Academic journal article Journal of New Zealand Literature

Other Countries and the Terrain of Representation in the Adaptable Man

Academic journal article Journal of New Zealand Literature

Other Countries and the Terrain of Representation in the Adaptable Man

Article excerpt

Janet Frame has just had her second most prolific decade in a career going back to the 1950s. In the last ten years have appeared two novels, a volume of short stories, a volume of poems, a volume of non-fiction, a short story published as a separate book, and a volume of correspondence (not counting reprints and selections). This has to be considered a healthy rate for someone who has been dead since 2004. With this output has also come an intensification of the scholarly reassessment following her death, a reassessment in which increasing sophistication is being brought to bear both on individual works and thematic issues, as the need to defend her entire oeuvre, not to mention her personality, recedes.

One of the thematic beneficiaries of this attention is Frame's status as a riddling manipulator of the constraints and oddness of representation, and in this enquiry one of her most teasing texts is the novel The Adaptable Man. Not for nothing does Jan Cronin begin her recent monograph The Frame Function: An Inside Out Guide to the Novels of Janet Frame with a chapter on The Adaptable Man, in which Cronin's textual detective-work shows just how impossible it is to treat even very small units of Frame's work as coherently decipherable despite their provocative invitation to the reader to do so.1 At the same time, one of Cronin's points is that Frame's work gestures to us in such a way that we cannot refuse this invitation. Readers are summoned to a decoding mode even when they suspect that any scheme of hermeneutic attention will be confounded. Far from this being a criticism, however, it is precisely the intricacy of Frame's both underwriting and evacuating the resources of representation that constitutes one of the aspects of her work that her admirers most enjoy. This article will accordingly attempt (and fail) to unpack one more of the dizzying thematic nexuses in The Adaptable Man: the mobilization of other countries.

At one point in The Adaptable Man, Alwyn, apparently at this point marked as the adaptable man himself, leaves the village where most of the novel is set to live in Spain. Going to live in another country might be thought of as a purposed rejection of the negative type of adaptability figured by Alwyn as a 'narrowing of the main stream to a single obsession of age'.2 Concurring here with Alwyn, Marc Delrez suggests that 'the title of the novel refers to a mere pretence of adaptation, which consists of narrowing down the horizon to fit one's range of vision'.3 Going to live in another country, on the other hand, implicitly proposes an opening out to the inevitable confrontational encounter with difference that living in a foreign culture embodies, glossed by Isabel Michell as Frame's 'migrant poetic',4 a destabilization in this case of the drive to homeostasis of the everyday life indexed by an English village. Frame had also lived in the type of culturally and literarily idealized English village depicted in the novel, soon discovering that the reality did not match her expectations of peace and quiet at all.5 The Adaptable Man's slipping in and out of the supposed register of the travel journalist performs what Gina Wisker calls an 'analysis of the genre of the "Olde Englande" novel [...] a genre whose function is to facilitate burial and avoidance, not as an innocent source of nostalgia'.6 In addition, Frame's own period in Spain had been of such intensity and value, including the intensity of her eventual romantic disappointment,7 that it is difficult to quarantine off such an important character as Alwyn's translocation to Spain as merely superficial and self-interested, as possessing a tangential relationship to the novel's principal issues.

In fact, other countries are ever-present in The Adaptable Man, not only in the form of places that people actually depart for or arrive in. They also exist, for example, as Vic's expressed desire to emigrate to Australia, as Russell's collecting symbols of other countries in the form of stamps, and later as his attraction to watching aeroplanes at London airport. …

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