The extensive media attention given to Janet Frame’s death in January is utterly fitting for one who may well be our country’s greatest writer and is certainly our most distinguished, having been seriously considered for the Nobel Prize (twice). Yet it is ironic that in so many tributes her writing is barely mentioned – and, when it is, is always discussed as if secondary to her life.
Perhaps this is inevitable, for it is Frame’s life, not her work, which is best known – a fact most directly attributable to Jane Campion’s film adaptation of Frame’s three-volume autobiography in the hugely popular and internationally recognised An Angel at My Table. In fact, very few New Zealanders, and even fewer overseas readers, have read the novels – except perhaps the early (and autobiographically inflected) Owls Do Cry and Faces in the Water, both of which, for a time, were commonly taught in secondary schools and set on university literature courses.
The lack of general familiarity with Frame’s writing is, in part, due to the difficulty – one might even say obscurity – of her work. It is dense and knotty, marked by temporal and narrative discontinuity, and generally thin on plot – at least in the conventional sense of an ordered storyline facilitating reader navigation through the text. While the best novels display a formidable intelligence and dexterity, their wordplay and narratorial complexity can be alienating – too clever by half.
It can be fairly said that Frame’s life reads more compellingly as plotted fiction than much of her actual fiction. Her life-story, popularly known, needs little elaboration; it is instantly recognisable as a melding of two of literature’s most enduring plots. First, there is the story of the seer (or artist) condemned to suffer as a consequence of societal ignorance and misunderstanding of her gift. Secondly, there is the Romantic myth of the individual (or artist) whose suffering is vindicated by the greatness of her vision and art. More simply, Frame’s life-story is the stuff of fairytales, where the discovery of true identity results in the rise from rags to riches, obscurity to recognition, a last-minute, life-saving reprieve. At the other extreme, Frame’s is also a classic tale of metaphorical rebirth after death.
Which is in no way, of course, to dismiss the reality of Frame’s suffering (the burden of poverty, sibling deaths and illness in childhood); or the depth of her felt sense of difference, of anxiety and extreme shyness; or the psychiatric misdiagnosis resulting in incarceration (albeit at times voluntary) in mental institutions and the pain and distress of innumerable shock treatments. Nor is it to refute the substantiality of Frame’s remarkable gift – recognition of which, in her own account, forced doctors to cancel a scheduled lobotomy, and New Zealand’s literati to provide the succour and support that allowed her to grow and develop as a writer. Indeed, it is the reality of the life-story which makes it so compelling. One is always aware that this is no story after all – it really happened.
Conversely, it’s the overt fictionality of the “real” which makes the novels so difficult. This is especially so because realism, whether domestic or social, more or less defined the New Zealand literary landscape in the period in which Frame published much of her fiction, and arguably continues to characterise much of our national fictional output. Frame displays little concern for that cardinal feature of fictional realism, of allowing or encouraging the reader to suspend disbelief for the duration of their reading. In fact, suspension of disbelief is what is categorically refused – most emphatically in the later, long works which are characterised by their flamboyant departures from mimesis. (Her shorter fiction tends, for the most part, to be more closely aligned with the slice-of-life school.)
Rarely does the author hide behind a self-effacing narrator in order to present the reader with a mirror-view of a world, and characters, with which s/he can readily identify, and in which things happen that really could happen. Instead, the reader is confronted with a dizzying array of “realities” that are disconcertingly undercut and exposed as unreal. Not only is Frame’s creative presence always felt, but many of her protagonists are writers or artists, too. The writer’s inventive fictionalising is flouted rather than obscured, a constant source of challenge and disruption for a reader expecting neat divisions between the realms of reality and literary creation.
Characters who appear at first to be “real” disappear from the pages at the swipe of the writer’s pen or, more dramatically, in a puff of cleaning fluid – as happens to Tommy in Living in the Maniototo, an incident blithely reported by the narrator Mavis (a writer) in the same level tone as other, more believable, events in the novel. Characters with whom we have been encouraged to identify, like Mattina in The Carpathians, are resolutely exposed as fictional inventions, in Mattina’s case as the invention of a higher-order writer (her son, apparently orphaned at the age of seven) who is only introduced in the final paragraphs. Such acts of erasure are common. Edelman in Daughter Buffalo is revealed at the book’s end as the invention of the poet Turnlung, his ostensible friend and lover. Erlene, Edward and Uncle Blackbeetle in Scented Gardens for the Blind turn out to be mere figments in the imagination of psychiatric patient Vera Glace.
This is a commonly repeated device in the novels. Disconcerting and patently unreal events or characters, described as if on a par with realistic happenings and people, are exposed as either the creation of a writer or as the delusion of a socially marginalised character. To a lesser degree Frame uses the same tactic in her autobiography – a clear warning not to take the writer’s rememberings at face value, even in this most supposedly truthful of genres.
Frame’s famed wordplay and stunning figurative language add further levels of intricacy – and distraction. Her cryptically lyrical prose abounds with homophones, metaphor, puns and verbal irony which, while dazzling, can also detract from narrative momentum. Words as often impede the reader’s progress as aid it. C K Stead hit the nail on the head in his New Zealand Listener tribute to Frame: “She was a poet of prose (she perhaps lacked the sense of form necessary to be a poet of poetry) … [whose] primary appeal lay in language rather than her characters or subject matter ….”
