I picked Hangsaman to read for the 1951 Club. Unfortunately, although I have read other books published in 1951, I haven’t done so recently enough to have reviewed them on this blog.
Hangsaman is a very strange book about a young woman and her first months away at college. Although it does a masterful job of exploring her consciousness, that is unusual territory. The first scenes of the novel show her interacting with her parents while she imagines being questioned by a detective about her father’s murder.
And no wonder. Her father is an arrogant and pompous editor, who, under the guise of helping her with her writing, daily subjects her to alternating insults and compliments and tries to enlist her sympathies against her mother. Her mother also tries that, apparently with more reason.
In these circumstances, Natalie is delighted to go off to college for a fresh start. But things don’t go well there. The students are cliquish and cruel. The one girl who seems to be seeking her out as a friend turns out to be mentally unstable. And two other girls use her to torment a young university wife whose husband is having an affair with one of them.
Natalie finally makes a very strange friend, and at that point the novel goes off into murky territory, where I didn’t quite understand what was going on. When I read later that the novel was inspired by the actual disappearance of a Bennington student—the girl’s college where Jackson’s husband was employed—I understood it a little better. If you have read Shirley by Susan Scarf Merrell, it will ring some bells.
Let Me Tell You
Best Book of the Week!
Shirley is both an homage to Shirley Jackson, dealing with some of her own themes and preoccupations, and a novel about her. It works well on both counts. Don’t be mislead by how it is being marketed, though. It is not a thriller, even though its main character becomes obsessed with a disappearance that may be a crime.
Young, pregnant Rose Nemser and her husband Fred travel to Bennington, Vermont, in the fall of 1964. Fred is a graduate student working on his dissertation who has taken a position as teaching assistant with Shirley Jackson’s husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman. The Hymans welcome the young couple and offer them a place to stay in their spare bedroom.
Rose is a shy and unconfident 19. Because of her poverty-stricken upbringing and meager education, she feels inferior to her husband and his family. Surprised at this invitation, she is delighted to stay. She is a fan of Jackson’s work and hopes to become her friend.
Soon Rose believes she has made a friend of Shirley, but Rose is naive and can’t begin to understand the demons that haunt her hostess. Shirley’s husband is a professor at Bennington who is known for having affairs with his students. Shirley, too, is jealous of male colleagues whose work has received more recognition than hers.
Rose begins delving into Shirley’s books on witchcraft and also becomes fascinated by stories of Paula Welden, a Bennington student who disappeared years ago while on a hike in the mountains. She begins having fancies about the house, similar to the ones held by Eleanor in The Haunting of Hill House.
So, the novel develops that mixture of the mundane and the off-kilter that characterizes much of Jackson’s fiction. Shirley is a deeply interesting and atmospheric novel that causes you to sympathize with the fictional Rose while feeling that you learn something about the actual Shirley Jackson. Like some other recent fiction I have read (Miss Emily comes to mind), it combines a completely made-up plot, aggravated by Rose’s fantasies, with biographical details of Shirley’s life.
Let Me Tell You
A Good Hard Look
Best Book of the Week!
Although I almost always enjoy stories by Shirley Jackson, I was surprised and delighted to find myself even more captivated by the personal essays included in the collection Let Me Tell You. The book is divided into several sections, some of short stories, some of essays.
The first set of uncollected and unpublished short stories was interesting, although many were not her best. There were some bizarre or macabre stories, but the ones I enjoyed most seemed to be based on her own real-life preoccupations, a couple, for example, dealing with a professor’s affairs with his students. Her husband was quite the philanderer, apparently.
The essays, though, were centered around her home life and were funny and imaginative. Some are about the behavior of her children and the chaos of family life. In others, she imagines scenarios such as her toaster and her waffle iron having a feud because she toasted a frozen waffle. Or her two-pronged fork competing with her four-pronged fork. These essays are much more domestic than I expected, more whimsical, and funnier. I am now interested in rereading Life Among the Savages, her memoir about her family life.
The last section of the book consists of essays on writing. I found myself absorbed by this section. I have read several books on writing, but they seldom include any advice that I found practical. Jackson’s essays include some very specific information about how she writes that I found revelatory.
I never thought I’d prefer essays to stories, but in this case, although the stories are enjoyable, I found the essays more entertaining and engaging.
St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves