Life in writing

Life in writing

Lead review

Life in writing
If you’ve not read Shirley Jackson (1916-65) beyond her frequently anthologised short story ‘The Lottery,’ let me cast the first stone in your direction.

Her 1959 novel, The Haunting of Hill House, a finalist for the National Book Award, is a domestic nightmare that will steal some of your sleep. A covey of her other stories (Charles and The Possibility of Evil among them) adroitly pulls a certain kind of lever.
Jackson’s personal story is absorbing, as well. She was married to Stanley Edgar Hyman, a book critic and a longtime staff writer at The New Yorker. Shirley loved Stanley; she also ribbed him. “People marry book reviewers with the expectation that it is a temporary thing,” she commented in one essay, “that sooner or later the poor dear is going to find himself a better niche in life, such as selling vacuum cleaners.”

He worked full time at his typewriter. She was viewed in the Mad Men era as a mere female scribbler, and was forced to steal hours at her desk while raising four children and keeping house. In her comic essays, many of them composed for women’s magazines, she had a great deal to say about washing dishes.

Jackson was described, by writer Joan Schenkar, as “a wide pale woman with a face like a baleful moon.” She had occult tendencies (she owned tarot cards and a crystal ball) and was alert to poltergeists. A heavy smoker, she died of heart failure at 48. Ruth Franklin’s biography of this complicated human, due out next year, promises to be a weird plum.

And yet — why is the vacuum cleaner company not returning my calls? — as much as one wants Jackson to be a major writer, pulls for her in fact, to read her in any kind of bulk is to confront a sorely limited talent. Like Pluto, she is an interesting flyby but not quite a planet.

There’s little emotional or intellectual complexity beneath her overdetermined surfaces. She went to the well too often for gimmicks. Reading the Library of America volume of her work, published in 2010 and edited by Joyce Carol Oates (whose fiction Jackson’s sometimes resembles), was like being clouted on the head with the same stick over and over again.

More in sorrow than in anger, Harold Bloom dispensed, as if from an eyedropper, my sense of her work: “Her art of narration stayed on the surface, and could not depict individual identities. Even The Lottery wounds you once, and once only.”

During her lifetime, Jackson published six novels, two memoirs, several books for children and a collection of stories. In 1996, two of her children, Laurence Jackson Hyman and Sarah Hyman DeWitt, gathered another 54 stories and issued them under the title “Just an Ordinary Day.”

That volume, as Oates noted in a review of it in The New York Times Book Review, had its share of “painfully substandard” guff. Now Hyman and DeWitt have delivered a second collection, Let Me Tell You, comprising uncollected, early and in some cases previously unpublished stories, as well as essays, reviews and light humour pieces.

As crimes against elderly or dead writers go, this book is not on par with Go Set a Watchman, by Harper Lee, which left a blast pit commentators will be staring into for decades. But it’s not so far off. Let Me Tell You scrapes the bottom of the jar, and its publication does no favours to anyone who wishes to make the case for Jackson’s oeuvre.

From the start, the stories collected here are airless and numbing. Several are takedowns of snobs. You know the characters are snobs because they announce as much, right off the bat, lest there be any confusion.

In the second paragraph of Mrs Spencer and the Oberons, we learn that the heroine likes Christmas cards only “from the right people” and only “invitations correctly engraved.” All that’s left to do is await her comeuppance.

The two 14-year-old girls in the title story discuss the importance of big swimming pools and get their kicks by slumming with “the common people. The riffraff. The hoi polloi.” This story is unfinished, so we don’t know what fate awaits them. But there are no double rainbows on the horizon.

To read the dialogue in these stories, external or internal, is to chew on tin foil: “Golly. There ought to be some way for a smart guy like me to figure this out”; “From now on I’m the big shot around here”; “‘You ruined my life once, Thad Ruskin,’ he said. ‘Now I’m going to finish yours.’”

Jackson published many formulaic stories in the so-called slick magazines, named for their paper stock, but so did writers including F Scott Fitzgerald. “At a thousand bucks a story,” Jackson said, “I can’t afford to try to change the state of popular fiction today.” It was no sin to write for the slicks. But it is one to pretend that the majority of the material in this collection has more than historical interest.

The nonfiction in Let Me Tell You is similarly slight, and not because it’s often about topics like housework. Domestic chores can be a rich vein to mine. But Jackson’s magazine writing here is propped up with forced moonshines, such as, “I gave the floor a wash — it hates washing, like a puppy, but, like a puppy, always feels better afterward.”

I took a few things away from this book. There’s the sly riff on critics and their spouses, quoted above. There’s also, in one story, a profound description of what it can be like to grow up in a dead-end American place: “The only way a girl like that could get out of town was to move into a worse environment.”

But there aren’t nearly enough observations like that one in Let Me Tell You, writing that dives below formula and cuts to the heart of life. This reticule of odds and ends does Shirley Jackson, an American original, a steep disservice.

Let Me Tell You
Shirley Jackson
Random House
2015, pp 416, Rs 1,402

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