Janet Frame: “Gavin Highly”

"Gavin Highly"
by Janet Frame
Originally published in the April 5, 2010 issue of The New Yorker.
Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage.

Click for a larger image.

Since Janet Frame died in 2004 we’ve been seeing a few of her works published posthumously. I am not sure what of her I’ve read before, though I know I have read something by Janet Frame.

This little story was very strange, yet in the end I found it highly endearing. It is told by a child, perhaps prone to exaggeration and definitely prone to taking literally the things adults say. This might explain why when we first meet Gavin Highly, a very poor man, the narrator says he used to live in a rabbit hole where he would have kindly ferrets over for tea.

There is a health inspector, a man who seems to be able to go through keyholes, who is certain to find Gavin’s current abode is uninhabitable. Gavin has no money, so if he is forced to leave his home, who knows where he will go? The central conflict, then, shapes up: Gavin apparently has an extensive book collection, his treasures and pride that mean his life to him. He could sell the books and live off of the millions.

I’m afraid that’s as far as I can go in plot summary. The great thing about this story, though, isn’t necessarily the plot. It’s in the nature of the story-telling itself. The young narrator’s experience with this tale is wonderfully rendered: “I did not see anything that happened, but I know, I tell you, I know that it happened this way.”

Another great thing about the story is the sadness that the reader feels when the young narrator’s voice is stripped away and we understand what is really (or, at least, probably) happening to Gavin Highly.

I’m not sure where this one ranks against the other 2010 stories so far, but I know it would be towards the top for me.

13 thoughts on “Janet Frame: “Gavin Highly”

  1. A very strange story, I agree. It is quite a readable one, however. I do find Gavin to be a rather interesting character, but then I was also happy that the story wasn’t a long one — I doubt the premise could have been sustained much longer. Certainly not one of my favorite stories, but there have been worse.

  2. Thanks for that link, Joe — it is an interesting interview, particularly if you don’t know Frame’s work well (and I don’t). It enhances my opinion of the story somewhat.

  3. I have no idea what this story is about; read the interview with the niece and still have no idea what this story is about. This one goes all the way down at the bottom of my list, along with ‘The Knockng’ and “William Burns’.

  4. Ha! Javins, I just barely posted my response to the story above, and it’s always so interesting to me to see such a strong contrast among the responses! I loved the story, found it absolutely charming and saddening.

  5. Trevor, yes it is interesting how reactions differ so markedly. Part of the reason for mine may be the complete lack of mystery as to what the expert’s “real world” conclusion would be, though his kindness in stating it was unexpected. But even that kindness – I don’t know; at that point, is it the expert or the narrator, or merely the author, who is speaking? And what in the world did the exchange over breakfast and the musings on the sycamores have to do with anything? I’ll admit it: this may be a really great story, but I haven’t the first cluse what it’s about. Maybe it has partiaular motifs or themes that make it intelligible to anyone familiar with those, but I am lost. I was too harsh though; while after I had I really wished I hadn’t read ‘The Knocking’, and even more so ‘William Burns’, this one I just found totally perplexing and vaguely annoying.

  6. I agree with you, Trevor, there was something in the narrator’s voice that invited me into this story. Yes, he doesn’t understand what is going on, but he sees some elements of it. And in communicating them, he also indicates what he doesn’t understand. All that does make it a great story, but a very readable one for me.

  7. Hi Kevin, based on your previous comments here and the “but” in your sentence, I think you mean “All that doesn’t make it a great story,” right?

    I certainly wouldn’t put it at the top of my all-time list, but I did enjoy it for more reasons than that it was readable. Perhaps it is because Sherry has such a great way of telling me stories about her childhood, what she thought and how she felt — she often tells the outlandish stories as if she still feels the same way. And I certainly felt for Gavin and for the town when it turned out that his books were just old children’s history books he’d dug up in the dump. Makes me wonder how much of the town really believed that he had something of value, but if they did it is sad to see that kind of fantasy shot down so suddenly — which, for me, played with the fantasy the narrator had created.

  8. Maybe the point is the essential worthlesness of all wordly goods, compared to the centrality of knowledge and dreams to our existence? His books have no value in this world, but “the expert” has no doubt that they are very valuable nontheless and confirms this for Gavin when he expresses doubt. That’s also maybe an expression of pure faith? I’m still trying to figure out what this story is about.

  9. I don’t think there’s a point to the story, javins — at least as “point” refers to some kind of theme or tidbit of knowledge or, worse, a moral. I think the books are just part of the story, a prop, almost, something to get the conflict going. I think this is more a story, or even an exercise, in narrative. We have this young narrator, still fairly innocent because of age and because of the tales he or she’s been told, telling the story about something the narrator didn’t even witness. I may be way off, but I don’t think there’s much to take away from the books themselves other than what literally happens here.

  10. Well, this is interesting, because being a fable of some sort, nothing literally happens. I just can’t figure out what the subject of the fable is.

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