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Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Friday, 17 May 2019

"Hangsaman" by Shirley Jackson

A beautifully written novel about coming of age from a feminist perspective.

In the summer just before she goes to college Natalie Waite has an unpleasant encounter (not clearly specified but presumably sexual) at a Sunday afternoon literary party given by her writer father. At an initiation ceremony in college her refusal to say whether she is a virgin or not leads to her being ostracised by the popular students. Her experiences at college include tea parties with a lecturer and his very young, ex-student wife. Finally she gets intimate with another loner which leads to a bizarre and perilous day playing truant.

This is a strange story but it is beautifully told. In particular, the character of the father is drawn with almost perfect observation of his mannerisms and foibles.

The first quarter of the book, and it is almost exactly 25%, the first Act if you will describes the idyllic world of Natalie. Much of this first act is set in a garden and describes the innocence of the Garden of Eden:

  • “It was a beautiful morning, and the garden seems to be enjoying it.”

The narration is through Natalie and we are privileged to hear the thoughts in her head. In the first act, presaging the loss of innocence, she indulges in a fantasy of being interrogated by a detective about the dead body that she found in the rose garden but we also hear her other thoughts, often suggesting a rebellion from the cosiness of her world:
  • “Seventeen years was a very long time to have been alive, if you took it into proportion by the thought that in seventeen years more - or as long as she had wasted being a child, and a small girl, silly and probably playing - she would be thirty-four, and old. Married, probably. Perhaps - and the thought was nauseating - senselessly afflicted with children of her own. Worn, and tired.” 
  • “She brought herself away from the disagreeably clinging thought by her usual method - imagining the sweet sharp sensation of being burnt alive.”
  • “‘Do you know when you're being honest?’ ... ‘If I'm surprised at myself for saying or thinking it, it's honest.’”
  • “The gap between the poetry she wrote and the poetry she contained was, for Natalie, something unsolvable.”
  • “I hardly think that the taking of cocktails and such is a vice which I shall ever indulge in more than very mildly, since it seems to me that any woman interested in an artistic career dulls the fine, keen edge of her understanding by an indulgence in a stimulant other than her work.”

We also learn about her family. This is a savage portrait of a family, happy from the male point of view. Her younger brother [because he is male, we infer] is able to declare that he will not be available for the usual Sunday afternoon gathering. But there is a stunning contrast between the smugly complacent father, secure in his role as patriarch, and the neurotic drunk of a mother who is utterly disillusioned about being a wife. 

  • Father:
    • “Mr Arnold Waite - husband, parent, man of his word - invariably leaned back in his chair after his second cup of breakfast coffee and looked with some disbelief at his wife and two children. His chair was situated so that when he put his head back the sunlight, winter or summer, touched his own faded hair with an air at once angelic and indifferent - indifferent because, like himself, it found belief not an essential factor to its continued existence.” (opening lines)
    • “The books which stood expectantly on the shelves around the room had the fulfilled look of books which have been read, though not necessarily by Mr Waite.”
    • He is even smug about his failings: “My honest picture of myself has led me to aim less high than many of my contemporaries, because I know my own failings, and as a result I am in many respects less successful in a worldly sense. They, without knowledge of their own shortcomings, were able to conquer blindly, while I, always hesitating through doubt of myself, lost my chances, and fell.” [This is a  useful correction to the Dephi oracle’s Know Thyself.]
  • Natalie's mother toils all day in the kitchen to prepare the food for the Sunday afternoon parties (Natalie, being a girl, helps). Her only resistance is a refusal to prepare Sunday lunch so that the father has to grumble that his "peanut-butter sandwich  ... is not food for a grown man."
    • “The kitchen was, in fact, the only place in the house that Mrs Waite possessed utterly; even her bedroom was not her own, since her husband magnanimously insisted upon sharing it.”
    • “This morning Mrs Waite’s initial momentum came from her Sunday casserole which, incredibly complex and delicate, would be devoured drunkenly in a few hours by inconsiderate and uncomplimentary people.”
    • “I wish Ethel would leave dishes the way I leave them. Little ones inside big ones. It's impossible to believe that anyone can put dishes away in this sort of insane arrangement; she piles them altogether without thinking of size or safety.”
    • “See that your marriage is happy, child. Don't ever let your husband know what you're thinking or doing, that's the way.”
    • “This is the only life I've got - you understand? I mean, this is all.”
    • “First they tell you lies ... and then they make you believe them. Then they give you a little of what they promised, just a little, enough to keep you thinking you've got your hands on it. Then you find out that you’re tricked, just like everyone else.”
    • “Everyone only knows one ‘I’, and that's the ‘I’ they call themselves, and there's no one else can be ‘I’ to anyone except that one person, and they're all stuck with themselves.”
    • “If I were dead you’d listen to me.”

This garden of innocence is brought to an abrupt halt at the 25% mark when Natalie, wandering through the woods with a strange man at the party, suddenly realises "Oh my dear God sweet Christ ... so sickened that she nearly said it aloud, is he going to touch me?" There is then a space and a few pages of description of how she wakes, feeling sick, repeatedly telling herself that she won't think about it, repeatedly thinking "Nothing happened ... nothing happened, nothing happened, nothing happened, nothing happened. Nothing happened."These few pages are a tour de force of writing but this whole section is controlled and brilliant. Much of the power comes from the repetition of "nothing happened" and "I won't think about it" and "oh, please" and later "the echo 'please, please, please". Haunting writing.

