Prizes: The Selected Stories of Janet Frame

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01/06/2010 5:00 AM |

Prizes: The Selected Stories of Janet Frame
Counterpoint Press

Janet Frame was days away from a scheduled lobotomy when she learned that her first book of stories had won the Hubert Church Memorial Award, a significant honor in her native New Zealand. That book, written while she was in a mental hospital, literally saved her career: her doctors canceled the lobotomy. Prizes includes stories from that award-winning collection and goes on to span four decades of work, exhibiting Frame’s enormous range in both voice and subject matter.

Many of the 42 stories are only a page or two in length, with longer stories appearing more frequently as the collection progresses. There are several fables: two sheep, one aware of its impending doom and the other not, converse on their way to the slaughterhouse; a man who’s grown tired of his body’s demands befriends three mice in the hopes they’ll dispose of his corpse after his self-decapitation. The mice oblige, of course, “following the tradition of all rescued animals in fairy stories.” This kind of sly acknowledgment is what makes Frame’s stories so disturbing: there’s a playfulness that is deeply complicated by most of her endings. People die suddenly; entire kingdoms commit mass suicide; the brain of the decapitated man is mistaken for a prune and devoured by the very mice he called friends.

Later stories move away from the fantastic to some degree, though they continue to explore the psychology of loneliness and death. “The Teacup,” “The Bath,” and “The Triumph of Poetry” all follow characters who cling to some inaccurate assessment of their lives, only to see that framework obliterated. The prose is still as playful and arresting as in earlier stories, but applied to the ordinary, it achieves a much starker effect.

The New Yorker published two of Frame’s stories in 2008, four years after her death, and although neither appears in Prizes, there are five previously uncollected stories included here that, along with the rest of the collection, present a full and vibrant picture of Frame’s tremendous gifts.