Janet Frame Frame, Janet (Vol. 6)

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Frame, Janet (Vol. 6)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1,412 words.)