Savannah Schroll Guz: The Admonitory Nature of Janet Frame’s Prizes

Prizes: The Selected Stories of Janet Frame, Janet Frame, Counterpoint Press, 2009

A quote by New Zealand writer Janet Frame hangs on one wall of my office. The words reveal a great deal about Frame’s life experience and, as I interpret them, tacitly inform much of her work, particularly her later literary production. The quote runs, “‘For your own good’ is a persuasive argument that will eventually make a man agree to his own destruction.” It’s a telling line from a writer misdiagnosed as schizophrenic, subjected to over 100 electroshock therapy treatments, and scheduled for a lobotomy, from which she was rescued only by the prestigious Hubert Church Memorial Award for her 1952 collection The Lagoon and Other Stories. Even more amazing is that, according to legend, the lobotomy was canceled only after a hospital orderly happened to spot the award announcement in the paper. Fittingly, Frame’s mid- and late-career writing—which certainly would not have been possible had she undergone the lobotomy–makes frequent reference to the consequences of unconventional logic, eccentric perceptions, and the redemptive power of fame (or, at least, the relationship to someone famous). Several of her novels, like Faces on the Water (1961), make more direct reference to the freedom of madness.

Recently released by Counterpoint Press, the retrospective collection Prizes brings together 42 works from the four short story collections Frame produced in her lifetime. Included is the award-winning collection The Lagoon and Other Stories (1952); Snowman Snowman: Fables and Fantasies (1963), The Reservoir: Stories and Sketches (1963); You are Now Entering the Human Heart (1984); and a group of five uncollected stories, which have not been previously anthologized. This direct and chronological juxtaposition of these stories allows literary scholars and Frame enthusiasts to have a single-volume record of Frame’s evolution, from the development of her voice, the continued and ever more forceful impact of her life experience, and the specific imprint of these preoccupations on her work.

This concept of liberation and inexperience is a tone set by the first collection, The Lagoon, where childhood, its innocence and misapprehension of adult concerns repeatedly emerges. Here, the child’s vantage point–or the child-like observations of an omniscient narrator–represents immunity to conventional adult expectations and disappointments. This is perhaps most vividly represented by “The Pictures,” where the omniscient narrator observes a woman and child, ostensibly a single mother with her daughter, escaping the grim reality of their lives by going to the cinema. While the two experience elation at the beautiful scenery and strong emotions associated with the movie, by the time they head back to the boarding house where they live, the woman is once more focused on her own life concerns. The daffodil in the flowerbox outside her window is the only representation of beauty and happiness that exists for her, outside the movies. It is not enough. Frame writes: “And the woman thought of going upstairs and putting the little girl to bed and then touching and looking at the daffodil in the window-box, it was a lovely daffodil. And looking about her and thinking the woman felt sad.”

By comparison, the little girl, not yet bound by the empty longing of the adult world, focuses entirely on the present moment and the peppermint-flavored candy she is enjoying. The future, an adult concern, neither upsets nor consumes her, as it does her mother.
Adult myopia and its dangers also appear in “Child,” where a teacher, while giving singing lessons, spanks her pupils for even the smallest, most innocent infractions. Here, a movement towards the idea of “for your own good” begins to emerge as a bitter totalitarian reality in even a child’s experience.

This specter rises yet again in Snowman Snowman, where the expectations of conformity and fear of confinement to a mental institution force a ‘Distinguished Stranger’ in the parable “The Terrible Screaming” to deny a fact delivered to him by his own senses. The omniscient narrator admits that more than one person also hears the screaming, but fear of job loss or detention causes them to similarly deny its existence. Another parable, “The Mythmaker’s Office” reveals the machinations of governing agencies, where the Ministry of Mythmaking (an office made of glass, at which the minister casts stones when bored) succeeds in making death a profanity and, later, a punishable offense. Frame sketches a delightful illustration of the disconnect between governing bodies and reality, while she also illustrates the dangerous caprice of authoritarian power. Here, the Minister of Mythmaking, having just jostled his musty cap and finding the notion of banning death in the haze of dust that subsequently falls, declares,

‘This will surely please the public, the majority, and prove the ultimate value of Democracy. All will cooperate with the denial of Death.’ Accordingly, he drafted an appropriate bill which passed swiftly with averted eyes through the House of Parliament and joined its forebears in the worm-eaten paper territories in paneled rooms.

