The Frame Function: An Inside-out Guide to the Novels of Janet Frame
Auckland University Press, $49.99,
The Frame Function, Jan Cronin’s new monograph treating the novels of Janet Frame, is not the book it appears to be, not exactly anyway. Given the notoriously riddling, even duplicitous novels it deals with, this is perhaps appropriate. I’ve never picked up a Frame and read the book I imagined I might, and this is one of the pleasures of Frame’s work; even on re-reading, the novels seem to shift, to surprise, to take on different shapes and move through unexpected shadows. From reading the back blurb of Cronin’s book, or even the subtitle, An Inside-out Guide to the Novels of Janet Frame, it’s conceivable that common readers might pick up this attractive volume to have to hand as they encounter the many flummoxing moments or pervasive quirks present in Frame’s texts. The strangeness of the rock flung through the window at the end of A State of Siege, perhaps, or the power and near farness of the Gravity Star in The Carpathians, come to mind. Yet, honestly, this guide is for Frame’s professional readers more than the simply curious, particularly in its knotty middle chapters. Nevertheless, it’s a book that’s rich with careful readings and considered engagements with the ever-growing field of Frame studies, the kind of book interested in coming to fine points of agreement and divergence with other critics working in the field it explores.
Cronin is interested in exploring Frame’s authorial presence in her texts. This, in itself, is something of a break with those critical practices that encourage us to think of authors as being sealed apart from the texts they produce, as if the fact that a text is necessarily produced by a writer is some kind of obstacle to getting a clear view of it. While this tide of criticism is ebbing, it has remained an important current in Frame studies – in part, the response to Patrick Evans’s research in the 1970s, which famously (or infamously, depending on your point of view) linked Frame’s work to her life. This connection enraged Frame, and as her stature grew through the 1990s, many of the critics and scholars who treated her work signalled various degrees of condemnation for Evans’s arguments and endeavours. Cronin, obviously uneasy at finding herself sailing in similar waters, is careful to outline what it is she means by this authorial presence.
Rather than making the obvious connections between Frame’s biography and her novels, Cronin instead traces what she calls the “Frame function”, the sense we get as readers that Frame’s texts are authored, that a singular and idiosyncratic individual is responsible for what we have in our hands. Cronin argues that this authorial presence characterises much of Frame’s work, creating the sense that Frame herself is playing with us. Frame’s readers, I’m sure, will be familiar with the game-playing sense often attendant on encounters with her work. Evans expressed this as the “Frame effect”, where readers sense that Frame is concealing a secret from them; Kim Worthington memorably described Frame’s work as the “fictive equivalent of a cryptic crossword”.
Cronin describes how we might see an authorial presence in these novels, focusing on Frame’s modus operandi as a writer. In particular, she foregrounds Frame’s use of Plato, Kant and others; her use of “load-bearing terms”, or repeated refrains; her distinct approach to allegory; and her preference for enacting rather than exploring the ideas she introduces to her narratives. Taken together, these things add up to a distinctive voice that recurs throughout the novels, although Cronin avoids using a term like “voice” as a way of explaining this presence.
Placing authors within their texts is a difficult exercise – surely when we read Frame, we do not actually encounter her. On the other hand, we might well use her texts as an aid to constructing some idea of her, an idea that we seem to encounter, sometimes directly, sometimes peripherally, as we read the text. Perhaps the authorial presence Cronin discusses is something like the figure responsible for the knocking that troubles A State of Siege’s poor Malfred Signal through her long night on Karemoana; certainly experienced, quite possibly there, but difficult to pinpoint with the kind of certainty that would let us feel secure in our readings. Yet, ultimately, Cronin’s preparedness to engage with the difficulties raised in Frame’s novels is a strength; this is a book unafraid of complication and the fining of ideas.
While the book’s subtitle addresses Frame’s novels, between the covers, Cronin is less sure that “novel” is a useful descriptor. She returns to Frame’s much-discussed claim that she did not write novels but rather “explorations”. Following Lauris Edmond’s observation, Cronin believes that Frame writes a species of theoretical fiction where ideas are “serially enacted” rather than “explored”. Cronin eventually chooses to describe Frame’s fictions as “theoretical commentary” rather than as novels, but my summary here perhaps does a disservice to her careful approach, which pushes to make further distinctions. She notes that many of the novels, like The Rainbirds, might well be theoretically driven enterprises, but they lack the depth, and certainly the rigour, of philosophical treatises. Indeed, for Cronin, Frame’s work is often characterised by a theoretical “shorting”, where discursive ideas might well be presented – say, Plato’s cave and its ontological ramifications – but not in a way that allows us to carry on a substantial discussion with Frame. This sounds as if Cronin is suggesting Frame is somehow faulty, but she is instead illustrating the ways in which Frame’s texts work, rather than making less useful judgements.
The meat of The Frame Function is its exacting readings of the novels (or must we now call them “novels”?). Regardless of whether her reader accepts the arguments Cronin makes for Frame’s authorial presence, there’s much in the individual discussions of treasure in Owls Do Cry, the wretched mangroves in A State of Siege, or the way that both literal and allegorical readings are demanded by Scented Gardens for the Blind but cannot be simultaneously brought into focus.
While Cronin’s decision to limit herself to the novels provides a sensible scope for The Frame Function’s investigation, it does limit her ability to treat fully some of the questions she raises – especially since she is unconvinced the texts she treats are novels in any unambiguous sense. Cronin is interested in Frame’s use of allegory; it would have been nice to see the curious fables of Snowman, Snowman brought into this discussion. More significantly, given Cronin’s overarching investigation into the presence of the author within her texts, it’s a shame that the volumes of autobiography aren’t treated. Is Frame especially present in these? Or is she somehow absent? Interestingly, Cronin sees less of Frame as an authorial presence in Towards Another Summer – a novel that allegedly contains embarrassingly personal disclosures from Frame – than she does in the more strongly imagined narratives of some of the other novels. This suggests a distinction is being drawn between Frame the author and Frame the historical woman, a distinction that sets Cronin apart from Evans, but raises questions about whether it is reasonable to compartmentalise the writer’s subjectivity in this manner.
The Frame Function gives us a picture of Frame’s texts as potentially difficult, needing the clarification of expert readers. Through Cronin’s efforts not to determine what Frame’s texts are saying, but to illustrate how they are saying it, the novels do come into a sharper focus. Yet I think Cronin would agree with Mark Williams’s assessment that Frame is always “ ‘a good read’ as well as being demanding and difficult”. Williams’s observation is disarmingly simple, yet oddly profound; if Frame is as obscure and troubling as many of her critics hold her to be, why, then, is she so well-loved by so many of her readers, and how has she come to sit so close to the centre of New Zealand’s canon? The answers, I suspect, have less to do with her aptitude for philosophical fireworks and obfuscation, and will be even trickier to unpack than the questions Cronin sensibly, meticulously, addresses here.
Timothy G Jones is a Wellington reviewer.