Book Commentary: New Zealand’s Janet Frame — Invasion of the Mind Snatchers
by Bill Marx
Posthumous publication of a book by a great but grievously neglected writer gives posterity a chance to either rectify its mistake or compound it. The recent appearance in the “New Yorker” of a previously unpublished Janet Frame short story, which was deemed to be “too painful” for print in 1954, has generated some scuttlebutt in her homeland.
Besides its crystalline prose, “Gorse is not People” reflects Frame’s determination to view reality from alternative perspectives, in this case that of a dwarf celebrating her 21st birthday. The story also makes disturbing use of Frame’s still fresh memories of life as a resident at Seacliff mental hospital.
But the lack of fanfare greeting the recent publication of “towards another summer,” a short but beautiful novel that Frame thought too personal to be published in her lifetime, suggests that she will be passed over again.
She is best known for her three-volume reminiscence, “An Autobiography,” but Frame’s volumes of fiction, which include twelve novels and five collections of short stories, merits the attention owed to a master, unruly and ruthless, whose imaginative strength lies in the exorbitance of her language.
Frame died at the age of 79 in 2004, having won just about every literary prize New Zealand had to offer. But outside of her homeland Frame’s reputation has been surprisingly lackluster, aside from the high praise for her memoir, which was popularized by Jane Campion’s pretty but bland film version. The autobiography is powerful, but Frame’s fictions are a vital part of her life story – stuffed, like vital organs, into that mighty skeleton. The novelist once said that her imagination is her “inner sun,” and by this light Frame has turned her attention from nature, which she reveres, to gaze at the process of the inner self. Weaving language into a precarious lifeline, Frame explores the outer limits of solipsism, its splendors as well as horrors.
“towards another summer” is a good place to begin reading Frame. Personal to the bone, the book explores the pleasures and pains of isolation, the radical loneliness that enables creativity. In the book, Grace Cleave finds herself battling writer’s block on vacation outside of London; yearning for her home in New Zealand because it gives her a ready made sense of identity. The uncertainty she feels demands that she explore the dark places within herself, which turns the story into another of Frame’s rhapsodic parables, philosophical show-downs as her characters (or facets of the author herself) either battle for their creative lives against the onslaught of demons internal and external, or chronicle the fate of those who have fallen prey to the modern malaise of living without the solace of pungent dreams. The collective tag for her oeuvre could be Invasion of the Mind Snatchers.
Janet Frame — her writings voyage to the edges of consciousness
Frame’s best novels – “Owls Do Cry” “Scented Gardens for the Blind,” “State of Siege,” “Intensive Care,” “Daughter Buffalo,” and “The Carpathians” — explore the mysteries of inwardness for which she struggled to find a language. In “Daughter Buffalo,” she writes “language, at least, may give up the secrets of life and death, leading us through the maze to the original Word as monster or angel.” In Grace’s ecstatic demands for a fuller imaginative life, there’s a touch of Gothic terror. We dream our way to the bogeyman, itching for what we can never have. “towards another summer” doesn’t go as far into the realm of the monstrous as many of her other books, but it provides a sleek introduction to the journey.
Frame’s extreme demands on introspection doesn’t mean her quest should be dismissed as self-regarding, an aesthetic excuse for narcissistic verbosity. Conscience is our capacity for reflecting on our actions in the light of our sense of justice. When writers as brilliant as Frame voyage to the edges of human consciousness they become part of that essential moral and ethical inquiry, that invaluable process of self-examination. If that’s true, we ignore Frame at our peril. “towards another summer” gives readers another chance to discover her courageous quest.
Bill Marx is the editor-in-chief of The Arts Fuse. For over three decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and The Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created The Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.