Meanwhile, “How Can I get in Touch with Persia?,” part of The Reservoir: Stories and Sketches, is a pitch-perfect account of a man who feels chosen. His world thrums with hidden messages, intended solely for him, which travel in electric current and along radio wires to generate a language and meaning that he begins to understand better than that communicated by humans. Still, while we recognize in his delusion a kind of abashed introversion, we are not cued into his consuming mania until his mother dies, he disinters her and attempts to resurrect her by binding her with copper wires that conduct revivifying electricity. He has clearly abandoned behavioral norms and, therefore, society itself. But we are left to wonder, having glimpsed his logic, is he now free or even more entirely alone with his mania than the isolated and disconsolate adults of Frame’s Lagoon.

This theme, along with the redemptive power of fame, is further explored in the story that follows it, “A Relative of the Famous.” In the main character Wilfred’s world, however, things are more hopeful. An apparent savant, who wanders along the beach, is entirely absorbed by identifying the kingdom and phylum of the creatures that wash ashore. Eventually, it is indicated, he would have been confined to a mental institution were it not for a benefactress having mistakenly identified him as the nephew of a famous, now deceased painter. Here, celebrated talent and even a tenuous relationship to acclaim, free a man to follow his unnatural whims, which stand outside social mores.

Frame’s stories flower outward from the initial stream-of-conscious narration of The Lagoon, where the candid expression of ideas mimics the concerns of her principal characters, usually children who fail to understand their parents’ seemingly irrational motivations. It’s interesting that this broader theme continues even as Frame’s voice becomes sharper and more finely tuned, using unflattering truths to slice keenly through narrative traditions and saccharine moral meanings. (A change that’s perhaps most evident in Snowman Snowman and the one-page fable about faithless Daylight and exiled Dust, who travel together “to blind and smother.”) Each engaging collection, organized chronologically and brought together in one volume, reveals the development of Frame’s mind, its affinity for the ideas of freedom and isolation, innocence and awareness.

It seems that nearly every story resonates with that quote that hangs above my desk. Beware of people who mean well because they may be hastening you along the path to hell. And so, Frame’s stories remain entirely applicable to contemporary issues. They are a kinder, gentler 1984, pointing to the danger of ‘well-meaning’ coercion and compulsory psychological conformity.

Crisis of Faith or Hopeful Trend: John Guthrie on Stealing Fatima by Frank X. Gaspar

Stealing Fatima, Frank X. Gaspar, Counterpoint, 2009

Stealing Fatima is a meticulously crafted work of literary fiction. The setting, though unnamed, is obviously the Portuguese fishing village and arts colony of Provincetown on the tip of Cape Cod. The primary characters are Fr. Manuel Furtado and his long absent childhood friend, Sarafino Pomba. Sarafino returns dying of AIDs. He is convinced that he has experienced visitations from Our Lady of Fatima. It quickly becomes apparent that Sarafino brings other baggage; there is an outstanding arrest warrant for him for armed robbery.

An additional matter that drives the narrative to its intriguing denouement is the fact that Fr. Furtado, “Manny” to his friends, is experiencing a profound inner conflict which can be described at least initially as a disturbing crisis of faith or a hopeful trend toward rationality, depending on one’s perspective:

He did not believe that Jesus was Divine or the Son of God, nor did he believe that God impregnated a young girl through the Holy Spirit (which now reminded him of Zeus and all his disguised copulations with humans). So he did not believe that Our Lady appeared to Sarafino Pomba or ever to anyone else. He did not believe in the Resurrection. He did not believe that God would sacrifice a son to be tortured to death in order to redeem a race of beings He himself created imperfectly.

