Shirley Jackson: Hangsaman

Jackson, Shirley (2013 [1951]), Hangsaman, Penguin
ISBN 978-0-141-39198-4

I know little about Shirley Jackson, and Hangsaman is only the second novel I have read of this famous writer of the American Gothic. I have little context for this book, but ultimately, it seems the kind of book spoiled by context, by biographical or bibliographical explanation. Let’s say it now: Hangsaman is a brilliant, utterly unique, a terrifying book, that, published at the same time as Salinger published his Catcher in the Rye, offers a sharper, smarter, more scintillating take on growing up as a teenager in 1950s America. Jackson includes, though she names it differently, the “phony” adults, but there’s more: sexual terror, awakening. The book is full of symbols, it uses movies, books and songs to give the reader some orientation, but it doesn’t depend on any of them. It’s one of the most densely written books I have had the pleasure of reading this year, but it wears its complexities lightly. I complain on occasion about books that are leaning too heavily on a clever structure without offering the basic substance of story and writing to their readers – this, this is the opposite. It’s clever and funny, terrifying and intriguing. It’s a fantastic book, and I’m not entirely sure why Jackson isn’t more widely admired.

An award named after her is given out every year to horror and suspense writers, but Hangsaman should be read and taught among the best American novels of the 20th century, and not just the best American crime novels. I have no idea how widely read this book, not one of her most famous novels, was, but some of its inquiries into femininity and power, and some of the ways its symbols and ideas are staggered appear to have influenced other modern classics, like Atwood’s Surfacing. But while Atwood is a clean and skillful writer of prose, Jackson’s command of the sentence is almost Kleistian in its detailed rhythms, its musical shifts that follow the protagonist’s shifts of mind. It’s a rich, complex novel that I’m sure has more treasures buried under the surface – I’ve finished reading it 5 minutes ago, and one exits this book in a kind of rush, an excitement. This is how all books should be, one wants to write. Suddenly, the fact that I have only read two of her novels seems like a gift – so much more to read! If her other books are as good as Hangsaman and We have always lived in the Castle (the other one I read), a very dreary late summer/autumn is about to acquire some bright spots.

Please forgive the possibly over-emphatic tone. I am improvising this review to collect my thoughts and I am coming right from the book, like a man out of a pouring rain, dripping with water and misery. In the same way, I am coming to you, dripping with mystery and excitement and literary joy, so, you know, cum grano salis and all that.

Honestly, however, I don’t think I will greatly adjust my opinion later. The book shifts gears rather rapidly between its three parts, but this movement of the book overall is reflected in the micro-movements of the protagonist’s thoughts, fantasies and the author’s sentences. While there is possibly a rape in the book’s first third (it’s marked, like Kleist marks sexual congress in the Marquise of O., by an elision), and occult elements in the book’s last third, this is in no way a horror novel, or even a psychological thriller as we understand the genre today. It’s a small-scale Bildungsroman, equal parts Hesse, Musil and Atwood. We meet the protagonist, a girl named Natalie Waite, in the first part, we learn about her family. Her father is a failed mediocre writer, whose miserable existence is foisted on the child, who is forced to write texts that her father then corrects. The dynamic between father and daughter is uneasy throughout – Jackson writes this first third of the book with a masterful sense of the claustrophobia that the big ego of a small bourgeois mind can create in a family, especially in a time when men were the ones in control, and women, like Natalie’s mother, had to give in, give up, give over to the men in their lives. The real cruelty of this situation is that Jackson has Natalie muse about what it means to become an adult: “There was a point […] 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.” That last phrase, “believable possibilities” is really the clincher here. Natalie’s mother, as well as other female characters, are not obedient, they are fully conscious adults, but society was built in a way that cut down on their “believable possibilities.” Reading this book about growing up female in post-war America makes the insouciant pale dullness of Holden Caulfield’s rebelliousness even more galling, I think. There is a sharp realism in Jackson’s book, but it’s different from a lot of socially conscious novels I remember from the period. Natalie’s father is no Man in a Gray Flannel Suit – and Jackson really doesn’t particularly care about sussing out the motivations of the men in her book. What she cares about are how their behavior corrals, restricts and harms the women of the book. The second section is basically an academic satire, often funny, sometimes depressing, always told with a remarkable economy and flow. In it, we find another married couple, practically the younger version of Natalie’s parents. We also find other girls in Natalie’s dorm who have different ways of dealing with masculinity. The extent to which Jackson shows, without being preachy, that all these ways are different kinds of negotiations with power, is remarkable.

I thought of Kleist when reading Jackson, because one of the extraordinary qualities of Kleist’s prose is the way he manages to be both emphatic, pushing and following the ebb and flow of the plot and action, and at the same time build his sentences with careful, unerring elegance. There are almost no sentences that offer unnecessary simplicities – everything is rigged tight, yet the writing often seems over-bordering with linguistic energy. Of course Shirley Jackson isn’t Kleist, but the way the book’s prose seems to be tailored exactly to the protagonist’s thoughts and the plot’s movement, without sacrificing linguistic energy and elegance, did remind me of him. Usually when you admire a skillful prose architect, they build their novel from the linguistic and syntactic possibilities of their work – their sentences are always recognizable. Shirley’s writing bends to its content – but it doesn’t break into stylistic ugliness or incongruity. She does offer the occasional commonplace observation or statement, but in a way, as a reader, I’m actually quite thankful, because it allows me room to breathe. The whole middle section is more widely spaced, airier than the first or last section. There are more people in it, real, not imagined people, more time passes, and language often moves us from event to event, rather than from one place in Natalie’s head to the other. In that sense, the occasional bromides are not superfluous at all, but add to the book’s musical structure. Another connection to Kleist is the way the movement of his sentences always reflected his sense of the weight and power of the people he described and moved through his stories. His syntax would bend around powerful people, offering us a syntactic mirror of the social pressures of his time. Again, Jackson isn’t Kleist, but Jackson’s sentences expand and contract to reflect the weight of speech and of the social status of the people represented by that speech. The third way is Kleist’s ease with representing, in drama or prose, difficult mental states and unequal access to reality. In fact, Kleist is one of my favorite writers in matters of liminal mental states, passions, mental anguish and madness. In this, Hangsaman is almost his equal. Shirley Jackson moves from interiority to exteriority with unbelievable skill – literally unbelievable, I had to reread some pages just to fully enjoy the enormous writing.

Natalie is, ultimately, I think, a Deleuzian schizophrenic – though I don’t mean this clinically at all. But if I remember Deleuze and his partner in crime correctly, they offer the schizophrenic as someone who has unusual access to the real, because the border between things and words have become permeable, and because the usual connection of desire with lack (we desire what we don’t have) doesn’t exist with schizophrenics, instead desire becomes productive. And indeed, Natalie is “shocked by her own capacity for creation.” She is easily able to hold two conversations at the same time, one created by her own mind, and one happening in the physical, real world. In fact, the third part of the novel offers multiple mappings of reality, as Natalie and her “friend” Tony play multilevel games the board of which overlaps with the real world, but not completely. This section sums up everything that the previous parts have slowly accrued, we are pushed into thinking the world with Natalie, after the first two parts have trained us to be good readers of her voice and her creations. There is nothing supernatural here, and yet we struggle with distinguishing reality from fantasy, as we are thrust into the unstable symbolic world of a brilliant adolescent. The book’s conclusion is strange, exhilarating and breathtaking.

I cannot possibly imagine someone not liking this book, which is the best book I reviewed this year so far by a country mile, and I didn’t expect it to be this good. It’s looser, pushier, louder than the other Jackson I read, We have always lived in the Castle, but that one is also an examination of liminal states, of conflicts between interior and exterior, of femininity and patriarchal power and violence. The latter, Jackson’s final novel, is also a really complete, almost flawless and I expected Hangsaman, her second novel, to be more of an apprenticeship, a trying out of language and reality. Instead, I encountered a masterpiece. I said earlier that Jackson should be more famous, but equally, it’s a mystery to me why Hangsaman isn’t a more famous novel. I did write this review top to bottom within an hour of finishing the novel, so there are bound to be exaggerations and blindnesses, but I don’t think my overall appreciation of the novel is wrong. This is really, really good. Everyone should read this.

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2 thoughts on “Shirley Jackson: Hangsaman

  1. Your new “insta” blog post sent me here because I bought the book (it’s behind a few book at the moment…Middle C, The World Goes On, etc…)…but now got bumped up definitely….have you read more of her novels since this?

  2. Pingback: My Year in Reviewing: 2017 | shigekuni.

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