- The Frame Function: An Inside-Out Guide to the Novels of Janet Frame
Published in May 2011, Jan Cronin's The Frame Function is, if I count well, the tenth monograph to be entirely dedicated to the study of New Zealand's best-known author Janet Frame (1924-2004). Aside from constituting a significant contribution to Janet Frame scholarship, Cronin's study is, as its title indicates, a helpful inside-out guide for students and teachers alike insofar as it delineates the author's system of "privileged stagings or enactments" (13) and in so doing facilitates the navigation across or around Frame's sea of ideas. To anyone unfamiliar with Frame but wishing to apply a similar inside-out approach to another author, Cronin's work is certainly [End Page 242] a first-rate starting point. Amateurs will also relish the inclusion of an important segment of the Framean paratext—i.e. reviews of the novels, interviews with Frame and, courtesy of the Janet Frame Literary Trust, fragments from Frame's unpublished correspondence with Bill Brown—which Cronin utilizes to circumscribe Frame's artistic intentions and measure the effects of "the frame function" on readers and reviewers.
Within the ambit of Janet Frame scholarship, the specificity of Cronin's contribution resides in its postulating that the Framean text is characterized by the "operation of a prescriptive authorial presence" (19) and that the resulting tension between discourse and story or, as she expresses it, between "how a text works and what it says" (13), determines the tenor, and reception, of a text. Faces in the Water (1961) for instance is polarized around Frame's desire to trigger off a compassionate response to madness and her commitment to the "notion of madness as inviolable and inscrutable" (31). To preserve and advance both agendas, the author has no choice but to "deflect the reader's attention away from that [inviolable] otherness" (35). A similar tension between the how and the what underpins A State of Siege (1966) where "Frame tempts the reader into replicating Malfred's [the main protagonist] reading practices" (46) although, this time, the text itself is geared against Malfred's "Neoplatonist" (41) interpretations, her "pursuit of ideals" (41) beyond the shadow world.
To enact a privileged scheme, Frame is quite prepared, then, to interrupt any attempt at "creative collaboration" (50) on the reader's part—"the reader," Cronin explains, "is very much marshaled by Frame whether s/he realises it or not" (50). In the same vein, the author displays a surprising propensity in The Edge of the Alphabet (1961), Scented Gardens for the Blind (1964) or Intensive Care (1970) for using her characters as "vehicles" for the enactment of "central preoccupations" (67)—at the cost, sometimes, of their credibility as human beings. As such, the image that emerges from Cronin's work of Frame as a manipulating demiurge dangling characters and readers alike at the other hand of the authorial umbilical cord is not flattering for her audience. Yet, in granting Frame both a tyrannical agency and a voice of her own (through the inclusion of her letters and interviews), Cronin goes some way towards contravening a well-worn tendency among 'experts'—be they doctors or critics—to maintain the erroneous diagnosis of Frame as a schizophrenic or to re-diagnose her, posthumously, with autism in order perhaps to explain away the complexities of her art.
A corollary achievement of The Frame Function is that it shows the process through which Frame herself flouts the authority of some characters but also, even more daringly, of entire narratives. Admittedly, The Rainbirds (1969) is one of Frame's least successful novels but, according to Cronin, the text is a failure on its own terms given that it sets about relating a grand biblical narrative in a cultural context too narrow and claustrophobic to accommodate it. The result is that Frame's Lazarus is eventually thwarted by his rebirth in the New Zealand garden of prejudices. Similarly orchestrated by a "prescriptive authorial presence" (19...