Monday, October 31, 2016
Disassociation for fun and profit
Shirley Jackson makes me feel crazy, which kind of makes me feel okay because I get the feeling that Shirley Jackson was crazy too. She writes characters who are having breakdowns or who are reacting to trauma or who are living with mental illnesses in such a convincing way that I can't help but be convinced. She knows what she's talking about. She's telling the story about the inside of her head, which coincidentally happens to have some similarities to the inside of my head. At least that's how I feel.
If We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a staggering portrait of obsessive compulsive disorder then Hangsaman feels like the impact of PTSD, which is how I chose to interpret it on my first reading. I will probably go through and read the book again and try to apply different interpretations, but on this first go-round I read the social anxiety and hallucinations (? maybe?) of the second and third parts of the novel as Natalie's reaction to being raped in the first chapter. But Jackson never makes it clear that Natalie was raped, just as she never makes it clear whether Natalie is hallucinating or if the world she occupies is just an incredibly strange one.
The openness to interpretation is what drew me so deeply into this book. There are at least two major ways that it can be read that are immediately obvious but there seem to be infinite ways to interpret every interaction that Natalie has.
Which is part of why it fucked with me. Natalie's internal voices and the stories she tells herself as conversational asides and the sideways view she takes of the world makes it totally unclear how the world works in this novel right from the start.
The ambiguity is brilliant and the fact that it's sustained from start to finish is a wicked trick that I admire deeply.
I'd read "The Lottery" in high school or college, as so many people in the US do, but never more than that until this year. Within 6 months and 2 books I've come to feel the same combination of admiration, frustration, and awe for Jackson as I previously only felt for Phillip K. Dick - at least in terms of an author who can make me question reality to the point that it seems to become unhealthy.
And let's be real, any novel that fucks with its narrative enough to make me feel like it's fucking with reality is a novel I want to spend a lot of time with. I can't state enough how much I'm enjoying reading Jackson and how much more I want to read as soon as I can get my hands on it.
Jackson, Shirley. Hangsaman. Penguin Classics. New York: New York. 2013. (1951).