NEW ZEALAND NOVELIST Janet Frame's nine previous novels have earned her a small, devoted following, and the praises of American book reviewers. Living in the Maniototo , her first book in seven years, is a mixed performance. Although imaginative, it is at times overwritten and disjointed.

The story centers on the life and travels of a female New Zealand novelist with several identities. Alice Thumb, writer, is Mavis Furness/Barwell/Halleton, and also Violet Pansy Roudlock, ventriloquist. She's tipsy -- perhaps severly disturbed -- and quite wonderful, especially when she's not writing about novel writing. And Living in the Maniototo is mostly about writing fiction, with extensive ruminations on originals and replicas, the real and the imagined. Alice/Mavis/Violet journeys from New Zealand to Baltimore to Berkeley, where she has accepted the use of a house while its owners, the Garretts, tour Italy. She is soon told that the owners have been killed in an earthquake, and that she has inherited the house. Alice is joined by two couples, previously invited guests of the Garrets. These four intrude upon Alice's consciousness, forcing her to change her plans and write about them. Journalist Roger Prestwick yearns to seek God in the desert, while his wife's quest centers on Parmeasan cheese. Theo Carlton is an expert on soil erosion and saving lives; his young wife Zita owes him, and resents it.

The novel's characters exist on at least two levels of unreality. There are the author's characters, and there are Frame's character's (Alice's) characters -- all this to show the complexity of the artist's task. It's neatly intricate when it works, which isn't always. Frame often intrudes unnecessarily, as when Alice believes her benefactors' death, "simply because it was coincidence that fiction, would never have allowed. . .. ." This is heavy-handed, and even more so when we learn more about the Garretts' fate.

And why not such a coincidence? I was willing to believe it would happen to Alice, this woman whose first husband was a medical student turned drain-layer and whose second husband went from teaching French to debt-collecting, this woman who witnessed the demise of a Baltimore jeweler, whooshed away by the Blue Fury -- a detergent.

Frame questions the credibility of her story at they wrong times. Too often when she writes about writing, she breaks the spell she casts throughout much of the novel. She writes more convincingly of Alice in all her personas than she does of Alice's characters, those half-realized, conventionally self-absorbed intruder guests who visit Berkeley. Frame is a better novelist than Alice, and Alice gets to write too much of the book.

According to the novel's jacket, Frame has been working at writers' colonies Yaddo and MacDowell, and traveling throughout the United States. Yet Baltimore and Berkeley, for all the lushness of description accorded them, are not as fully evoked as one might have hoped from a writer of Frame's ability. She seems to have selected Berkeley as a setting only to score some easy points against the contemporary rage for the "Great California Confession" and against Americans' search for the easy road to culture and knowledge. On the other hand, she is wonderfully funny on the Americanization of New Zealand. Her suburban hometown has been elaborately malled; its citizens "buy buy buy for cas or credit their furniture, electrical appliances, food, a variety of services -- international flower delivery, hairdressing, dental and medical care."

Frame's Rose can be prolix: "I feel that language in its widest sense is the hawk suspended above eternity, feeding from it but not of its substance and not necessarily for its life and thus never able to be translated into it only able by a wing movement, so to speak, a cry, a shadow, to hint at what lies beneath it on the untouched, undescribed almost unknown plain." Yes. And so?

But her writing can also cut through to the heart of things: "He had the habit, as some people have, of making personal characteristics sound like virtues." Living in the Maniototo has enough of these telling moments to be enjoyable. It is also pleasantly puzzling and -- ironically in light of all Frame's sniping at '70s narcissism -- a little too self-indulgent.