Patrick Evans: Gifted
Below, in my earlier review, you have it: the proof that I was happily persuaded, via a narrative I knew was fictional, that I ‘understood’ Frame more thoroughly than I did before reading Gifted. This type of (in my case willing) delusion is just one of the reasons for the recent outraged and abusive post by Pamela Gordon, Frame’s niece and the executor of her estate.
(2nd May: The part of the post that prompted me to use the adjective ‘abusive’ – a comment Gordon added to it about Fergus Barrowman’s objections to CK Stead’s story ‘Last Season’s Man’ – has been now been taken down, so in regard to the original post, ‘abusive’ no longer stands. )
As a writer and reader, I object to her objections.
I don’t think ‘cultural appropriation’ is a crime, unless the new artefact is devoid of any meaning, for example car manufacturers’ use of Maori designs. What do we now think of any royal objections to Shakespeare’s use of actual kings & princes in his history plays?
Gordon also objects to Frame being ‘only 7 years dead’. I don’t think that makes any difference. Time is a random factor, and apparently much more flexible than we have thought: it’s only time that separates us from ancestors with whom we share nearly all of our genetic code. They are closer to us than we usually consider: does that mean we can’t reinvent them?
Would Gifted be OK if no-one could remember what Frame was ‘really’ like? Would we then be allowed to reinvent her? If yes, then why not now? If no, then what’s the difference between that and being unable to cartoonify the prophet Mohammed?
Gordon accuses Evans of portraying Frame as ‘deceitful, dishonest and inhuman’, which makes me doubt that she has read the book at all. For a start, Evan’s Sargeson is far harder on himself than he is on Janet. He, who knows exactly what he’s writing (a knowingly fallible narrator), shows himself up to be sometimes intellectually and emotionally limited, contradictory, often petty (and despite all that, deeply sympathetic).
What does Frame do, in the novel, that makes Gordon think that Evans has depicted her as such? Hide under the hedge? Give him evasive answers? Tell him that she’s doing something other than going to the shops, then go to the shops? I really fail to see how Gifted is an attack on her integrity. Does Gordon mean that in life, Frame always behaved with utter consistency and reliability? She would have been very boring if that were the case.
And where does ‘inhuman’ come from? Evans’s Frame seems to me much more human than most people: that she knew to her core the difficulties of being human, and that her love of truth often did not allow her to fake normality the way most of us [try to] do. I had the impression, after reading Towards Another Summer, that somehow she knew that if she committed all her energies towards blending into normal society, she would lose the connection to her treasures, as Phillip Thirkettle has. (‘Perhaps he himself had no access to his treasures…’)
And so what if I do feel ‘closer’ to Frame than I did previously, and if my Frame is not the same as the ‘real’ Frame? I *did* realise that Gifted is fiction, and that my ‘understanding’ of Frame is actually in some imaginative world, some kind of mirror city I guess, but (despite the biographical evidence that Frame was keen not to have the facts of her life misrepresented) I do feel that her writer self might have approved of and understood: after all, we all get a deluded idea of who a writer ‘is’ just from reading their books.
Maybe it’s something to do with this: that the ‘self’ of the writer who comes through their novels are generally very different from their day to day ‘selves’; Pamela Gordon knew the day-to-day Janet, and perhaps what Evans has done is to extrapolate from her novels (which he has studied so closely) and has therefore made a Frame from a somewhat different dimension. (My neighbour, who has read Acts of Love, says ‘I never would have guessed that you would have written it…it’s so different from my idea of you.’)
Gordon also states that
‘Actually in an online interview Evans claims his novel is the “culmination” of all that Frame never really achieved (in his opinion)… He calls this her “last novel” and claims to have channeled her in writing it.’
If this is true, then it is a weird claim, but not one worth getting upset about. A work of art stands apart from its maker and the maker’s ego. I reckon it has a separate consciousness and cannot be discussed in relation to the maker himself (which is why interviews with writers of fiction are often such a diverting nonsense).
I do believe that the ego is not very much concerned with creating. If it is, the art it creates usually doesn’t work very well, and / or isn’t very interesting or longlasting. In any case, whatever Evans says about Gifted, and whatever his motives were in writing it, has nothing to do with the merits of the book.
However, if Gordon’s talking about Margo White’s excellent review / interview in the Listener, what Evans actually said there was
“You’re listening to a voice and thinking, ‘What’s the next line?’ It’s the writing that’s doing this … it’s coming out of a part of your brain than is not normally accessible.” After Evans’s decades of teaching and reading “the father of New Zealand fiction”, it seems the man was lurking in his subconscious, just waiting to be channelled. “Yeah, a friend of mine has said, ‘It’s your life’s work. This is what you were put on this planet to do’”
It’s White who uses the word ‘channelled’, and it’s in relation to the Sargeson character, not Frame. I couldn’t find any other online interviews that referred to channeling.
I’m loving being tangled up in this book. It’s as though, even when I’m not reading it, Frank Sargeson is at my side, gossiping and philosophising into my ear. I have to keep reminding myself that it’s fiction (though actually I don’t very often, as I love the delusion) because, probably aided by the knowledge that Frank and Janet were ‘real’, part of my brain does believe the book contains Frank’s memoir.
I’m struck by the difference in my enjoyment of Gifted, and my recent consumption by Franzen’s ‘Freedom’. I haven’t worked through the following thought, but it seems to me something to do with Franzen’s more obvious manipulation of his readers. I’d love to be able to do what he does, but Freedom left me feeling bloated and weighed down. Reading Gifted, I feel light, fizzing with the excitement of such a well-wrought fiction. I suppose it’s not as manic as Freedom’s accumulation of detail. (And as said before, I couldn’t forget about the characters while I was reading Franzen’s book, but they haven’t stayed with me.)