Sunday, 27 December 2020

Book review: Daughter Buffalo, Janet Frame (1972)

I bought this magical book at a second-hand bookstore in Nowra in late 2020.

Magical because it describes in graphic detail how subject and object can be subsumed in a narrative but then, when you try to articulate how each works in the absence of the other – the third existence they shelter coming into being at the conjunction of their intertwined stories – they dissolve into nothing and disappear entirely from view like a bank of mist with the day as the sun rises and warms the air. 

This third thing is only discernible when the cool of night presides. At night and in early morning you can experience, like a scene out of a Shakespeare play, populated by sprites and will-o-the-wisps, something amazing and profound. Like a crepuscular passion play or a royal masque; the page standing in for the stage or the altar.

Frame’s novel uses two separate characters to illustrate her philosophical ideas about existence. One is a New York doctor named Talbot Edelman and the other is a mysterious foreign visitor named Turnlung. The names are fraught with secondary meaning; “tall” and “bot” being suggestive of an automaton and “edel” seeming to resemble “adel” – “friend” in German – which brings to mind the name Adelaide, the name of the heroine of a 1969 Nabokov novel that Frame’s work references in other ways.

For a start there’s Frame’s eponymous animal. So, when he was describing his novel Lolita, Nabokov used the image of an animal at the zoo looking out through the bars at the visitors; in Daughter Buffalo Edelman and Turnlung visit the zoo during their brief friendship as they try to address the nature of death. There’s also the use of the poem ‘Annabel Lee’ by Edgar Alan Poe, which Nabokov also references in his 1955 novel (which brought him to fame and to financial security).

Like Frame, Nabokov toyed with ideas surrounding the confluence of the subjective and the objective, notably in 1972’s Transparent Things, but also in earlier novels, those published originally in Russian when Nabokov was living in Berlin.

Both writers try to come to terms with difficult problems, especially through the use of metafictional elements. The plot is almost incidental, though in Daughter Buffalo Frame characteristically ascribes a certain forbidding coldness to the medical fraternity. Edelman is not an attractive person – apart from his experiments on his dog (in a way that will anticipate Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2005 novel Never Let Me Go) he alienates his fiancĂ©e, Lenore (more echoes of Poe and Nabokov here) and deals with his parents in a cavalier fashion – and though he is intellectually inclined he is far less sympathetic than the impulsive and emotional Turnlung.

The differences that separate these two characters in the reader’s mind, bolster a critical view that values Daughter Buffalo as a novel of ideas. Even as you scan the plaintive lines searching for resolutions that promise to appear but that, even near the end, elude your grasp like faeries in the gloom of evening, you are full of wonder at the skill with which the author manages her creations. And you think about what it all means. In fact, you think about life and what it meant to Frame, the novelist, who died some years back. What does mortality signify for you, yourself? 

How to deal with the accidental journeys of imagination that animate your days and that – because of the ways that the mind works to generate reality – hurt you or else that fill you with joy, longing, pleasure, confusion, and curiosity? Because Frame’s novel is a keeper and because she reprises themes that other writers initiated (as shown above) and that would be taken up by yet other novelists (ditto), the ending of Daughter Buffalo is a prediction of the reader’s life as well as the simple conclusion of a Postmodern novel. 

The dog in Frame’s novel that Edelman experiments on is, like the character of Kathy H in Never Let Me Go and like the eponymous character in Lolita, female. In Daughter Buffalo the mise-en-abime – a painting that Edelman’s father brings to Edelman’s house one day – succinctly embodies all of the drama the novel retails in, in a single image, making them memorable and portable. Like a consumer good, like an artwork, like anything that is made and used, even if it is made to be talked about (like a novel).

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