Thursday, February 28, 2013

the end of a shovel

Nakamura Utaemon IV in the picture on the cover of my Heike has the strange eye deformity that you sometimes see in traditional Japanese portraits, the iris and pupil trying to slide into the bridge of the nose, possibly not the thought he wanted people in the future to have when they thought of him, and possibly not how he would have wanted to be remembered if anyone had asked for his preferences, but the real Kiyomori would possibly not have wanted to be remembered by my few lonely memories of him in the Heike, steaming on his bed or encountering skulls off the back patio.

And the approach I have to things is usually sideways or indirect, the thoughts I have when I meet a piece of work are not thoughts the artist would probably suspect me of having, even if they knew me, for example, when I saw the film Casino last Monday night (I have deleted six words here: see last post), through the first half or so, during the sight of Joe Pesci cramming the sharp end of a man's own pen into the mild pale-pasturing meat of that man's own gentle throat (gentle as a cattle's wattle), I was thinking, every time we saw a domestic interior, "Is this the house that belongs to the friends of that woman who wrote that memoir about her time as a casino model?"

We had seen this woman at a library event (her name is Elaine McNamara and her book is In The Midst of Cowboys, Crooners and Gangsters: Recollections of the Las Vegas Glamour Era, LifeStories, 2011) where she'd told us that her friends had to live somewhere else for nine months because Martin Scorsese was in their house with his camera crew.

(We saw Cullotta at a similar event a week later: see last post for the relevance of him, a man with a square-cut snow-colored beard.)

The house was next to a golf course, she said, so I looked out for the golf course. When the golf course arrived I relaxed. There's the house. Seeing the way Robert De Niro's fictional casino was positioned on the Strip, with the Flamingo down the road, I felt an unpleasant but triumphant discriminatory emotion -- a poisoned emotion I would say, poisoned by the suspicion that it was not very worthy of any intelligent human being, not only unworthy of myself but unworthy of all of us without reserve, and in a good world or the one in J.M. Coetzee's new book it would barely have been born but intelligence would have overruled it, yet we have had our instincts collectively for many years, creating various instant feelings in our hearts, and they have saved us from lions or wild dogs or being eaten by the crocodile in former centuries (and even in current times, depending on your homeland and opportunities, observe that a film director off the coast of EnZed yesterday was killed by a shark, a man with a volunteering ethic of whom it was said, "He was always there at working bees on the end of a shovel"), now they counsel us to avoid a certain dark street when we think we see a movement at the end or "it just looks wrong, it feels wrong," myriad tiny events reaching us I suppose, and converting themselves instantly into a menagerie of warnings the moment they are touched by our senses which in this way creates them though not efficiently enough in the case of the man Joe Pesci stabbed in the throat, and I cannot escape them myself -- discriminatory towards De Niro's character because he was lording himself around as though he ran the Wynn and his fictional casino was only replacing Bally's, which opens onto the world with a neon plastic people-mover that puts security so far away from the pavement out the front that they always have illegal buskers on the concrete in Spongebob Squarepants costumes or else playing the bagpipe while the Bellagio fountains in the background emerge from the concealed iron tubes in their violent bursts.

The interior of De Niro's casino is played by the interior of the Riviera, which appears again in The Hangover and other films. The four casinos that Rosenthal ran (see last post) have been imploded, replaced, incorporated into the MGM Grand, and, in one instance, maintained by a conglomerate known as Boyd Gaming, which is one of those business entities that have filled the essential leadership role formerly occupied by crime mobs, filling it insufficiently, is the song from parts of the public, because these companies do not restrain the ordinary criminals who have taken over the crime part of the mob role, the murders, the prostitution, and so on, off the Strip, the mob would have stopped them, but this is nothing but nostalgia and rose coloured glasses, say the opponents of that crew, and it is true that Old Vegas can be regarded with nostalgia, not only mob-related, but also nostalgia for the times when children played with lizards on the same land that is now covered with tract housing and English-named streets, or nostalgia for dead entertainers, Cee-Lo Green opening a new show inspired by Liberace -- Loberace is the name of the show, and for the publicity months ago he did honestly and sincerely dress in a lobster suit, this well-spoken gentleman decorated and armoured provocatively like a crustacean beast of the deep, with the pink cliffs around the city all luminous at sunset.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

