“The Adaptable Man” by Janet Frame

the adapable man

Humans are adaptable. It’s how we have survived—evolved, pretty much, for the most part, successfully, for now. Who knows how long we will last. It could go on for a long, long time, or all end badly, one big asteroid could screw us all—or just bomb the fuck out ourselves over disagreeable ideology shit. When it comes down to it—it doesn’t matter a hill of beans in this crazy world, universe, whatever, everything will go on with or without us.

But I digress just because of the times in which we live right now—which seems to reinvent itself with every generation.

Which brings us to the village of Little Burgelstatham (a burgel, a burial place for the heathen.) (p. 12) And what happens there—and the people who live there, it all starts with a senseless murder of Botti Julio, an Italian farm worker (and a survivor of a concentration camp) arrives in Little Burgelstatham one evening, on the way to the Sapley’s farm where he has a job picking black currents. He was found drowned in a pond the next morning… well, only the scarecrows saw what happened to Botti Julio. (Page 19.) His fate is ultimately blamed on the lack of electricity to light Murston Lane, the poor man couldn’t find his way in the dark, didn’t know there was a pond—he was a stranger, he was foreign, and his English wasn’t very good. What was officially determined to be an accident was actually a murder. But why was he murdered? Was it because he was a stranger? Or was there some other reason. Who killed him? Why? There are some who might ask: Why would the Sapley’s hire a man to come all the way from Italy to pick black currants for them, when there are perfectly capable people who live here who would be happy to do the job. This man died by the hand of another, Alwyn Maude (which isn’t a spoiler cuz it’s right on the back cover as the synopsis), a college student home for holiday. He gets away with it, and there is no justice served. He’s a real piece of work that one—argh! He “…has taken the first step toward being the truly Adaptable Man, a Child of His Time, by murdering someone whom he did not know, whom he had never seen in his life before, whom he neither loved nor hated, a man whose only qualification for being murdered was that he belonged to the human race.” ( from page 149) To kill someone just to do it, to know what it’s like to kill someone. “Alwyn is proud that he killed successfully…If Raskolnikov had lived now, Alwyn thinks, two pages rather than a novel would have been needed to describe his feelings after killing.” (p. 150)

It’s been awhile that a book made me flinch and squirm a bit. There’s some things I’m not going to cover here—I could go on a long rant about this asshole, but it wouldn’t be productive, so I won’t. If there’s anyone else out there that wants to take an intelligent and well researched psychoanalysis crack at it, be my guest. (Blargh!)

The ghostly memory of this man’s death lingers through the thoughts of the varied cast of characters, including Alwyn, he muses on page 113 I’m no Raskolnikov. It seems that some of the characters know or suspect who killed him, and/or may have witnessed the act, or just perceptive enough to put 2 + 2 together and think—hmmmm… (But don’t we all rather not think the worst of someone? Especially when they’re handsome and bright, and a family member?)

Botti Julio’s ghost lingers throughout the book, echoes of his learned phrases flit here and there just when you might have forgotten—What? You didn’t know this was a ghost story? In the traditional sense of a ghost story it wouldn’t be, but it is—on page 20 the ghost is first mentioned:

see—here, now, a ghost in our story…

Oh, a haunting we will go, a haunting we will go—Boo! Scream!  A haunting we will go! (A bit o’ silly business here, I had been tipping a little bit o’ our mead while Winter Storm Stella was raging outside so this might be a little more amusing or not…) Anyway, the ghost story purists won’t like it, but an author who ventures beyond the parameters of expectation is one after my heart, Janet Frame never disappoints me.

One of the many things I love about Janet Frame novels, they are more than they seem. On a whim one morning, I dug around the Internet to see if someone had written something interesting about her books (someone usually does) and I found an essay: An Other Form of Ghost Story by Josephine Carter (link at end). It’s a fascinating essay overall, but I only wish to quote from it here: “Critical of all state legitimized violence, Frame, a literary agitator, enacts a disruptive response: an unconventional ghost story which denies closure and the reestablishment of order.” The “spine tingling” in this “Other Form of Ghost Story” is not about the ghost jumping out, saying “boo!” to scare the jeepers-creepers out of a body to get revenge. It’s about the persistent sense of no reprieve, this man’s death will forever haunt Little Burgelstatham—even if it doesn’t create a guilty conscious for the arrogant jerk who did the deed—this man’s death lingers in the atmosphere because this sort of thing doesn’t happen around here. Sometimes it’s the uncommon occurrences that are the train wrecks that cause the rubberneck syndrome during the humdrum of the day-to-day routines. They’re uncomfortable and distressing events, no one wants to see it happen, hear about it, or experience it—but the hushed conversations and gasps of astonishment gets the old blood flowing and the sparks flying in our brains; the dark thoughts prevailing over the light.

 In my view of such things as the ghosts that haunt us, it’s more than the paranormal, it’s the history that the community itself lives with that haunts them. Their traditions, their way of living, doing, everything about them down to the clothes they wear and the food they eat, their routines in everyday life, the fields of barley and sugar beets. They are the Children of Their Time. The outside world is invading their homes through modern conveniences like electricity, the improvement of transportation by upgrading the roads. Early on in the novel (page 34), Bert Whattling, a 74 year old pensioner, riding his bicycle feels intimidated by the traffic— It was no help for Bert, facing the hazards of fifty yards of A-class road, to remember that he’d once been a soldier, in the First World War. Danger seemed not as simple as it used to be. I understand Bert completely. I’ll be 55 in May, and the world is changing faster than I can keep up. It pisses me off to no end.

