Monday, September 5, 2016
Janet Frame's last novel - narrative standing in place
You know when you read a Janet Frame novel you will get nothing conventional, straightforward, or ordinary - she was consistently pushing the edges of narrative, trying new forms and structures, all to the good. I enjoyed a few weeks back reading her first novel, Owls Do Cry, essentially the story of her childhood and of her siblings, but told in fragmented form - owing a debt to Faulkner, Woolf, and Joyce - but the mashing of styles worked effectively as an embodiment of her own troubled, confused mind: much of the narrative was about her time confined against her will in a mental hospital, where she was bombarded with electro-schock therapy. For the past 2 days I have been trying to read her last novel, The Carpathians (1988), but even with these forewarnings have found the book extremely difficult to engage with - not only because of the peculiar narrative structure but also because it seems devoid of energy and excitement. In short, it's a novel about a wealthy woman from NYC who decided to leave home for a few months to leave her husband free to finish the novel he's writing; she rents a house in remote NZ (Puamahara - is that a real town?) and decided to do "research," getting to know each of the families on her ordinary street. One might think that this will lead to a Sherwood Anderson-like portrait of life in a small town, each family w/ its own agony; but for me, unfortunately, none of the family stories quite develops into anything substantial - there's even a murder on the street, and Frame does nothing to build out that narrative possibility. Her main interest, as a writer, seems to be to build an elaborate postmodern web of authorial identity and mis-identity: who is writing this novel? We would suspect it would be the NYC woman, Mattina, but it's also hinted that these are the musings of one of the people on the street whom she meets, a would-be writer who leaves Mattina a manuscript (this manuscript?) in which she argues that everyone on the street is an "imposter," whatever that means. But then - there's an "author's note" at the outset signed with 3 initials that lead us to believe Mattina's son, John Henry, wrote this novel upon the death of his mother. On top of, or beneath, all this there are several chapters and numerous references to something called the "Memory Flower," part of some Maori legend concerning the village and honestly I could not understand this at all. Frame's problem may be that she at heart is a memoirist and not a writer w/ any great facility for creating plot and narrative, so her work when it leaves the personal angst of her life seems to stand in place.