The Edge of the Alphabet a Novel by Janet Frame

The Edge of the Alphabet by Janet Frame

I’m continuing my journey discovering Janet Frame; The Edge of the Alphabet is yet another magical book of prose, experimental and challenging, a timeless narrative about the beauty and ugliness of the human condition. She plunges right in, starting on the first page:

Man is the only species for whom the disposal of waste is a burden, a task often ill judged, costly, criminal—especially when he learns to include himself, living and dead, in the list of waste products.

 The creator of the world did not employ a dustman to collect the peelings of his creation.

 Now I, Thora Pattern (who live at the edge of the alphabet where words like plants either grow poisonous tall and hollow about the rusted knives and empty drums of meaning, or, like people exposed to a deathly weather, shed their fleshy confusion and show luminous, knitted with force and permanence), now I walk day and night among the leavings of people, places and moments. Here the dead (my goldsmiths) keep cropping up like daisies with their floral blackmail. It is nearly impossible to bribe them or buy their silence. Page 3

 …and it is non-stop to the last page:

The edge of the alphabet where words crumble and all forms of communication between the living are useless. One day we who live at the edge of the alphabet will find our speech.

 Meanwhile our lives are solitary; we are captives of the captive dead. We are like those yellow birds which are kept apart from their kind—you see their cages hanging in windows, in the sun—because otherwise they would never learn the language of their captors.

 But like the yellow birds have we not our pleasures? We look long in mirrors. We have tiny ladders to climb up and down, little wheels to set our feet and our heart racing nowhere; toys to play with.

 Should we not be happy?  Page 303

It can leave one breathless…

Janet Frame’s books never cease to fascinate me—I have dog-eared several pages of this one (like others) marking where I want to return someday to explore a word-scape of unique beauty. The entire book is loaded with the most exquisite language—precious, priceless. She created geographical territory in which the borders of social inclusion and exclusion are investigated with an emphasis on language (communication or the lack of communication). The ghosts of the past are haunting, memories of lost relatives or events linger with a zealous desire to be remembered. There are surreal essences of despair, fear, failure— fragile dreams and disquieting realities—the human condition of those existing on the margins, marginalized—to be blunt, reality sucks. Sadly, this is a generous portion of our world’s population—life is not glamor, romance, and drama—to look away and deny it is negligent. Life is gritty with filth—our manmade rubbish, self-made madness, and life-long sickness. Some people are incapable of coping with life—some just do not have the tools to cope as they are flawed by disabilities (Toby’s epilepsy) or disabled by life (Zoe’s ignorance.) They are people easily discarded and ignored—yet Janet Frame writes in a way that makes the ugliness of life beautiful—and in all the trauma, there are comic pleasures that wink with a sweet wit that isn’t frivolous, if anything, the absurdity is very grounding.

A first kiss leading to the private research of identity, which leads to the creation of a sculpture from the silver paper of a cigarette pack, and then a life ended. A novel, The Lost Tribe, left unwritten because the writer is illiterate. Paintings destroyed, talent unrealized by an artist overcome by despair. And a life spent just getting by, going through the motions of life’s expectations to the point of not truly living.

 “Just how much blank paper do you need, sir, to match your blank life?” Page 278


“He’s getting above himself, going overseas.”…there is an affliction of dream called ‘overseas’, a suffering of sleep endured by the prophetic, the bored, the retired, and the living who will not admit that it is easier and cheaper to die, die once and forever and travel as dust. But being dust how can you return and have your name in the paper and yourself pointed out in the street as having been “overseas” and your conversation filled with the names of places you have visited, your words received with wonder, as prophecies…How, if you are not Marco Polo or Herodotus? Page 49-50


Shall I write a book? Everybody is going to write a book. Memoirs on writing paper, toilet paper, café wall, pavement, or stone column in a city cemetery where borders of trees provide a trip-wire into silence. Shall I write? Shall I engage in private research of identity? Page 99


And then she laughed out loud to think that she had never known, that she had always believed that people were separate with boundaries and fences and scrolled iron gates, Private Road, Trespassers Will be Prosecuted; that people lived and died in shapes and identities with labels easily recognizable, with names which they clutched, like empty suitcases, on a journey to nowhere. Page 106


The day is patched with long silences between the communication of people, give rise to dread; as if the time itself held a reserve of opinion too terrible to express. In the cracks of the silence the people’s voices grow like bright feverish weeds whose stalks are hollow and whose shallow roots are separated from the earth (or water) with one tug of a hand or breeze; now and again people’s voices disappear in the gaps that open with the continual shock of Time. Page 215


“Did you make it?” he asked Zoe. “How did you think of it?”

 Everyone admired the shape once again. Zoe was not used to being the center of attention; not for something she had made—when in her life had she ever made anything? It’s only a bit of paper, she said to herself, but she throbbed with warmth. How strange that it had so affected the others, had evoked in them feelings which they could only consider and explore by sitting there, as all three were doing now, silent, staring at the silver sculpture…How extraordinary, Zoe thought, that such feeling should be roused by seeing a conventional paper shape twisted at random, in idleness, among strangers whom I shall never meet again. Page 272


Janet Frame writes with this special vision about social identity, a textual borderland—a wonderland— an Is-land—the post-colonial experience, New Zealand and England—being an alien within one’s homeland and within one’s own skin, living in the margins—at the edge of the alphabet…


 And sometimes it seemed too much like being excluded from the mystical long-division sum, like being the odd number at the bottom or at the side of the column, the mental afterthought, the carrying number put there for mere convenience and erased when the answer to the sum is worked out. Page 297

Honestly, who hasn’t spent time living on the edge of the alphabet…