This is a slightly fuller version of the launch speech I gave on 15 August 2012 at the University Bookshop, Dunedin. The additional elements here are a marginally fuller commentary on the title story, and some thoughts on ‘The Big Money’.
Launching a book written by an author of Frame’s stature is the kind of honour that can lead to writer’s block. I did find myself heading into all kinds of displacement activities before I sat down to think about what to say tonight: you can all guess why. It’s impossible to place one’s own words alongside Frame’s gifted, unflinching analysis of society, the mind, the self, without finding one’s own style blanche and wither.
At one point I came to from a kind of fretful trance, to find myself vaccuming the car (of all the idiotic wastes of writing time) — and then, like a sharp nudge in the ribs, came the memory of Frame’s novel Living in the Maniototo, her extended, sly, funny yet also unsettling meditation on — among other things — avoidance activities: our tendency to look away from the blazing sun of knowledge. I felt haunted, but in a warm sense: momentarily visited by a wise and also slightly mischievous ghost.
Years ago, Frame’s work transformed the way I read the world. There are still people I meet, street scenes encountered, lines overheard, which instantly seem Frameian. It’s as if flickering leaves of her vision have peeled away from one of her manuscripts and been blown past. Often I’ve wished I could somehow relay moments or characters to her, knowing she was the only writer who could crystallise the tragicomedy, the dark, plangent beauty, of so many of our social games, self-deceptions, our habits and rituals.
Gorse is Not People shows an astonishing range. Yet I shouldn’t be astonished: as I’ve recently read her non-fiction collection too — so I should have anticipated the bittersweet multiplicity of her voice. From story to story Frame moves between satire, lyricism, melancholy and wit; she changes from a New Zealand child’s perspective, as in ‘The Plum Tree and the Hammock’, to that of, say, an impoverished Italian migrant, as in the story ‘My Tailor is Not Rich’; she shifts from dense, metaphysical contemplations, to stark social realism, or children’s fantasy — and all without any sense of her moving out of her natural register.
The wealth of observation in these stories is glorious. It’s the kind of writing that makes me want to fling my arms around the world — where I feel torn between staying immersed in the descriptive riches on the page, and rushing out with my new Janet Frame glasses, so that I can see every little detail alive, alive: plum skin furred with light, then splitting in the sun; sycamore seeds with their wings thin and delicate as a fly’s; the greys and pinks of any passing pigeons. Listen to them:
twice, three times circling about the houses in the valley, their wings rushing as they lowered over our place, and then returning home crooning and cooing with a soft bath plug sound, lu-lu-gurgle, lu-lu-gurgle, that was sucked down into the valley and drained away.
‘The Birds of the Air’ (p. 37)
Although her writing catches these fleeting, gleaming surfaces, it always goes under them, to mine what the perception of these small things reveal about pressing social and deeply metaphysical subjects. Her writing rings with poetry, but it also has an intense awareness of social inequality, and the hypocrisies we all commit, even those who also supposedly have a capacity for empathy. History and economics thrum through the stories, even when their focus seems to be trained on domestic and psychological interiors. There are stories here that contain the shock of harsh economic disparities — such as the mother who has to sell a row of teeth to help pay the rent in the 1930s. There are stories from the 1970s that grumble about an obsessive materialism exhibited in endless, disruptive DIY projects. I’ve already mentioned the stories that persuasively inhabit the child’s consciousness; there is also work here that, through metaphor, tries to encode the rapid internal ‘melt’ of an an ageing mind that contemplates mortality, time, the nature of shifting emotion, the body’s tidal demands. (See, for example, the ‘Silkworms’, pages 142-143).
The depiction of 21-year-old Naida in the title story is heart-breaking, and yet without a scrap of sentimentality. Perhaps Brasch’s now infamous decision not to publish it was because he found it harder to bear for that reason: mawkishness and insincerity, of course, are places to hide: but there is no skiving off the reality of cosmic, genetic and social injustices in this story about a patient in a residential home for, as the era described it, ‘the mentally defective.’ And although the narrative development, the plot, are vital in this story, there is brilliance in the way Frame also lets it pivot on certain focused points. I’m thinking here of the way she uses an observation of the concrete, external social world of the city marketplace — the mechanized window display Naida sees at one point — and the way she later transforms this into a grim shorthand for the main character’s life circumstances.
I was struck again, reading these stories, by the way Frame can deliberately sit banality and terror, bathos and illumination side by side. She does it for comic effect, to mock the obtuseness of some of her characters, and yet also to capture the very human way we all telescope in and out of sometimes frightening perception and basic, physical needs. The stories which baptize us again in the world of childhood are particularly fine at this. She shows us the way a child’s perspicacity zooms in and out – from insight, sensitivity, to carelessness, heedlessness. Frame is scorchingly honest about the deliberately provocative, stirring, nuisancey-ness of children: their greed, cruelty and selfishness. There is no sanitizing or pretty-fying here: and yet neither is childhood depicted as a completely anarchic, lawless time. Its vulnerabilities and freedoms — about which Frame can be soaringly, gorgeously lyrical — are always also being trimmed, pulled and torn by the child’s growing awareness of adult constraints. I was in awe of the way, in ‘The Big Money,’ Frame shows us the child’s mix of innocence and wisdom, and the way the main character, Charlie, feels his way through changing circumstances on the wavering torchlight of adult speech. He misinterprets a colloquial phrase in a way that actually gets to the emotional and metaphysical roots of the matter — as if he knows a kind of psychological etymology — and yet in an atmosphere of dishonesty, unjust punishment, and in the aftermath of a parental separation, it also leads to a dangerous delusion.
At one point when reading this collection, I made a note about how closely Frame must have observed every possible walk of life she had come across — from housewives to spivs to small time crims to waiters. And then I read the story ‘I Do Not Love the Crickets’. This is judiciously placed last by the editors — as it helps us to glean some small part of the enormous psychological investment that must have gone in to each work. Writing about the difficulty in entering the lives of some characters or potential subjects, the narrator says she can’t love them enough to investigate their ‘human essence: that ambrosial stink’. That oxymoronic phrase itself is wonderfully Frameian — the way it weds transcendent and abject. The narrator touches on the intense act of empathy and union with her characters that the sustained drive to write needs. There’s a sense of psychic exhaustion in the story, and we witness an act of sheer force of will as the speaker makes herself enter the world of other living things and people observed — which in turn, I think (and the story is difficult — my reading may be wrong) brings about a kind of recovery from exasperation and despair at the soulless materialism around her. Yet the story acerbically pinpoints a writerly arrogance, too: the assumption that there’s a greater degree of awareness in the artist. Frame doesn’t let anyone off: not even herself. It’s this utter refusal to compromise that makes her exceptional.
I was recently sent a very funny and succinct summary of how a book launch should be run: publisher introduces, launcher effuses, author thanks. But tonight, and in fact whenever I read Frame, I feel like I really have to extend thanks too, as a reader. Thank you to Pamela Gordon and Denis Harold, for the work they do for our shared literary inheritance – the gifts they keep unearthing and archiving for us. And thanks above all to Janet Frame, for persisting, throughout all the ordinary artistic challenges, and the extraordinary circumstances of her life and times, to dive down so far under the skin of the ordinary, and bring us back this searing yet also consoling bounty.