“Such are the perfections of fiction...Everything it teaches is useless insofar as structuring your life: you can’t prop up anything with fiction. It, in fact, teaches you just that. That in order to attempt to employ its specific wisdom is a sign of madness...There is more profit in an hour’s talk with Billy Graham than in a reading of Joyce. Graham might conceivably make you sick, so that you might move, go somewhere to get well. But Joyce just sends you out into the street, where the world goes on, solid as a bus. If you met Joyce and said 'Help me,' he’d hand you a copy of Finnegans Wake. You could both cry.” – Gilbert Sorrentino, Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Book Review: Janet Frame's Selected Short Stories

The Daylight and the Dust: Selected Short Stories
By Janet Frame
Random House

Janet Frame, who died in 2004, was, without a doubt, one of the preeminent New Zealand authors of the 20th Century; the unusual details of her life are well-known, due to Frame’s own publication of three volumes of autobiography (as well as Jane Campion’s film adaptations of An Angel at My Table). Many people know of her lifelong battle with schizophrenia, and that fact that winning an award for her first book, The Lagoon and Other Stories, was the only thing that stopped her from undergoing a lobotomy in the 1950s.
But the high-esteem in which Frame’s work is held both in the antipodes and abroad (she’s had three short stories published posthumously in The New Yorker) is ultimately based on the superb and unique character of her writing. In this sense, The Daylight and the Dust, a selection of her short stories, is, unsurprisingly and absolute treasure.
Frame’s stories tend to fall into a few different, but classifiable, styles. First are her short stories written from the perspective of children, in which she documents naïve and innocent minds attempting to grapple with the adult world around them (as in the story ‘Swans’). Others describe the lives of characters who are in some way social outcasts – lonely people who are unable to engage with the larger world for reasons they cannot completely control (as in the story ‘A Sense of Proportion’). Lastly, she writes stories that read more like fables, although they are fables from which no clear moral emerges (like in the story ‘Two Sheep’). While all of Frame’s work is exceptional, I will note that the fables, for me, are the least interesting, largely for the reason that they tend to contain her most traditional prose.
And it is most certainly Frame’s prose that is the signal draw of her work. Charged with elements of modernist writing, Frame’s unusual style makes all of her stories worth reading, but she can also surprise with ironic humour, such as in her story ‘Prizes’, which opens with the line ‘Life is hell, but at least there are prizes. Or so one thought.’ But readers of this collection will find such gems on every page.
While most of the stories in The Daylight and the Dust are reprinted from the four collections that Frame published in her lifetime, this collection also offers some novelty in the form of the five ‘uncollected’ stories that make up the final forty pages of the book.
Although it would’ve been nice to have had a brief editorial explaining the provenance of these stories, they are absolutely exceptional, and, in fact, offer some of the best writing in the entire collection. ‘Face Downwards in the Grass’ tells the story of an escaped convict who, upon reclaiming his freedom, finds himself so incapable of readjusting to normal life that he readily submits to being recaptured. ‘A Boy’s Will’ describes the internal struggle of the allegedly ‘exceptional’ boy Peter, who resents the expectations his parents place on him; all of his actions – even the building of a kite – are treated as examples of his future promise, and, as a result, he feels that he has nothing to call his own. ‘They Never Looked Back’ tells the story of a young bohemian couple, who struggle to raise a family while adhering to their principles. This is a beautiful book; those who have read Frame already know this to be an essential collection, and, for those who haven’t, The Dust and the Daylight provides an excellent introduction to one of the great writers of the second half of the 20th Century.

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