But more ominously, as he labors mightily to rebuild his previously neglected and dying parish by day, Father Furtado’s life is further troubled by an alarming degree self-medication for the pain of an old neck and shoulder injury. This is the result of a plane crash while serving in the military in Vietnam. His drugs of choice are Gordon’s gin and poly-pharmacy; prescription pain pills obtained with a number of illicit prescriptions. He also has intermittent tinnitus, a ringing in the ears, which may be an early harbinger of hearing damage, a la Rush Limbaugh, from opiate abuse. The gin and pills have become the elements of his own and personal eucharist each evening as he sits alone in the rectory, scribbling away in his journal. Following the reappearance of Sarafino, in a well-constructed flash-back the reader learns that as adolescents, Manny and Sarafino, in an amphetamine induced spree, stole a treasured statue of our Lady of Fatima from the church where Manny now presides. Neither of them were found out. Both of the eighteen-year-olds entered military service and served in Vietnam shortly after the theft. The statue was never recovered.

Our Lady of Fatima is beloved by many Catholics, in particular those of Portuguese extraction. Her story, eventually included in Manny’s journal, references the six repeated apparitions of Virgin Mary as reported by three children. This is held as having occurred on the same day of a half dozen consecutive months beginning on May 13th, 1917 in Fátima, Portugal. The story has become iconic for many in the Portuguese community, in part because of its elements of purported prophecy and apocalyptic belief. Our Lady of Fatima serves as leitmotif for Stealing Fatima, a binding principal for the community and the story.

In the truest sense Stealing Fatima it is much more than a tale of individuals or of faith or the loss thereof. It is a story of the Portuguese immigrant community of Provincetown.

The Portuguese were Catholic before Portugal was a country. Portugal, though a small country (about the size of Maine) is one with a dramatic history that is out of proportion to its area. During the age of Exploration it was preeminent in the world. The residents of the fishing community of Provincetown are the spiritual heirs of such explorers as Diogo Silves (The Azores), Vasco da Gama (India), Ferdinand Magellan (Circumnavigation of the Globe), Diogo Cao (The Congo) and others.

The reappearance of Sarafina Pomba inevitably introduces multiple difficulties into the narrative. Already Sarafino is showing severe and lethal complications from AIDs including lung cancer. Nothing can be done but palliative care. Manny decides to allow him to reside in the rectory until he dies. This requires a conspiracy of silence between not only Manny and Sarafino, but Manny’s sister Alzaida her husband Tom and devout parishioner Mariah and Mariah’s lover, a woman named Winslow. This decision, as anyone knows who has ever cared for a very sick yet demanding person, much less one who is a fugitive, is a remarkable act of kindness and grace. Father Furtado emerges in his quirky way as a deeply flawed individual of intriguing complexity and remarkable humanity. Stealing Fatima provides a window on an intriguing community, one that struggles with surprising success to accommodate the changes that occur in this village by the sea. The novel also offers incisive psychological insights into its characters, in particular Father Furtado.

The pace of this work is slow initially, as is often the case with literary fiction (e.g. Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna), but action and gravitas increase as the reader continues. Like a master mason, Gaspar incrementally builds an artful and finely wrought edifice, one that provides a perspective on an historic and thriving immigrant community.

WHERE LIFE PIVOTS EASILY: Lee Kottner on A Robe of Feathers & Other Stories by Thersa Matsuura

A Robe of Feathers and Other Stories, Thersa Matsuura, Counterpoint

In a recent New York Times review of Lev Grossman’s new novel, The Magicians, Michael Agger dismisses fantasy as a genre that “affect[s] us most powerfully as teenagers, but then most of us move on to sterner, staider stuff”—the implication being that fantasy and fairy tales are childish and have nothing to teach adults. For the heroes of most modern fantasy novels, especially the new urban fantasy, slipstream, and interstitial stories, this kind of an attitude can get you killed. In real life, it’s not ignoring the existence of fantastical characters and events that’s harmful, but ignoring our need for their deeper meaning and the lessons they have always taught us that can be damaging. Not only does a little magic go out of our world without these kinds of stories, but often they can tell us things about ourselves that no other kinds of stories can. This is something Thersa Matsuura understands very well in the stories she has crafted in A Robe of Feathers.

