Trapped in the looking‑glass, Tessa Barringer

Janet Frame: Subversive Fictions
Gina Mercer
University of Otago Press, $29.95

In her discussion of Janet Frame’s tenth novel, Living in the Maniototo, Australian critic Gina Mercer suggests that “Frame sets up a fun parlour in which mirrors distort the reader’s expectations and it is the reflected expectations which actually trap the reader” (p211), This wonderfully apt metaphor provides not only a useful strategy for reading Janet Frame, but also for reading her critics. The gaps and ambiguities, the moments of contradiction and paradox which abound in all of Frame’s texts form just such reflective surfaces onto/ into which we project our own meanings and which in turn reflect back on us the particular ideological position that informs their construction.

It is this sense of displacement and dislocation which, I am sure, is responsible for the great diversity of response to her work. Her texts refuse to allow even the most resistant reader to remain unaltered by their reading, bewildered, confused or enlightened, we are all somehow disturbed and unsettled in our ways of seeing and being. For the willing reader, encountering these gaps and ambiguities signals the start of a journey that is both the challenge and reward of reading Frame; as we attempt to negotiate the cracks and crevices of her complex and unpredictable texts, we find, not the ever‑elusive Janet Frame (though some critics are relentless in their pursuit of her), but ourselves, our own frame (of reference), as Mercer suggests, reflected back in and by our reading of the text. It is as though the ideological and conceptual structures with which we view and make sense of the world have been exhumed from our subconscious and “made strange” so that we are compelled to re‑examine them and their foundations.

Mercer’s reading of Frame, as is suggested by its title, Subversive Fictions, focuses on this capacity to disturb and disrupt such settled, often unquestioned, patterns of thought and the binary oppositions that lie behind them. Mercer finds Frame to be writing always from a position of “otherness” in relation to these ideological structures, and her texts are here described as simultaneously celebrating and lamenting all the richness that is destroyed or denied through the “systemic oppression” of such “otherness”. Mercer associates this richness with the creative, plural and disruptive potential of a force which the French feminists describe as “le féminin”; this is not, Mercer hastens to assure us, “an essentialist term, nor exclusively related to women, rather it refers to a force which has always been excluded from the patriarchal order … and which is therefore capable of disrupting that order” (p1). In recognising the link between the disruptive capacity of Frame’s narratives and her use of subversive narrative and textual strategies, Mercer opens the way for a much needed exploration of Frame’s radical approaches to form and language. However, though Frame’s subversive textuality is referred to frequently by Mercer, such references are often not fully developed as her focus tends to privilege a more overtly politicised reading.

The tension within Mercer’s argument is present from the opening paragraphs of her introduction where her assertion that “le féminin” is non‑essentialist and not gender‑specific is already contradicted by her desire to read the space it creates as “distinctly female”. This slippage from “le féminin” to “the female” is one that is shared (and even encouraged) by the feminist theorist whom Mercer cites (Hélène Cixous) and it creates the first “trap”. At the same time, discussion of Frame’s subversive textuality seems too often to become caught between Luce Irigaray’s “two lips which embrace continually” (p5) and as a consequence its richness is frequently reduced to the charting of image patterns relating to female sexual and reproductive organs. Once again the productive, disruptive potential of “le féminin” finds itself confined within the female.

This focus on female physiology tends to produce a rather narrow reading of some of Frame’s most plural and productive metaphors, and, though I do not have a problem with using “le féminin” in its broadest sense of disruptive energy as a common denominator in the symbolic network that connotes all forms of repressed “otherness”, I do find the constant location of this wonderfully broad and suggestive nexus of images within the “woman’s body” an imposition. Though Mercer claims otherwise, there are times when one feels she (rather than Frame) “is setting up a grandiose religion with the female organs of sexuality and reproduction as the image of worship” (p218); and it is, I am sure, no coincidence that her book ends with the words “a woman’s body” (p252). Though there are elements of this argument which offer some valuable insights into Frame’s texts, I find the often relentless focus on genitals disconcerting and curiously at odds with Mercer’s otherwise protective attitude toward Frame’s (textual) body ‑ especially when threatened by male critics with their “stripshow expectations” (p229). Perhaps my own prudishness is coming to the fore, but I cannot imagine such exploration and exposure is comfortable for so reclusive and modest a writer, even If conducted with sympathy and sensitivity by another woman.

This slippage from “le féminin” to “the female” can also be seen in the way Mercer focuses on the oppressive and exclusive oppositions of dichotomous thinking that are represented in Frame’s texts. These oppositions are read as a privileging of the masculine at the expense of the feminine; while this is a well‑recognised and valid argument, it does tend to equate all forms of repressed “otherness” with the feminine in a way that elides the difference within and between groups, creating another kind of homogeneity. Mercer reads this repression (of the female other) as producing, in The Edqe of the Alphabet for example, a chronically ill cultural body that desires death via nuclear holocaust rather than regeneration (p54). By foregrounding and privileging “the feminine”, Mercer suggests Frame is attempting to redress this imbalance: by attending to and cultivating the feminine/ female, Mercer reads Frame as offering us an alternative to this apocalyptic future.