this role

I couldn't even remember Kiyomori's name to be honest. I had the word blahname in place while I was roughing out that last post and had to go to the book to find out who he was. I knew his skulls and the picture of his glare; he is the man on the front cover of this copy of the Heike, looking angrily off a balcony in a print by Utagawa Hiroshige, who was drawing (I am going by a description of the picture at the Ashmolean Museum website) a kabuki actor named Nakamura Utaemon IV. "Utaemon ... performed this role in the first month of 1845."

Seven years later he died, I don't know how, and the same professional kabuki name went to Nakamura Utaemon V, who moved the Utaemon dynasty's base of operations north-east from Osaka to the larger city of Tokyo and passed the title to Nakamura Utaemon VI, a man who died in 2001, specialist in female roles (onnagata), and he was an honourary citizen of Las Vegas, not as a resident but as a gambler like the Japanese character in the film Casino, which I'm going to mention in a moment, a fact I know for sure because I've gone back to insert this sentence. Now I'll have to scroll down and change the way I've introduced the film in the next paragraph because apparently I've already introduced it in this one. (Now I have come back again because this paragraph went on for so long that I have converted the next paragraph into the start of its own post.) Utaemon died on the thirty-first of March, 2001, "a remarkable day on which snow fell onto the cherry blossoms against the backdrop of an evening moon," but the real-life counterpart of the high roller in Casino was stabbed to death with a sword in his kitchen while members of his family were away from the house looking for strawberries. "The day of his funeral was dreary with snow." In the film he is played by Nobuyuki Matsuhisa, the head of Nobu restaurants and Robert De Niro's frend. Both of them were in town recently, Matsuhisa and De Niro, opening a new Nobu hotel development at Caesars' Palace. The lobster sushi at the opening banquet was so fresh that it is alleged to have quivered. De Niro is in Casino too, playing a casino manager whose fictional behaviour was inspired by the genuine actions of a mob associate called Frank Rosenthal, though most people mention him by his nickname, which is Lefty. Dead now, he did not stay in Las Vegas after the events depicted in this film; he died in Florida. The fictional Rosenthal comes to Las Vegas because he has been sent there by the Kansas City mob, short men like large-lipped moneybank frogs sitting together in the basement of a grocery store eating the spaghetti that has been cooked for them by the store-owner's mother, who is played by Martin Scorsese's own mother Catherine. The owner of the store is not played by Catherine Scorsese's son, but his daughter Cathy plays the owner's nameless daughter. Fake Rosenthal is a perfectionist and the frogs trust him to run their casino, the Tangiers, which was invented by the filmmakers to represent the four different casinos that genuine-Rosenthal actually ran, all of which were the property and responsibility of the Chicago mob (or outfit), as was he. The Kansas City outfit, in the film (which was in real life the Chicago outfit), sends one of his childhood friends to help him, Nicky Santoro, played by Joe Pesci, who has been based on a thug named Tony the Ant Spilotro, who, if you've seen the movie, really did run a gang of burglars who used to knock holes in the sides of banks and stores at night, and steal the money or jewels inside. They were known as the Hole In The Wall Gang, which has to be the least imaginative crime nickname ever but at least it lets you know their modus operandi and does not misrepresent them. No one has to waste time asking questions because there it is in front of you, they were the Gang that made Holes in Walls. Spilotro's nickname was Pissant but the newspapers couldn't print it, therefore they called him the Ant, and he is ant-like in his pictures, small and tight next to Oscar Goodman in a photograph that is more or less well-recognised in Las Vegas, Goodman being the city's most popular former mayor, and would probably have been mayor unto death if there was not a limit on the length of time a mayor can serve. Now his wife is the mayor. (An illustration of them appeared on the cover of Las Vegas Seven before Valentine's Day, the ex-mayor with a bare chest of hair and cushions and the mayor in a romance-novel outfit like strawberry ice cream.) Goodman was Spilotro's lawyer, which is the same role he plays in the film. In the film he wears 1980s glasses with huge frames, as in the photograph, but nowadays I think he's switched to contacts. He used to represent the Hole In The Wall Gang too, and I've heard that one day he owed them several hundred dollars so they knocked a hole in his own wall and took it while he was out at an evening function. Las Vegans are frequently but not universally affectionate towards Oscar Goodman, whose client Tony the Ant once crushed a man's head in a vise until his eye rose from its socket and emerged. In the film he only threatens to do it, in real life he really did do it, popping the eye out while one of his sidekicks looked on, eating pasta, an individual named Chuckie the Typewriter, which was, as Spilotro once remarked to his friend Frank Cullotta, a "heartless" thing to do while a man was being murdered, the eating I mean, of the pasta. Cullotta was the leader of the Hole In The Wall Gang under Tony the Ant. In the film he is played by Frank Vincent and his character is named Frankie Marino. The original man, Cullotta, was present on set as a technical advisor. Scorsese hired a number of locals for minor roles as well, and anyone who is interested in trivia might like to know that the Metro officer who came to Robert De Niro's house towards the end of the film really was a Metro officer. De Niro asks him how his life is going, and the cop tells him that his wife is pregnant again, which got him a laugh from his friends at the premier for reasons that I won't go into. Cullotta, if you've seen the film, is also the nameless assassin who comes between two cars in a parking lot at the end and shoots another actor dead. (I think I saw somewhere that the actor who had been hired to play the assassin wasn't getting the murder right therefore Cullotta had to step in, gesturing Infirm of purpose, give me the daggers.) He's grown a beard since then, and the trimmed edges make his chin and throat look neater. Cullotta: The Life of a Chicago Criminal, Las Vegas Mobster and Government Witness is the name of his autobiography. Whether it is good or not I couldn't tell you because I haven't read it.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