Matsuura’s raw material is the legends and myths of Japanese folklore and fairy tale: the mountain witch, the bean washer, kappa, oni, sagari, tengu—the same creatures that appear in Hayao Miyazaki’s animated movie, Spirited Away. Like Miyazaki, Matsuura uses them in the way that such creatures are used the world over: to tell stories of growth and transformation. These fantastical characters represent our fear of death, our regrets, our sins of commission and omission; they teach us what happens when we forget our place in the social order, when greed displaces love, when we succumb to temptations ultimately harmful to us and others. But be warned: these are fairy tales in the manner of the unexpurgated Grimm brothers: dark, tragic, and sometimes violent, the moral lessons not always clear-cut. The protagonists struggle with demons both personal and supernatural and often lose. The atmosphere of these stories reminds me a little of both Charles de Lint at his darkest and of Angela Carter.

The 17 stories in this volume are set in ancient, modern, and contemporary Japan, their protagonists both Japanese and expats. Most of them are outsiders of some sort: a homeless man, a widow, a 35-year-old man who still lives with his parents, the crippled and disfigured, the very old and the unfinished young. Many of the creatures they meet are tricksters who reveal something these characters don’t know about themselves or their own lives, or who lead them down the path of their own temptations to ruin. Not all the stories end badly and some, like “Mrs. Misaki’s Eyes,” provide a satisfactory sense of comeuppance, but many are also full of regret for chances not taken or sacrifices made unnecessarily. And sometimes, even when they end in death, there is a sense of comfort in the denouement.

For instance, in the title story, a geeky young man who still lives with his parents courts an equally geeky young woman with a grand gesture born out of his grandfather’s story of another misfit’s angelic lover. In this, the stories we tell ourselves and each other are everything: the metaphor, the reason for living, the way we make sense of our lives. “Sixty-two versions of the story would be told by eyewitnesses. There would be other tales, too, by people who came afterwards and children who grew up to remember events differently. But the legend that was told the most, the one that would survive the longest, was the most beautiful one. . . .” This story sets the tone for the rest; expect wonder and tragedy, beauty and sadness, great deeds and great failures—sometimes all at once.

The supernatural creatures in these stories are both a source of trouble and a source of comfort. In “Hate and Where it Breeds,” two young punk rockers—one with a foot-high, baby blue Mohawk,” the other with “a tattoo that resembled shattered glass” on his scalp—a group of high school girls, and a drunken businessman share a train with a herd of mythological creatures, including a tengu, a massive, dignified mountain spirit who takes the form of a red-faced human with wings, inspires great respect, and smells like trickery. In very short order, the cost of conformity, of being the insider, becomes clear. In “Sand Walls, Paper Doors,” those same mythological creatures help a Western exchange student living alone in a traditional house, tending its kamidana or house shrine, feel at home.

In both “Tip of the Nose” and “The Smallest Unit of Time,” coincidences and small catastrophes lead the characters to redemption and second chances, one with supernatural help, and one without. Or maybe I should say that the supernatural element in one story is less obvious than in the other, because its protagonist is subtly touched by the gods the way mystics and holy fools are said to be. But without a mystical framework to make sense of her affliction, she becomes merely a pathetic character until led to the grace of reunion with a long-lost lover.

Not all of these stories are equally successful, but each one is disturbing in its own way. I wasn’t fond of this collection at first; the stories are deceptively simple, and the style is sometimes quirky. But it repays a close and second reading with a sense of possibility and wonder at the world that only fantasy paints so vividly. No realistic story would suggest that a meeting with a huge, ancient, disheveled stranger rumored to eat children would turn your life around, or offer you a glimpse of beauty like this:

Above her hung part of a large maple tree branch. In two months time the star-shaped leaves would wake up in ochre and wine, gold and rust. But right now, for the time being, they remained an intricate filigree of sweet green, layered and shivering, excited to be young, behind them pinpoints upon pinpoints rubbing thin the very ceiling of the world. Hina gasped and wondered to herself when they’d break through and what would come in from the other side. In all her generations of living, it was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen.

If nothing else, Matsuuda’s brand of fantasy teaches us to look for the small, magical moments where life pivots easily from joy to tragedy, and with or without the prodding of gods and demons, our choices shape the rest of our lives.


