There’s a reason that I consider reinstating the Facebook hiatus I’ve been talking about all year – perhaps even permanently – and her name is Shirley Jackson.
I needed things to read during the hiatus, so I turned to my Goodreads “want-to-read” page and scrolled through. I quickly settled on a book called, Life Among the Savages because I like the memoir/autobiography genre, and I like stories about parenting, and it was available at the library. I couldn’t remember who’d recommended this book to me, but it didn’t matter. I needed content.
The library’s copy was well-worn, a paperback that could have stemmed from the book’s original publication in 1953. I started in, and by the time I read this passage on page two, where Jackson is talking about life with her kids, I was a fangirl.
I cannot think of a preferable way of life, but then I have had to make a good many compromises, all told.
I look around sometimes at the paraphernalia of our living – sandwich bags, typewriters, little wheels off things – and marvel at the complexities of civilization with which we surround ourselves; would we be pleased, I wonder, at a wholesale elimination of these things, so that we were reduced only to necessities (coffeepot, typewriters, the essential little wheels off things) and then – this happening usually in the springtime – I begin throwing things away, and it turns out that although we can live agreeably without the little wheels off things, new little wheels turn up almost immediately. This is, I suspect, progress. They can make new little wheels, if not faster than they can fall off things, at least faster than I can throw them away.
This passage was written in 1953 but change “typewriter” to “computer” and as far as I’m concerned, it could have been written yesterday. I might concede the writing has somewhat of an old-fashioned feel to it, if only because we rarely see sentences and paragraphs and stories constructed with such skill in our current environment, where everyone must share everything they are thinking about immediately. There are plenty of other details throughout the memoir that alert the reader to its time frame, like the author reaching for a cigarette when she went into labor, but the parenting challenges and the house tribulations and the basic necessities of domesticity all relatable to me in the year 2016.
Here’s another favorite passage of mine.
I have always believed, against all opposition, that women think in logical sequence, but it was not until I came to empty the pockets of my light summer coat that year that I realized how thoroughly the housekeeping mind falls into the list pattern, how basically the idea of a series of items, following one another docilely, forms the only possible reasonable approach to life if you have to live it with a home and a husband and children, none of whom would dream of following one another docilely.
There’s so much happening in this one sentence, but it’s the dry wit with which she ends it that is at the heart of Jackson’s writing. I love the juxtaposition of the logical list with the chaotic family. I haven’t wanted to be an author this much since I first read Nick Hornby.
After I finished Life Among the Savages, I had to read more of her stuff. But I found myself in the odd position of having fallen for an author outside of her genre. Shirley Jackson is more of a Stephen King than a Nick Hornby, but I never would’ve guessed it after reading Savages. Luckily, she published another memoir, Raising Demons, before she died at the age of 48, and her kids published a posthumous compilation of short stories, essays and lectures called, Let Me Tell You.
After having read all about her personal life, I felt like I owed it to the woman to read her most famous work, a short story called, The Lottery, which is excellent. The writing is immediately recognizable as Jackson’s, and while it is hard to be surprised by a “surprise” ending, when everyone everywhere tells you, “oh that story has a really surprising ending,” I’m still haunted by it, which is pretty surprising.
I’ve decided when I finish Raising Demons, I’ll have to move on. I won’t read any more of Jackson’s fiction, though I imagine I might read some of the memoirs again. I am so happy that I found my way to Shirley Jackson this year. Reading works like Life Among the Savages remind me not only of how much I enjoy reading, but what I’m striving for as a writer. And I don’t care if the story is from the 1950s or the 1650s or 2015, there’s just nothing better than reading something written by a kindred spirit.
I believe that a story can be made out of any such small combination of circumstances, set up to best advantage and decorated with some use of the imagination; I began writing stories about my children because, more than any other single thing in the world, children possess a kind of magic that makes much of what they do so oddly logical and yet so incredible to grown-ups. (from the compilation Let Me Tell You)
So how about it, dear readers… Who’s your favorite author?