The New Yorker Reader, “Gorse Is Not People,” by Janet Frame

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08/28/2008 10:00 AM |

This is a public service announcement… with guitars!

Janet Frame is a dead writer from New Zealand who rather famously struggled with mental illness; this story, “found among her papers,” as such things often are, is about a dwarf and ward of the state celebrating her 21st birthday celebration (and competency exam). We’ve previously dealt with Frame, earlier this year, with another previously unpublished story about mental illness — that one was narrated by an institutionalized woman, but her narration was vague and almost impersonal; while the narrator here identifies herself as “I” once, early on, and then proceeds to tell the story of poor, poor Naida.

As this “I”, again nebulously defined, Frame dips into and out of the stunted (mentally as she is physically) perspective of Naida, essentially making us pity her (and the state’s clumsy treatment of her) by juxtaposing her perceptions against the objective world (for instance, we hear about her grand romances, while mentions of the brand names of Naida’s runny lipstick strike us as cheap), and by offering no explanations for her behavior better than she can come up with herself.

The “I”, though, is again mysterious, and curiously forceful:

You had, as they say, attained your majority. You could vote in the elections; you could leave home against your parents’ wishes; you could marry in defiance of all opposition. You had crossed a legal border into a free country, and you now walked equipped with a giant tinsel key, a cardboard key covered with threepenny spangles.

Or perhaps your twenty-first birthday did not happen that way. Perhaps there was no party, no cake, no wine, and no kiss? I would like to tell you about Naida’s twenty-first birthday.

Between the narrator’s withholding of her identity, her insistence that we hear about Naida, and the deep sympathy with which the story’s descriptions slip into a childlike sense of perception (“the small square house with its wooden latticed eyebrows”), we wonder who is telling us this story, and why, and it makes us pay closer attention to this perspective and to this small tragedy than we otherwise might, in a story whose ending wraps things up as unsubtly as this one’s does.