In itself this is a powerful argument and one amply supported by Frame’s texts. However, it is an argument which often reverses the polarities it seeks to critique. Consequently, instead of exploring Frame’s subversions of such dichotomies, Mercer tends to concentrate on the ways in which Frame’s narratives expose their pervasive presence and power. While the texts themselves repeatedly destabilise the boundaries and definitions that support such structures, Mercer’s reading leaves those boundaries and oppositions intact so that the fluidity and disruptive potential of “le féminin” once again becomes fixed and confined as the repressed (female) other. This reversal of polarities is dearly seen in Mercer’s optimistic reading of the conclusion of Intensive Care; after the horrors of the Human Delineation Act, Frame briefly notes the elevation of the deformed, the insane and the defective to the status of a “new élite”, she concludes by commenting that the ‘intelligent, healthy, declared humans” are now deliberately maiming themselves in order to conform to a new set of cultural ideals. Mercer’s desire to read Frame as redressing the balance of current systems of oppression and repression leaves unacknowledged the implicit menace of this conclusion.

In its privileging of the feminine, Mercer’s argument tends therefore to mask much of the ambivalence that characterises Frame’s texts. In her reading of Owls Do Cry for example, the construction of the rubbish dump as a productive and creative (female) space underestimates the destructive potential and threat to subjectivity posed by that which lies beyond and beneath societal structures. (Even in Frame’s own oft‑quoted childhood story, the return of the repressed is characterised as a dangerous and destructive avenging “bogie”) In the same way, Mercer’s reading of Daphne “in the dead room” as “protected and regenerated” (p38) by the exploration and cultivation of her female wound, masks the acute anguish and unsustainability of her position. The reading of Malfred Signal’s experiences in State of Siege as a movement towards transcendence and creativity through the recovery of a liberating and creative relation to her woman’s body appears to take little account of the terror she experiences on the island. Later, in The Carpathians, Mercer’s reading of the chaos unleashed by the Gravity Star as “a positive apocalypse” (p239), “a blooming, a spiritual explosion … in which the riotous flowers of memory and creativity begin “sprouting from the crevices of centuries’ ” (p249) seems to discount the terrible suffering and loss of the residents of Kowhai Street who are described by Frame as having “experienced the disaster of unbeing, unknowing, that accompanies death”; an experience which, she adds “is thought by man to mark the beginning of a new kind of being and thought and language” (The Carpathians, Century Hutchinson, 1988, p129, emphasis mine). Frame’s qualification suggests she has less confidence than Mercer in the promise of a post‑apocalyptic resurrection and rebirth; and indeed the implications of the phrase “thought by man” seems to invite the application of Mercer’s elsewhere thorough feminist deconstruction of Christian mythologies.

In her desire to critique masculine power structures Mercer also focuses more on the negative aspects of the socio‑linguistic contract represented within Frame’s texts than on the means it offers for liberation through subversion. While Frame at a narrative level views language as limiting and constraining, she offers through her own textuality a much more positive model; a language which exploits and subverts the very limits she critiques. Mercer’s argument tends, however, to override and polarise the ambiguous relation with language that characterises Frame’s texts as she appears to endorse “the splitting of the current alphabetical atom” in the hope that the ensuing (nuclear) holocaust “may release enough energy to create a kind of cleansing fire out of which may emerge a renewed language” (p 166). Though Frame enacts such apocalyptic moments in her texts, they are not seen to produce the desired regeneration; Vera Glace’s first and final utterance in Scented Gardens for the Blind is highly ambivalent and Mattina Brecon, after her experiences in The Carpathians, seems to endorse gradual evolution rather than sudden, violent revolution.

In her introduction Mercer rejects the traditional linear and phallic structure (of an argument) in which one begins with a hypothesis and argues in a straight line, ending “with a definitive and proven conclusion” (p6); such an argument, she suggests, would inappropriately confine Frame’s multiplicity. Despite this assertion, there are contained within her reading just such moments of closure. While Mercer criticises male critics for the way they seek to “penetrate” and “know” Frame, she can be seen in her own way to have appropriated Frame’s textual body. For Mercer it is a case of identification and projection which, while intending to valorise “the (feminine) otherness” of Frame’s texts, inadvertently masks the differences that exceed her identification.

Critical responses have, as Mercer suggests, tended to reflect prevailing cultural norms and critical practices (p14); norms which Frame’s texts explicitly and implicitly challenge, question and subvert. It is perhaps appropriate and even inevitable that Frame’s polysemous texts have generated such diverse readings which, in attempting to “frame” Frame, have more often than not left the critic in the frame rather than his/ her elusive subject. Perhaps this is why there have been so few full‑length studies of Frame’s work, because her texts actively and insistently read their readers, any sustained exploration reveals as much about the reader as it does about the texts. Patrick Evans’ determination to make causal connections between Frame’s life and her art, for example, not only reflects the dominant critical practice at the time of writing, but also suggests an obsessive and unsatisfied desire to “know” the woman behind the work, Judith Dell Panny’s determined reading of allegory as the key to Frame, reflects a similar need to contain these disturbing and unsettling texts within the parameters of the familiar. In her conversion of Frame to feminism (pp236‑7), Mercer is also trapped in the looking glass held up by Frame’s texts.

For those fascinated by Frame, there is no easy answer, no quick solution to the puzzle, no critical text to provide the key; Mercer quite rightly warns that when reading Frame ‘dues abound but solutions dissolve” (p197). As readers we cannot afford to remain passive but must actively and self-consciously work to construct meaning in a context (both textual and critical) that demands we attend as much to the process as to the product of our reading. In the midst of the growing critical polyphony that responds to Frame’s texts, Mercer’s feminist reading adds another significant voice; one which (despite its theoretical affiliations) is clear and accessible and which, in addition to its own insights, offers valuable new material on Frame’s typescripts and an extensive critical bibliography. I recommend it for the questions it raises; it will generate much lively debate.

Tessa Barringer is a graduate student at the University of Otago completing a PhD thesis on Janet Frame.

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Posted in Literature and Review
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