Shirley Jackson’s Unsettling Freedom

June 27, 2014 at 3:37 pm | Posted in fiction | Leave a comment

In October, I decided on a whim to read Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (1959): because it was “in my period” (20th century American), because it was written by a woman, and because it seemed appropriately “Halloweeny.” Since then I’ve been on a minor streak: a few months ago I read We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1963), and I’ve just finished Hangsaman (1951), by far the strangest of the three. It seems that her books’ popularity is more or less in inverse proportion to their strangeness, which is a pity, because their strangeness is precisely what makes them so compelling. For example, The Haunting of Hill House, by far her most popular novel, would be not very different from any other ghost story were it not for the radical uncertainty of how much of the haunting is in the main character’s imagination — and this uncertainty is what makes the book truly creepy. Jackson is a master of what might be called, rather than “the uncanny,” “the unsettling.” Her stories literally unsettle us, they shake us up a bit and make us uncomfortable. They’re told in simple enough prose that I recently recommended them to a friend looking for “young adult fiction,” but they resist cohering in the expected ways, and their relatively straightforward style makes their deep weirdness somehow even weirder. All three of the books I’ve read so far have young female protagonists who are varying degrees of crazy, so you might call them “unreliable narrator” stories, except that the narration is in the third person, which contributes a lot to the creepiness: the liberal use of free indirect discourse makes it deeply unclear what is being reported by the narrator as fact, and what is skewed by the protagonist’s thoughts.

These books are therefore really interesting windows into young women’s minds, and reveal what odd places they are. All minds, surely, are odd, but the minds of girls becoming women in the 1950s offer Jackson a particularly rich sea of strangeness to draw from: the question of expected behavior vs. individual autonomy plays out in all three of these books in a variety of bizarre ways: in Hill House, accepting the invitation to visit the haunted house is the first independent choice Eleanor has ever made; in Castle, the Blackwood girls struggle with the question of whether to re-integrate with the community or continue to live defiantly on their own; and Hangsaman is quite literally a going-off-to-college, coming-of-age story, though a very weird one. Hangsaman in particular provoked shocks of recognition in me at regular intervals, as I realized I’d perhaps never read a book that captured so well the oddly self-absorbed marveling at the world that characterized my teenage years:

The sight of the mountains far away was sometimes so perfectly comprehensible to Natalie that she forced tears into her eyes, or lay on the grass, unable, after a point, to absorb it — she was, of course, adequately hidden from the windows of the house — or to turn it into more than her own capacity for containing it; she was not able to leave the fields and mountains alone where she found them, but required herself to take them in and use them, a carrier of something simultaneously real and unreal to set up against the simultaneously real-and-unreal batterings of her family. (23)

What kills me in this passage is the word comprehensible — not incomprehensible, but comprehensible. This isn’t the overwhelming sublime, this is a feeling of mastery somehow, of being able to contain and understand the spectacle. Natalie must force the tears into her eyes, she must actively “turn it into more than her own capacity for containing it.” I’m not sure I could have articulated until now that a lot of my imagination in my late childhood and adolescence consisted of making the world significant, because I wanted it to be, because I was told (by fiction, I guess, and movies and TV) that it ought to be, and because on its own, it really wasn’t: I was just a kid, seeing normal things, living a normal life of very little consequence. But imagining my routine life into a life of significance was a way of exerting a measure of control over it: I could make boring things interesting, and I could make things forced on me feel like things intended for me by some kind of mystical fate rather than by mundane rules and expectations.

As I mentioned before, Hangsaman is a coming-of-age story with some standard markers of that plot, but the execution of that plot is “unsettling” in that it doesn’t actually hang together very coherently. The third act, in particular, comes seemingly out of nowhere and I kept thinking that I might have missed a crucial plot point that tied it all together — particularly since I read the middle hundred pages in the fog of an endless delay parked in an airport bar. But more than articulating a coherent plot, Hangsaman is concerned with feeling its way around the odd, drawn-out process of coming to own and control all of yourself: it operates on a stranger and more philosophical register than most coming-of-age stories. Following immediately after the above passage, we get this:

There was a point in Natalie, only dimly realized by herself, and probably entirely a function of her age, where obedience ended and control began; after this point was reached and passed, Natalie became a solitary functioning individual, capable of ascertaining her own believable possibilities. (23)

Exploring this point “where obedience ended and control began” is the central issue in this book. Natalie draws away from her overbearing father and enters a college world where she is socially defined in two very different contexts, which gives her a very unstable sense of her own identity: she is reviled by the girls in her dormitory, but becomes a pet of a fashionable young professor and his wife and therefore has some social standing among a different, older set of girls. Both social groups are governed by strict (and somewhat conflicting) norms which demand “obedience” (just as the rules of her father did) and Natalie rebels against both as she tries to figure out what part of her is really her own. This all is complicated by her near-hallucinogenic imagination, and to make matters worse and weirder, a sexual assault that Natalie experiences early on casts a pall over the whole book — it’s certainly a profound experience of the loss of control. In the last third of the book, Natalie suddenly finds that she has a (female) best friend named Tony, and the two of them go off on a journey away from the college and into town, skipping their classes, which is a dizzying experience of freedom and control for both of them (and is also, I theorize, meant to recapitulate the assault scene to a certain degree — but discussing this in more detail would give away too much). In the following passage, drunk on free will, the girls engage in some familiar solipsism:

“I wonder what the rest of them do with their time?” Tony said absently. “Do you think they go to their classes as usual? Or has the whole college faded away or blown into dust or collapsed — ”

” — or crumbled or snapped out like a light — ”

— Just because we’ve gone? Tony thought. “We are on a carpet,” she announced soberly. “It unrolls in front of us, but in back of us it rolls up and there is nothing under it.”

