Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Gifted by Patrick Evans: a review

Gifted by Patrick Evans: a review
By Denis Harold
I’d like to think my book is a sort of consummation of what she [was] trying to do … having been so intimate with her work [Gifted is] her work, it’s her last novel... 1
Patrick Evans’ forty year long urge to mine Janet Frame’s genius and reputation reaches its climax in this publication. Readers who do not recognise Evans' agenda risk buying into it, not understanding why and how this novel fails. His characterisation of the character he names Janet Frame is incoherent.

Evans’ ‘Janet Frame’ is an illogical cipher, a nonhuman figurine that morphs between the bodiless and the ineffable (a cruel distant person who turns away from human distress), a nebulously crazy person (a creature sometimes living in a hedge), and the dully mundane (a homely knitter). To pretend that this ragbag of descriptions represents the actual Janet Frame is a travesty and, if she were alive, a slander.

Evans inverts the real Janet Frame in many ways. He invents a Frame who denies her past, namely her experience in mental hospitals; who has no sympathy with Sargeson’s lover Harry Doyle, and who recoils from human distress. These inventions (and there are more) are lies. Frame was upfront about her experience: she was good friends with Harry Doyle, and she had great compassion for the messiness of the human condition in her work as well as in her life. She worked as a nursemaid in an old folks home prior to staying at Sargeson’s place, for example.

Commentators so far have either not understood, or have overlooked, the unusual appropriation of Frame’s name (and Sargeson’s) . To graft your own obsessions onto a recently living person, deliberately undermining facts of that person’s life, creating your own fictional character but giving it the name of the recently dead person is strange behavior.

Only four years after Frame’s death, Evans advertised in the quarterly journal New Zealand Books asking for anecdotes about Frame:

I am compiling a collection of anecdotes and urban legends about the late Janet Frame and her family members... I am particularly interested in stories that are untrue, and stories which she knew to be untrue, but am keen to receive any other information. Truth should be no obstacle to contributors. 2
 He seemed to be planning some exploitation of her, a miscellany of half-truths and myths – a ‘Frameana’. But then he seems to have hit on the idea of purging his obsessions about Frame by writing a ‘novel’, thus hoping to avoid infringing copyright and the dangers of ‘false attribution’ and ‘derogatory treatment’, which are aspects of copyright law that continue in force after the death of an author.

The Sargeson character is similarly a caricature of the human Sargeson. Evans' pastiche of Sargeson’s later prose style with equivocations and fusty phraseology wears thin as a literary exercise; it is a diminution of the actual Sargeson at his incisive, crystalline best. Arguably, one of the few aspects of Gifted that works is the fictional portrait of Sargeson’s lover Harry Doyle, of whom few people know anything. Evans shows empathy in his creation of a gay romance. Some commentators regard this aspect of the novel as the most successful.

Frame was not disembodied like Evans' fantasy figure, which serves only his own private obsessions and which resonates with those who have created their own fantasy Frame, often derived from the simpering portrayal by the actor Kerry Fox in Jane Campion’s interpretation of Frame’s biography, An Angel at My Table. In the film Campion admitted she was working out some of her own personal issues, particularly to do with her mother, and these colour the film to such an extent that it is as much about Campion as it is about Frame.

Evans has been frustrated his whole career by Frame. He has long sought to question her agency. What has driven his fascination with Frame’s biography? One clue is that he is a self avowed masculinist, and his previous novel that came out more than twenty years ago stinks of literary testosterone: one of the main characters is a talking penis. Two decades ago Frame scholar Gina Mercer brilliantly analysed Evans' masculinist approach to Frame, teasing out the consequence of his approach, the violation that results from swaggeringly and doggedly questioning Frame’s integrity and self-determination (which in Gifted leads Evans to change the facts of Frame’s life and character so that they accord with his ‘Janet’).

Here is a trenchant example of Mercer’s exposure of Evans:
In these writings [on Frame’s Autobiography] of Garebian, Simpson and Evans I detect common feelings, along the spectrum of anger, frustration and suspicion. These three masculinist critics have energetically attempted to “penetrate” (their term) the work of Janet Frame, some of them have been determinedly at it for years. When the autobiographies were published, perhaps they were hoping for the ultimate “show and tell”, a strip show providing complete accessibility, hoping that Frame would reveal all. 3
Many years ago, Frame protested to Evans about his pursuit of her and his errors :

Perhaps you feel that inaccuracies of fact don’t matter? … Perhaps you feel that writers should inhabit as well as write their fiction? 4
Evans thought that Frame’s rebuffing of, and distaste for, his pursuit of her life, a life he also chose to see embedded in her fiction, was because he was “getting close to some kind of uncomfortable aboriginal truth, some skeleton in the oedipal closet”.5 This is his make-believe.

Two of the main aspects of Frame’s life and work escape Evans: the centrality of poetry to her imagination, and the aptness and precision of her own definition of imagination, most clearly presented in the third volume of her autobiography, The Envoy from Mirror City. Frame often claimed she was not writing conventional fiction but imaginative explorations, conveyed in language employing many of the nuances of poetry. The rich ambiguity and indeterminacy of such powerful and successful prose-poetry stumps the simple-minded approach of Evans. Rather than finding poetry in Frame, he finds annoying puzzles that need to be solved, her oeuvre a gigantic crossword puzzle cold-bloodedly constructed and needing to be as cold-bloodedly worked out, each clue to be tracked down – the perfect career project for an academic. Evans pursues clues in Frame’s texts by fossicking through her biography, and if he can’t find the smoking gun in her life he invents it – for example he invents the fiction that there must have been physical violence, and worse, in Frame’s childhood (– it has to be true, there are so many clues!).

Evans’ motif of inane cryptic clues in Gifted is a pointer to one aspect of his wrongheaded obsessiveness. His projection of Frame’s very occasional word-games onto the period she spent in Sargeson’s hut, and his elaboration of this motif into a dominant philosophical position of Frame in regard to reality (or is that language) reads like the meanderings of an undergraduate seminar.

A recent book of essays by various Frame scholars on Frame’s works, Frameworks, refers to:
“the old occultist urge to crack codes” … [has] more often than not been regarded as the downfall of otherwise promising Frame criticism, and this knowledge tends to stay the impulse to focus on the features of Frame’s work that inspired Worthington’s [and Evans’] “cryptic crossword” analogy. The alternative to the code-cracking trajectory has been criticism that adopted Frame’s own preference for the term “exploration” in place of “novel” and portrayed Frame’s texts as fluid and largely indeterminate. I am thinking specifically here of Gina Mercer’s sensitive Frame criticism in the 1990s … 6
Evans preposterously claims in a recent online interview with one of his students that rather than creating a portrait of Frame he is “channeling Janet”, and that he achieves what she sought to achieve but failed to – the capturing of ‘reality’ in language. His overall and simple-minded characterising of Frame as someone who did not accept ordinary everyday reality but who retreated into a bloodless condition of seeking reality in language rather than using language as a means of engaging with reality is a travesty of her rich humanity that was evident not only to her friends, family and colleagues, but is an insight available to all readers who are open to her writing.

Evans’ ruminations in the online interview are an example of a rhetoric he has developed that, especially in regard to Frame, is a wild mix of speculation, provocation, equivocation and contradiction:

Everything I write is about masculinity … All the time Frame was trying to find a language that was reality … [Gifted is] primarily about Frame’s theory of language, and I wanted to write something wherein the reader could actually experience what she never gave us to experience, which is the moment when language incarnates reality. … I’d like to think my book is a sort of consummation of what she [was] trying to do … having been so intimate with her work [Gifted is] her work, it’s her last novel… 7
Not only does Evans fail in his novel to achieve some creative epiphany – a fanciful fusion of reality with language – he fails to ‘capture’ Frame. His appropriation of her name and then wilful distortion of many of the facts of her life to suit the obscure thesis of his novel is, at least, extremely unethical.

A further passage of Mercer’s, written almost 20 years ago, on Evan’s attitude to Frame’s Autobiography, prophetically analyses the misappropriation and misrepresentation of Frame that Evans enacts in Gifted:
Evans chastises Frame for her ability to realistically evoke the events of her life. Her worst crime for him is that she can “convince … readers that the events she described had actually taken place”. Did they not? How does he know? Perhaps he’s smarting because Frame’s version of her life doesn’t totally tally with his earlier unauthorised version [his 1977 book on Frame]. And not only can she write more convincingly, but she will be presumed by readers to have superior powers of truth-telling when it comes to the facts of her own life. In his own strange and autobiographical piece about Frame’s autobiographies this is one subtext to be detected. He seems to feel really furious with her for daring to reclaim and control the story/history of “her life”, to make it “available to us … in her own terms”, to “possess” and deliver it in a manner of “her own devising”. 8
Complicit with Evans is his publisher Fergus Barrowman of Victoria University Press, who only months prior to the publication of Evans’ novel expressed public outrage at C. K. Stead's prize-winning short story, which Barrowman read, as did many people, as an attack on the memory of Barrowman’s dear departed friend, Nigel Cox, an author published by VUP. (Stead, actually, did not use the name Nigel Cox for his character and denied the story was based on Cox.) After Barrowman’s protestations of outrage in defense of his friend, what consistency then does he show in publishing a novel that so grossly misrepresents the recently dead Janet Frame.

By D. Harold


1 Evans in interview on Kea and Cattle Blog, 24 October 2010

2 New Zealand Books 18:1 Issue 81, Autumn 2008

3 Gina Mercer, Janet Frame: Subversive Fictions, University of Otago Press: Dunedin, 1994, 230

4 Frame letter to Evans, 14 May 1978, cited in M. King, Wrestling with the Angel, Penguin: Auckland, 2000, 419

5 Evans, “The Case of the Disappearing Author”, Journal of New Zealand Literature, 1993

6 Frameworks, eds J. Cronin and S. Drichel, Otago University Press: Dunedin, 2010, 4

7 Kea and Cattle Blog

8 Mercer, 231

See Also (concerning the theatrical adaptation of Gifted):

Play Misrepresents Janet Frame
Fortune Favours the Fake

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