Living in the Maniototo

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

The first and most obvious question about this tenth novel by New Zealand writer Janet Frame is, what is the Maniototo and what has it to do with the present story? The book purports to answer the question in an epigraph which identifies the Maniototo as a New Zealand plain featuringunforgettable landscapes composed of severe lines and blocks and planes; their stark geometry uninterrupted . . . an extensive surface from which most of the cover has been stripped to reveal the schist and old greywacke undermass . . . the Maniototo plain . . . mania, a plain: toto, bloody.

The narrator of the book needlessly reminds the reader that most people, even native New Zealanders, are unacquainted with the terrain. In fact, the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, from which the epigraph is derived, has only one brief mention of the terrain. One suspects from the start that living in the Maniototo is used as a metaphor, for none of the characters of the book have anything to do with it.

The only person who has lived in the Maniototo mentioned in the book is a “little-known novelist” who achieved notoriety only after his death, and the main thrust of his renown was not that he was a writer of import, but that he lived contentedly and produced literary works while living all his life in the Maniototo. The narrator of the present book muses on the locale: “didn’t it mean a plain of blood after the battles fought there? But wasn’t it also a place where patients went to be cured of their sicknesses?” After reading the novel, one suspects that the point of the title is the “surface from which most of the cover has been stripped to reveal the schist and old greywacke undermass,” and that this refers to the inner life of the individual; it is a metaphorical skin peeled away and something with which the narrator is also most absorbed.

Early in the book the narrator presents a riddle: “The sun has burned me. I bleed. I break and mend. I knit. I am a garment, a prison. I protect flower and seed. I shrink and stretch, yet I always fit. I’m a prison you must stay in. What am I? I am your skin.” Later, speaking of a poet, she says he was wearing his skin inside out and that he must have been in pain from the exposure of his inner self to the elements. Of another, she says that after writing a novel he has become a shell, that “his old skin is peeling away.” The Maniototo thus becomes a metaphor for the writer’s task of exposing the inner workings and past lives of people just as the Maniototo plain itself exposes the various strata of the glacial past. The writer’s craft is ultimately the real subject matter of this strange, eerie tale.

The action of the novel begins with the twice-widowed New Zealand author, Mavis Halleton, being offered a California home to occupy while its occupants vacation in Italy. She accepts the offer and prefaces the tale of her experiences by recounting her past life. Her first husband, Lewis Barnwell, was a drain-layer. She lived with him for twenty years and had two children who have grown and made lives of their own. Her relationship with Lewis is described as “plodding”; their conversations are called “’utility’ conversations—pass me, fetch me, did you hear, have you read, have you seen; as if we were passing in the street.” Her life with Lewis, having occurred long before the action of the book, is simply related and dismissed. In similar fashion, her children are briefly named and subsequently ignored as if they have little relevance to her present life.

More detail is devoted to her second husband, although that part of her life is also unrelated to the main action of the book. She speaks at length of her marriage to Lance Halleton, who was a French teacher who quit his job to become obsessed with his new occupation of debt collector. Lance goes through a midlife crisis which the author compares to his being upon a bare plain blown by whatever winds pass by, another allusion to the central metaphor of the book. When he finally catches up with the debtor who has occupied most of his interest, the purpose seems to go from his life, and six months later he dies at the age of fifty.

The book’s real action begins with the heroine visiting an old friend who had been a student mate of her first husband. Brian Wilford is one of the many New Zealanders who ultimately end up living in the United States, his present home being in Baltimore. One is never sure what really happens and what is imaginary in this novel. In the busy, crime-ridden, deteriorating section of Baltimore in which Brian lives, the author hears or imagines she hears wolves howling, an occurrence she relates to Edgar Allan Poe’s Baltimore residence and to one of his short stories. She and Brian visit a craftsman who has a fear born of a detergent commercial from television. He fears the commercial’s “Blue Fury,” an obvious reference to an actual commercial featuring a white tornado. As they leave his apartment, he is attacked by the Blue Fury, and he disappears into thin air; or does he? Brian says, “Things like that don’t happen,” and they agree not to tell anyone about it. Subsequent telephone calls reveal that the friend no longer lives there.

Another episode deals with Brian’s cleaning woman, a black woman named Mrs. Tyndale who is taken in by a religious con man named Brother Coleman who offers miracles for five dollars a month in what he calls “God’s Diamond Plan.” The promised miracle does not occur, and Mrs. Tyndale has a stroke and dies nursing a shopping bag. Although the satire of these incidents is obvious, what they have to do with the rest of the plot is a mystery.

One other Baltimore episode which leads nowhere is the visit of Brian’s nephew Lonnie from New Zealand. After being invited for the weekend by Brian’s secretary, Lonnie steals their silver collection and is reprimanded by Brian. The author comments on Brian’s acting like a Victorian father: “I used to wonder how people survived their childhood. I know now that few survive it at all.” Again, the obvious point is made, but the relevance is more to the author’s ideas on reality and the novelist’s trade.

The next section of the book gets down to the main plot dealing with Mavis going to Berkeley, California, to live in the home of Irving and Trinity Garrett, a retired...

(The entire section is 2609 words.)