Lee Kottner lives in the Bronx, NY, and is a writer, editor, college instructor, and the owner of Maelstrom House, an occasional publisher of hand-bound artist’s books of poetry and short fiction. Her poetry has appeared in several literary journals and small press anthologies, and in a chapbook from Blue Stone Press. Her artist’s books are part of the permanent collections of both the Museum of Modern Art and the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Low Action, Vibrant Language: Vanda Symon on Janet Frame’s Towards Another Summer

toward another summer

Towards Another Summer, Janet Frame, Counterpoint Press

I am a latecomer to the writings of Janet Frame and, I fear like many of my fellow countrymen, I had preconceived notions that her work would be heavy going and dark. Towards Another Summer challenged those expectations and delivered a story that while low in action, was vibrant in language and rich in warmth and humour. The book was an unexpected pleasure.

Janet Frame spent time in and out of mental institutions as a young woman, and was very close to being lobotomised until her doctors were convinced otherwise by her first book, The Lagoon and Other Stories winning a prestigious literary award. In those days she was seen as abnormal and different to the point of requiring treatment. I would like to think in the modern day she would have been seen as different and celebrated. Towards Another Summer is a novel Frame wrote in 1963 but which was too personal to be published until after her death in 2004, and it is easy to see why as it is a thinly disguised portrait of the writer.

Grace Cleave is an expatriate New Zealander and writer living in London and struggling with thoughts of where she belongs, and who or what she is. She has, in fact, come to the realisation she is a migratory bird, “In a way it was a relief to discover her true identity. For so long she had felt not-human, yet had been unable to move towards an alternate species…”

She is invited to spend the weekend north in Relham with Philip and Anne Thirkettle and thus the agonising begins from the moment she posts the acceptance card and “worried all the way home that her arm was not long enough to reach down, find her letter, tear it to pieces to be thrown over the fence in bold litter-lout fashion…”

She is overwhelmed by the prospect of social niceties, often to the point of paralysis. Frame paints the portrait of Grace’s excruciating social discomfort so vividly I ached for her. Her one consolation in accepting the Thirkettle’s offer is she thinks they don’t have children, but then discovers to her horror, she is mistaken: “There’s still time, she thought wildly, there’s still time to escape: children, staring, mocking, pitying, understanding – that was the worst – understanding; they would know everything; perhaps they would come up to her and say, What is the pineal gland? Describe your flight feathers. Define Coriolos force.”

Adult conversation also requires a tightrope walk between listening and preparing appropriate responses to avoid further discomfort, in this instance after dinner conversation on the topic of a notable book. “Meanwhile Grace was dividing her mind between studying Philip and Anne and their life together, and trying to arrange, ready for its appearance in speech, the truth of her relationship with Ulysses. She found that her memory had placed Ulysses, not under the heading of Literature, but in the file which held the embarrassing and painful facts of college life.”

Towards Another Summer is a very internalised book, from Grace’s painstaking observations and reactions to her extremely uncomfortable weekend away, to the questions it asks of where she belongs and her reminiscence of her New Zealand childhood. This may sound heavy going and potentially tedious, but it is far from it. The author’s warmth and humour radiates through out, even in the bleakest of descriptions and settings. This excerpt is a particular favourite.

“There seemed nowhere to escape from the snow-filled, soot-filled wind. It blew upon their skin as if their outer layer of skin had been peeled away leaving a raw rasping wound spread over their body. They struggled along the grey streets in a bizarre enactment of an Arctic expedition which could have been recorded in the usual dramatic diary – ‘Supply of warmth diminishing; hope to reach library and market by five-thirty; hopes failing…’ Grace would not have been surprised if Philip had suddenly stopped and said, with a stricken look on his face, ‘I’m going a while. I may be some time…’

What comes through strongly in this novel about a fairly average weekend away is the author’s mischievous sense of humour, in fact I finished it admiring the temerity of a writer who challenged head on, and poked fun at the world’s seeming obsession with her mental health status and her supposed shy and retiring nature. It is a superbly written novel that looks at identity and belonging, and asks what and where is home.