Finding few, if any, literary precedents for this kind of writing in New Zealand, a number of critics have sought to locate Frame’s work in a broader international literary and philosophical scene. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they align Frame with writers of the 1970s and 80s like Raymond Federman, Alasdair Gray, John Barth, and Angela Carter and read her work as a New Zealand exemplar of postmodern metafiction – a mode of writing that self-consciously draws attention to the processes of writing itself in order to question or challenge accepted notions of reality, authorship and authority. The postmodern label has also resulted in the claim of affinity between Frame and the experimentally self-reflexive work of New Zealand writers such as Anne Kennedy, Ian Wedde, Stephanie Johnson and Damien Wilkins – although to my mind Frame has, as yet, few true heirs in our local literature.
This, in turn, has encouraged the attribution to Frame’s work of a host of poststructuralist existential dilemmas, as these are often understood to motivate selfconscious, metafictional writing. Read in this way, writing figures as an analogy for social determinism: reality is no more than a construct of social language, a complex system of entrapping codes that enforce conformity.
To read Frame’s work in such terms seems to me problematic, particularly when her purported philosophical dilemma is forced into uneasy alignment with a Romantic vision of the suffering artist. As has been frequently noted, in Frame’s early writing the figure of the social outcast dominates, almost obsessively. Typically, an idealised visionary victim – silent, eccentric, insane, alienated, ill – stands against the sterility of social conformity as a source of truth and justice: Toby in Owls Do Cry and The Edge of the Alphabet; Malfred Signal in A State of Siege; Milly Galbraith in Intensive Care. Again and again, the question is how the artist voices his or her redeeming truth, if not in social language. Invariably, the answer is that s/he cannot, lapsing into madness, silence, or death – or, worse still, succumbing to conformity in a healing that is also the erasure of his or her gift.
But, crucially, this vision gives way – and as it recedes, the author’s narratorial and verbal play becomes more and more emphatic. And play seems an entirely appropriate description of Frame’s enterprise. In her later novels the writer’s creativity is not the reason for tortured exclusion, but a celebrated source of authority and inventiveness. The pleasure for the reader lies in joining the game, akin to undertaking the fictive equivalent of a cryptic crossword – and finally getting the joke of which we (or our naive expectations of plotted transparency) are the butt.
The dilemma of poststructuralism is the recognition of a world that precludes anything but the illusion of individuality: we are, first and foremost, constructs of social language and the protocols and beliefs it encodes. For Frame, by contrast, linguistic play and individual creativity provide both empowerment and an escape route. In this sense the novels move from the agonised exploration of entrapment to the celebration of escape – through creativity.
And, in this way, language play also enables the writer to triumph over death – which is everywhere in the novels. If in the early work (metaphorical) death is the condition of her character-victim’s being, or literal death the only way of evading conformity, in the later work existence brought about by words can triumph over death: if the individual can be snuffed out by the pen, s/he can also be revitalised and reborn by the pen.
For me, Frame’s later – and best – work is less an agonised exploration of the fictionality of existence than a flamboyant display of the writer’s life-engendering power and prowess. In the best of the writing, it is a breathtaking display; in the worst, a discomforting experience. If realism offers a reassuring experience for the reader (because identificatory and potentially cathartic), Frame’s play disrupts identification, challenges moral evaluation, forces scrutiny of the reading process – and always, also, invites awareness of the way that words work to make life meaningful.
Importantly, this is more than an acknowledgement of the banal truth that a writer lives on in his or her work long after s/he has passed from life. That Frame will continue to live in this way is given, but small comfort in the face of her recent death. To continue to read Frame in terms of the public image of victim, outcast and oddity, would be a great injustice to the woman behind the myth, one whose sly wit, sharp intelligence and ironic humour were not at odds with, but complemented, her eccentricity and social discomfort.
Too often her autobiography – source or confirmation of the myth – is read at face value, as a catalogue of suffering rather than as a triumphant act of self-creation in which words master the past. And the novels, too, continue to be read in the shadow of biographical content, despite Frame’s own, emphatic challenges to such an approach.
It remains to be seen whether Frame’s literary estate contains the rumoured and hoped-for later instalments of her autobiography (the final published instalment only recounts events up to her return to New Zealand in 1964) or whether further fiction (or poetry) will emerge for publication (the last published work, The Carpathians, appeared 15 years ago in 1989). Whether the content of such eagerly anticipated work will refute the popular legend is less important that the need we have to reconsider the extant work – which abundantly challenges both the public perception and the critical misreading. Frame in her work and her life moved far beyond what Vincent O’Sullivan, writing of her, once dubbed “the economy of the gifted victim”. Now, with her passing, it is time to review the work outside the shadow of her life.
Kim Worthington is a Wellington reviewer, formerly a senior lecturer in the School of English, Film, Theatre and Media Studies at Victoria University of Wellington and author of the Janet Frame entries in the Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature.