My first read for Readers Imbibing Peril IX is Shirley Jackson’s Hangsaman which, as Francine Prose writes in her foreword (though I never read forewords before only afterward), is a weird book. Naturally, you might be thinking, that’s why you read it for R.I.P. But even for a weird book, it’s a weird book. It was only her second novel and I think she was still honing her craft and experimenting. It’s third person narration that reads like first. You never leave Natalie’s, the 17 year old college student, perspective. You know at least partly what she’s thinking from the beginning as she has an interior dialogue with an imaginary detective grilling her like she’s the femme fatale in a Bogart movie which runs concurrently with her interactions with her family. So you know from the get-go that this is a strange chick. Why she’s so strange is never made clear. Very little is ever made clear, actually, so if you like things tidied up at the end, skip this one.
I love this cover which makes you think she’s being chased by evil nuns. There aren’t any.
In the first part you meet Natalie and her family who while disagreeable in a number of ways, seem to be fairly normal. Her father’s a pompous academic, her mother’s a disillusioned alcoholic, and her brother’s mostly not there. The formality they live by is alien to me, but that could be because the novel was published in 1951. Then again, there may be families today who live like strangers in the same house. But we have to bear in mind this is all seen through the filter of Natalie’s worldview, which is alternately like she just recently landed on the planet and knows almost nothing and extremely perceptive and analytical.
And all the time I’m reading this I’m wondering how much of Shirley Jackson there is in Natalie. And her mother. And how much of her husband in the father whose name is Arnold Waite. [Dan Kois in Slate wrote “it’s the kind of book that sends you searching immediately for other people’s ideas of what it is you’ve just read.” Yes. Yes, it is.] In Googling Arnold Waite and Stanley Edgar Hyman (Jackson’s husband) to try to figure out if anyone wrote about the similarities, I stumbled on Arthur Edward Waite who wrote magic books and co-created the Rider Waite tarot deck which is one of the most common around. The other character who reminded me of Stanley (and the reason I was Googling this was I read the biography too many years ago to remember) was Arthur the English teacher at the college Natalie goes to. Arthur’s a real piece of work – married a student, continues to engage with current students inappropriately, is disgusted by his wife’s drinking, yet makes pitchers of martinis and leaves them at the house all ready to drink.
Natalie’s father walks around the party he’s hosting with his arm around some young thing while her mother is stuck in the kitchen trying to make sure there’s enough food to feed everyone. Arnold never knows how many he’s invited. She tries at one point to warn Natalie about marriage and what’s in it for the wife. The same theme comes up in the second part where Elizabeth, Arthur’s young wife who should still be a student, says coldly to a sanctimonious former classmate of hers “Have you ever scrubbed a floor?” One of the messages in this book is that it doesn’t matter how smart a woman is, how well she does in school, how intellectual she is, she’s going to end up scrubbing floors unless she’s rich. Fortunately that has somewhat changed in 63 years, but not nearly enough. Stanley was described in one place (I don’t know where, sorry) as “never doing anything practical if he could help it.” He had a sweet deal – taught, flirted with students, collected stuff, threw parties, generally had a good time, while Jackson got to do everything to take care of the kids, the house, chauffeur him around, and squeeze in her writing where she could. She apparently dealt with this by being a lousy housekeeper and some serious self-medication. I don’t blame her in the least. Is there anything less interesting than scrubbing a floor?
But I see I’m really off-topic. As you can tell, that resonated with me. As for the rest of the book, it is alternately highly readable and obscurely bizarre. You never know if anything is real. The whole third section revolves around her friendship, the only one, with a girl in the college whom she actually likes and enjoys spending time with – a girl as strange and outcast as herself. They seem to pose a united front against the snobby, conventional, and cruel girls of the college and you think perhaps Natalie will be all right now she’s found this friend, or perhaps like Leopold and Loeb they will bring out the worst in each other and become even less fit to survive in the world. It’s impossible to say because you never know how much is real and how much is Natalie’s imagination.
If you only read one Shirley Jackson, go with Hill House or We Have Always Lived in the Castle – she’s surer of her craft, still telling the story of awkward social misfits and strange semi-supernatural goings on, but they are written by a woman who was a master of her craft at that point. Hangsaman though is possibly more interesting because it’s not polished and offers what I believe is a window on her own unhappiness. No idea what her husband thought of it. To me it reads like a double indictment of him as a person and of herself for falling into the trap, but it was 1950, that was a woman’s life and there was no use complaining about it. If you didn’t marry, you were a failure. If you did, you cooked and scrubbed and took care of the kids and if there was any time leftover you could scribble your little stories.