“The immediate spot where we are walking is the only immediate spot there is,” Natalie said. (185)

This passage, and the book as a whole, does a marvelous job of capturing what freedom is: an eternal but very narrow present. In the film Donnie Darko, we are occasionally shown watery, tentacle-like projections that emerge from characters and seem to draw them along their expected paths:

We’re meant to understand that it’s habit, intention, fate, or some combination of these that draws Donnie inevitably toward the refrigerator. The tentacle concretizes how expectations literally shape the future, and can give us an almost psychic ability to see it. When Tony and Natalie skip class and walk into town instead, they reject a planned, visible future in favor of a nebulous “red carpet” (as Tony says), or perhaps more accurately, in favor of simply an “immediate spot” (as Natalie decides). The rest of the world falls away: there is you and your will and the present moment. This pure world, free from consequences and complications, is not really the one we live in — as the girls quickly discover. Nor would we want it to be, I hope: functional societies and meaningful relationships both entail obligations as well as consequences for ignoring them. Yet we continue to hold “freedom” as a central American value, relatively uninterrogated in popular discourse. What Jackson excels at is bringing into focus is the narcissism, terror, and sociopathy that accompany freedom in its purest form. If that’s unsettling — well, it should be.

“I Don’t Know When You Are Going to Read This”: A Love Letter to My Love Letters

June 19, 2014 at 10:59 am | Posted in love, personal | 1 Comment

Friends, we are so lucky to be loved.

My parents are moving out of the house where I spent my adolescence into the house where they will spend their retirement. This requires me to go through all of the nonsense I left behind when I moved out of their house when I was 18 years old, nearly 15 years ago. This requires going through a lot of tedious bullshit, but it also requires going through my box of old love letters from high school.

Let me be clear: I am engaged to be married to the man without whom I could not imagine myself. It’s not that we “finish each other’s sentences,” it’s that together we form whole thoughts and concepts that are bigger and better and funnier and crazier than anything either of us could have come up with alone.

There is an episode of Friends that I remember vividly, in which the female characters all decide that they need to burn all their mementos of their past boyfriends in order to wish themselves new and better luck on Valentine’s Day, and of course it turns into a minor disaster, and of course the firemen who show up to save them are hunky so it all turns out okay. This episode (“The One With the Candy Hearts” – thanks, Google!) aired in 1995, when I was in 7th grade, and probably influenced the very existence of this box of love letters that I would begin to accumulate in high school. It taught me three things: 1) that a lady saves tokens of affection, 2) that she saves them all together in a big box of affirmation to prop herself up later in life, and 3) that a time might come when it was appropriate to set fire to the contents of that box in order to move on.

So: I’m engaged, my parents want me to clean my shit out of their house, and I have to decide the fate of these letters. Time to get drunk, obviously, and read them.

I went into this task 100% sure that after reading them I would want to burn them, that the only honorable thing to do would be to burn them (or, you know, responsibly recycle them). But I can’t. Because they’re beautiful. I can’t quote them to you; it would sound like bragging, and besides, it’s private. But I can tell you that the honesty with which one sixteen-year-old addresses another with whom they are in love is a force that we need more of in this world.

I’m aware that I’m immensely privileged to have such a record: for one thing, plenty of people don’t find any measure of success in love until much later in life; for another, plenty of people don’t or can’t save much from their teenage years; and for a third, kids these days and their Snapchat; do they even know what it would mean to have a handwritten note to get sentimental about in their thirties?

It’s not that I still love any of the people who wrote these letters—I don’t, in any kind of romantic or possessive way. Nor do I entertain any fantasies that they “still” love me, whatever that could mean this many years removed. But I honor, tremendously, what these letters do: they ask for the pleasure of my company, and they explain simply and frankly how much they enjoy it. Most of them do little more than this. Some of them do it in grand, florid prose; others do it in simple, misspelled sentences.

It’s what they say about why they are so eager to spend time with me that motivates me to tell you about all of this. Some of the letters go through a rigmarole about my looks (false), and my sense of humor (getting warmer), but they pretty much all arrive at a single point: these letter writers were all overjoyed that I seemed so much to enjoy spending time with them. A cynic might say that these boys were just trying to get in my pants, and some of them no doubt were, but most of them could clearly never have imagined that possibility in a million years—their innocence is almost breathtaking. These letters made me remember that the real earth-shattering awe of teenage love is the simple fact of love reciprocated: that after pining and yearning alone for so many years, to find someone who returns your feelings is a real live miracle. And it still is, and it always is.

I know I hit the love lottery. I know a lot of people have a lot of love to give. I know it’s not easy, in the guarded adult world, to do so.

But take a minute to think with me about this box of letters—a box full of people saying, essentially, “I love how much you love me.” Think about what that means. And then tell somebody about how much you love them. Do it fancy, do it simple, avoid the word “love” if that freaks either one of you out. But do it!

Friends, we are so lucky to love!

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