At the end of this section Mr Waite, haloed again in sunlight, complacently unaware of what has happened to Natalie, puts the blame on his wife: "Your God ... has seen fit to give us a black and rotten day." Soon Natalie will be expelled from Eden (sent to the college her father has picked out for her) to undergo more difficult experiences.

The second section starts with the statement: "Anything which begins new and fresh will finally become old and silly." This quarter (Act 2) describes another closed world, that of the all-girls' college to which Natalie has been sent by her father. Here Natalie meets Arthur Langdon, an English lecturer, and his wife, an ex-student and a drunk, and we see Natalie's parents reflected in this portrait of a marriage about to go wrong. At the same time Natalie finds herself ostracised by the student body, except perhaps for one girl who is also ostracised but swiftly finds a way of getting back into the mainstream and ditching Natalie, and she becomes an Outsider in the Colin Wilson sense. This is quite a contrast with her position at the heart of a close family but it reflects her psychological outsiderness which was shown in the first section by her interior monologue. The second quarter ends with the wife, Elizabeth, starting a fire accidentally (as Natalie believes) or on purpose (as Elizabeth claims, telling her husband "I tried to kill myself again").

Great moments form the second section include:
  • “The poor ones, with their obvious best clothes, the smart ones, with their obvious right clothes, the girls who would teach the others to dance, the girls who would whisper inaccurate facts of life, the girls would fail all their courses and go home ingloriously ( saying goodbye bravely, but crying), the girls would fail all their courses and join the best cliques, the girls who would fall in love with their professors, either desperately and secretly, or openly and disgracefully, the girls whose hearts would breaks and the girls whose spirits would break”
  • “Once the door was opened the world outside it slowly established itself, small section after small section - as though, in fact, it has not been prepared tonight for Natalie to open her door again, and had been caught completely unaware, and was putting a bold face on things and getting everything back together as quickly as possible.”
  • “Can you imagine having a mind like mine and losing it when you die?”
  • “It was generally believed that it was completely possible to become pregnant by using the same bathtub as one's brother, although not necessarily at the same time.”
  • “Mustn't violate the sacred rules of magic ... Never wish for anything until it's ready for you. Never try to make anything happen until it's on its way.”
In the third quarter Natalie has more strange experiences at College. Someone starts stealing things and Natalie gets the blame although there is a moment of mad horror when she meets the thief. She is rescued by Tony, another ostracised girl.

  • "a spot where two people have been talking, however briefly, is not after that a spot for one person to sit alone."

The fourth quarter starts with Natalie returning home for Thanksgiving. Her experiences at college have estranged her from her family and she is no longer able to accept their psychological support. “She had come home ... bringing with her a certain sense of romance, as one who could bring heartbreaking stories of haunted lands, who have seen and heard and touched and known the improbable, the unbelievable ... who had seen, perhaps, beasts walking like men and jewels shining like stars, and who smiled at certain remembered scenes a million miles away, and stared bewildered at old familiar sights and found the faces of mother and father and brother more strange than the face on a carving made in pearl.” The genie is out of the bottle: once innocence is lost it can never be retrieved; she is banned forever from returning to Eden.

Her work is already suffering and after this visit she will stop attending class and spend all her days with the mysterious Tony.

Half way through this last section she truants from school and spends the day in town with Tony. They go into town and Natalie creates imaginary fantasies about the secret lives of the people in the cafe and whether or not she is being tracked by spies. On the bus, however, she feels that the people are just robots: “It seems pitiful that these automatons should be created and wasted, never knowing more than minor fragment of the pattern in which they were involved.” The end of the bus route is a dark wood by a lake near an amusement park (this very much echoes the garden at home when Natalie leaves the party to go into between the trees with the strange man). Natalie and Tony go into the wood and get separated and Natalie becomes lost: “Beneath the trees it was not dark as a room is dark when the lights are put out, the artificial darkness which comes when artificial light is gone; it was the deep natural darkness which comes with a forsaking of natural light.” This darkness is spiritual as it is physical. Now Tony is strange and wants to go on, but not very far, and Natalie becomes all normal and cross, stamping her feet in the mud and hating the fact that she is cold and wet. And Tony tells Natalie "Don't be afraid" and Natalie is immediately "suddenly very frightened".

  • “We are on a carpet ... It unrolls in front of us, but in back of us it rolls up and there is nothing under it.” 

This is a novel about growing up. It is full of terrifying rites of passage, for example: the climactic moment at the end of the first quarter, the initiation scene at college in the second quarter, the encounter with the thief in the third quarter, what happens with Tony in the woods.

It was published in the same year as Catcher in the Rye (1951) and could be seen as a female counterpoint to that story. It's a coming of age story but there is also one heck of a feminist punch.

May 2019; 218 pages

Another book by Shirley Jackson is the creepy We have always lived in the castle

Other books about college in America are:

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