 With electricity comes information and entertainment more readily available through television (again, Bert’s perspective later in the book, he laments on page 232 “A television breed!”

The final nail in the coffin of this small community comes in the form of the migration of people from London, “the Overspill.” Poor Bert, near the end of the book can’t even catch his breath in a favorite spot against the old Unwin family cottage wall facing the lilac hedge because the owner of the cottage has fenced it off, effectively barring him from settling himself down to take a load off after eating his lunch. Then on page 223, he suffers the indignity of the “television man from London” calling out to him “Whattling, here a minute!” Bert was always just Bert to those who knew him, and so… he [the television man from London] had committed the double crime of imagining that he already belonged to the village, and that he could speak to Bert as a master might speak to his slave.

(Sigh.) Take a breath, there’s more…

The Overspill is coming like a plague of locusts. This book is from 1965—the Baby Boomer generation (which I’m at the end-bookend of it, I’m like a hybrid with GenX) and the post-WWII life, a society in motion, and the mandated consequence branded as “The Overspill” of Londoners to the quiet little hamlets and villages in the countryside. The Overspill is otherwise known as Suburban Sprawl in America. I grew up in a neighborhood that was built in the 1950’s by some of the GI’s who came home from the war. The one story ranch houses were fitted into neat little sections, butted up against older homes that had once been the grand, fine homes from another time. Their original property lines cut, and cut again, parceled out, bit by bit, until it’s just an odd-shaped lot on which a rather large house lounges, the lone proud lion surrounded by domestic cats. My mother, who grew up in that small town, remembered our neighborhood as farmland, the street had once been a horse-drawn wagon track into the woods. The town was changing, the economy was changing, business that had once been the boom of the town was dying out with the slow demise of generations that had built it. The new generation commuted to The City to work. It was a nice town to raise a family. Through the 1970’s I watched out of the corner of my eye as the town evolved into something other than what it once was, the old homes themselves became parceled within into apartments, some neighborhoods that were once very nice, became rundown and sad. The once grand homes sagged and leaned, their facades furrowed with age. I moved to the city to go to college, and then started my family there, but later, we moved to the country to get away from the problems of the city, the crime, the filth, the schools. We followed our dreams to an old farmhouse on a piece of land, which was surrounded by fields being farmed by local people who were renting from the current owner. It was the classic fixer-upper. The land and house had once been part of the farm, subdivided, and sold off piecemeal. And now, twenty years later, the “overspill,” is happening, bordering on my backyard. There was a time when our house, before we owned it, was the only one on Irish Hill, but things change. People live and die, move on, adapt to do something else other than farming. Now our old farmhouse is the sore thumb compared to the newly built homes that arrived made to order, pre-fab, delivered on the back of trucks, each section pieced together. It’s a difficult transition getting used to their sounds, and their being there. Now we’re the oddity—we’re those people. I am irritated by the encroachment, we were here first—with that said, I felt sympathy for the residents of Little Burgelstatham—they’re becoming the ghosts of a time and way of life fading fast.

(From page 224) An exciting, controversial talking-point, but not nearly so enjoyable now that the idea was becoming a frightful reality… “Overspill. Overspill.”

  Such a strange word to choose. Didn’t something that spilled, spill over also? Or were they using “overspill” to try to explain that once the people of London began coming to East Anglia nothing could stop them, there’d never be an end of their spilling, as there’d never be an end of people from London…and all over the new words that motorways brought with them—“bypass,” “flyover,” “flyunder.” …

(From page 232) Rumors became the tall stories of the hour. “They” were going to pull down all the farm workers’ cottages. “They” would build Council flats in the barley fields, offices with luxury penthouses (for directors) in the sugar-beet fields. If your cottage was not pulled down, then it would be taken under the Compulsory Purchase Order to make room for a motorway. Noise, smoke, smell, crime, no jobs, and a race of strangers who laughed at your dialect and your customs and your clothes and your ignorance of the great world; a nasty television breed.

(From page 234) The town planner, in the deep chair by the fire, put down his glass and turned to his companion, a London architect.

 “See what we’ll have to meet?” he said. “They’re a different race. Talk about New Town loneliness! That reminds me—there’s that competition to name the new town. The psychologists say it should be held locally—you know, let the natives feel they have a share in the project. It pays dividends, overcomes hostility.”

 “Wouldn’t you be hostile?”

 “I’d shoot the invaders as if they were so many wood pigeons. So be careful. We’re in a foreign land here.”

 “Should we try to fraternize?”

 “Hell no, not more than usual. Just don’t make the mistake of pointing out a wheat field and exclaiming in your educated accent, ‘What magnificent barley!’”

Infuriating isn’t it? You bet she meant it. This book is quite deliberate with its message—being adaptable. Each character adapts to something in spite of the unpleasant circumstances they find themselves in—some very strange and some very familiar. There is no need to scratch too deep into their surface to find the itch they worry over, the weather, the overspill, longing for something lost, and the lingering ghost of Botti Julio. “These photographs are underexposed. Please will you intensify them.”

I love Janet Frame’s work because there’s so much more below the surface of the story—it’s more than a story. I “get her.” She’s not an easy read, she presents readers with puzzles and scatters the pieces for us to fit together—I take my time, examine the bits—ooo and ahh over their intricate plots, and dog-ear the pages, and if I have a pencil handy, I make notes, underline, re-read.  Just picking it up to write this I catch myself immersing already, I have a hard time putting it down.

Carter, Josephine. An Other Form of Ghost Story: Janet Frame’s “The Adaptable Man,” Interdisciplinary Literary Studies 13, no. 1/2 (2011): 45-60. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41328511.

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