged, intense people who write the same novel again and again. Its skeleton pokes through more insistently each time, its features decay and flow into each other, but it remains obstinately recognizable. The characters are always people who by some quirk of destiny, some significant crack they discern in the fabric of reality, become what Miss Frame calls "students of death". In The Rainbirds (1968) she produced a joky fable about this: its hero, a travel agent's clerk, "dies" in an accident, but wakes up in the mortuary; when he tries to take his place among the living again, he finds they have closed their ranks against him—no one wants to book holidays with a man who has been on that trip. After such knowledge, the characters cannot believe in the creaking contrivances that hold reality together; they view things from an indefinite distance, from "the other side", and all the highlights are black, all the right-handed tools impossible to use.

Daughter Buffalo makes New York the setting where the paths of her characters (reduced now to two) meet and cross over one summer; but New York is as flat to them as the nightmare painting called "Noon"—a rigid sea, a shadowless beach, faceless people—in which they also meet and find themselves reflected. The buffalo they see in Central Park Zoo one day ends up sporting on that painted shore too, safely preserved in the sanctuary of fiction. Any boundary between metaphor and event has lapsed; clearly it is the metaphor which interests Miss Frame, and she pursues it from book to book….

Narrative is transposed into imagery [that is neither] concrete [nor] sensuous, but hard and two-dimensional, the imagery of the mirror. Miss Frame's characters cannot see reality in three dimensions: for them it is something conserved in parks, in mortuary ice-boxes, in museums, paintings, poems. Their vision disintegrates all it touches, breaking down the stuff of experience into its final fragments, the dead dogs and the dead rhetorics.

Daughter Buffalo is a personal, obsessive book, yet its powers and weaknesses are not at all unique. With Miss Frame's earlier novels it belongs in the current genre of the ghostly picaresque, like Julian Mitchell's The Undiscovered Country, for example, or Joyce Carol Oates's Wonderland. In novels like these the characters can truly be described as the un-dead: not the roistering ghouls of the traditional Gothic, but the true book-worms of literary death. Self-consciousness, their myopic awareness of their own medium, is what has cut these writers off from the land of the living. The influences behind them are predictable—Wallace Stevens, Borges, Nabokov—but the quality of the self-awareness has changed. The mood is no longer one of delighted self-discovery; it sounds more like painful duty, the dreadful burden of being so knowing, of having to write left-handed. The novelists would justify their deadness as a metaphor for the state we are all in: rigidity has seized on the materials of fiction a little sooner, that is all. Miss Frame in Daughter Buffalo is claiming that her verbal wasteland of wry pastiche reflects the outer world where it gets harder and harder to dispose of the garbage of the past. "It is not the birth explosion", says one of her characters, "but the death explosion which threatens to bankrupt man of all that makes him human." In theory the novelist glimpses what is left of the secret of life by anatomizing the corpse of fiction; in practice, though, one suspects that all these novels of remembering and dismembering are only marking time.

"With the Left Hand," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1973; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), January 26, 1973, p. 85.

Close to exhibitionism,… Janet Frame's Intensive Care is a tangle of prose, verse, ballad, imaginary letters, and an enormous leap in the end to something like lyric allegory. That frenzy of technique, aimed perhaps at simultaneous scope and penetration, is mainly, I think, obstructive since the narrative achieves those effects unaided—which is not to say effects of clarity, for its prose is a crafty transaction between fact and fantasy. (p. 740)

This novel is bewildering yet powerful, an experience in which it cannot be determined how many layers of dream one has descended into, in which the characters dreaming seem themselves to be dreamed, as though all were the fevered conjurings of a patient in one of the novel's "Recovery Units." We are adrift within something like a racial consciousness, at once individual and multiple …, in which hope springs eternal and is eternally mocked….

Despite its whirling cogs and gears—and the final section especially is merely that, a machine without traction, slipping in the sands of ingenuity—Intensive Care brings us compellingly into that special form of perception, the stricken sensibility of age, where consciousness slips toward ruin like the body, haunted by a time of youth that never was, pursuing it in dreams, the sharp bite of experience only a lingering confusion in the nerves. (p. 741)

Arthur Edelstein, in The Southern Review (copyright, 1973, by the Louisiana State University), Vol. IX, No. 3, Summer, 1973.

Since her debut in 1960 with Owls Do Cry, Janet Frame … has published eight novels, two volumes of short stories and a book of poems. But for all her good, substantial work, she is rarely reviewed, and when reviewed she remains the perennially "interesting" writer. Critics have offered no higher praise because Frame has never written a "totally successful novel." She may never produce the fabled perfect work. She is not that kind of artist; and to have received her works with such expectations has been unjust.

Frame's output is tightly unified. Owls Do Cry, like Faulkner's Flags in the Dust, contains the seeds for all her later work….

Madness [in Owls Do Cry] is a prize, hard won and to be cherished. Daphne's tragedy is that she is cured. She returns home to work in the woolen mills, and it is like death.

For all the novel's beauty, Owls presents Frame's weaknesses as well. She never quite reconciles her poetic philosophizing with the naturalistic detail that fills the novel. Her prose is flowery when facts are needed. But at times the metaphors link with reality in startling ways….

Janet Frame is best when simplest. The whole of her second novel, Faces in the Water, perhaps her best known work, reads like Daphne's portion of Owls. The setting is an asylum and the subject is again madness. The conflict between the real and the imaginary is evident…. Frame's finest achievement is the stinging wit she brings to institutional routine. As the patient realizes, "… orders are to be obeyed and floors are to be polished without anyone protesting and faces are to be fixed into smiles and weeping is a crime."

But madness is never discarded. It makes one question basic concepts. Language proves false, and the mad wisely learn a different tongue. This idea arises in The Edge of the Alphabet and is reworked in Scented Gardens for the Blind. The edge of the alphabet is "where words crumble and all forms of communication between the living are useless." Madness is here a figurative death, and the madman is the other, a seer. Not just a diagnosible illness, madness is a "natural" phenomenon that, like truth, can appear at any moment. (p. 21)

Daughter Buffalo has no true ending. There could be no logical one for such a book. But the work's success does not simply depend on its own individual accomplishments. Janet Frame's novels have never been self-contained units. They are like separate colors in a larger pattern. More than just an interesting novelist, Janet Frame is a complex, challenging artist whose overall achievement may soon be justly praised. (p. 22)

Robert Leiter, "Reconsideration," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1975 by The New Republic, Inc.), May 31, 1975, pp. 21-2.