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.