Thursday, 18 December 2014

Shirley Jackson, I *heart* you!

I’ve been finding it a bit hard to read fiction for the past year or so – I find comfort in non-fiction and academic writing because it is polemic and ushers you to a necessary point of view. Thus, when approaching fiction, I have been reading a lot of short stories – the length is enticing, obviously, when you’re out of shape and tire easily when tackling a novel. And because they’re short they must be sharp, which takes the stress out of it all. However, in my short story endeavors, the work of Shirley Jackson has enticed me and demanded revisiting for a lot of the reason that fiction has sort of scared me for a while. She can be obtuse and confusing and often leaves me just wanting to ask the internet what the rest of the world thought so I have something to say other than “It was really cool and moody, I liked it”.  But yes, her work is very, very moody and very, very cool and I really, really like it. The more I read her the more I’m convinced that everybody could and should enjoy her. 

Though I’d never come across it before I discovered Jackson’s other works, ‘The Lottery’ is a story everyone else around me seemed to know. It is chilling and dark and involves ritual slaughter, and seems an obvious precursor to Battle Royale/The Hunger Games etc. My personal favourites’ of her short stories are ‘The Renegade” and “The Tooth”, both great examples of that women-in-the-50s-ish-era-going-mad kind of oeuvre, which is something Jackson does exceedingly well. The Tooth is lush and surreal and shows you one woman going a bit crazy, and The Renegade is claustrophobic and intensely creepy and shows you absolutely everyone in the life of one unfortunate lonely woman going crazy, which of course happens after they relocate from the city to a sleepy small town. The Renegade is one that really terrified me and stuck with me for days – and will probably do the same to anyone alarmed by the idea of your loved ones becoming alien and threatening overnight, or anyone who owns a beloved pet. 

Other than mastering Twin-Peaksy restlessness and vaguely paranormal undertones in her short stories, Jackson also does so in a more perplexing and modernist fashion in her novel “Hangsaman”. Hangsaman is really what I’m talking about when I say that after reading her I feel helpless and want to ask the internet for an opinion to spout. It’s a confusing and unique work of fiction that I can’t stop picking over in my head. At face value it’s about a young girl who goes away to university and gets driven mad by all the things that can drive you mad at university – cliques and gossip, academic stress, displacement, identity crises, etc. It’s also about the mysterious internal world of the adolescent female (which generally is literary crack to me) and odd female friendships based on Heavenly Creatures-esque fantasy worlds (also like crack to me). But it’s so much less straightforward than that for many reasons, including its ability to conjure very real dread out of not a whole lot (indeed less than in Jackson’s short stories) and its slightly frustrating but mostly disorienting nonlinear structure and abrupt ending. As an added bonus, it ceaselessly but subtly mocks academia so there’s opportunity to smirk amongst all the brow furrowing.

Anyway, my point is: if you like Hunger Games, read the short story ‘The Lottery’. Further than that if you like chic Twin-Peaksy creepiness, read the rest of the short stories in the collection titled “The Lottery”. And if you like all of the above as well as lush interior modernist fiction, read “Hangsaman” and become obsessed with Shirley Jackson like I now am.

      Shirley Jackson: December 14, 1916 - August 8, 1965.

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