deeds and ways

The Heike, the Heike, o, the plump son is present then gone in less than two pages, sad ephemeron, and even the characters at the forefront of the book come back to my memory only in a few strange scenes, in my mind they are not more substantial than Muneyasu, they are not long and consistent as they appear in the book but brief and impressionistic; I remember Lord Kiyomori more specifically than any of his contemporaries because he has supernatural skulls in his garden one morning when he wakes up, Book Five, Chapter Three,

dead men's skulls beyond counting, rolling and churning,
up and down, in and out, rattling against one another with a huge clatter.
"Attendant! Attendant!" he called, but, as it happened, no one came.
Meanwhile the skulls clumped into a great mound,
bursting the bounds of the garden, some hundred and fifty feet high --
a mountain of skulls, now suddenly crammed with living eyes,
all of them training on Lord Kiyomori an unblinking glare.
Kiyomori glared back, unperturbed, and under his gaze
they disappeared without a trace
like frost or dew in the morning sun.

Lord Kiyomori is one of the book's important characters, prime mover of the Heike clan, present by page two --

... his lordship
Taira no Kiyomori,
tales of whose deeds and ways
surpass the imagination,
exceed all that tongues can tell.

-- followed by his genealogy -- he is the single figure who grows into a mass of figures before that dwindling-to-a-single-death at the end, the book shaped like a Christmas cracker or a long con, first a pinch then a bulge then a pinch, or a silence roaring up into a noise then down to another silence, Kiyomori the first chime or deep ping, he is followed by the conglomerate boom of the orchestra, then there is one note from a triangle and the music is complete.

He occupies more page-time than Muneyasu and Seno-o but in my memory he is only one action, one gesture, like them, the fat man hefting his jelly across a stretch of grass, soon beheaded by his father, then the violent Kiyomori, empire powerbroker, glaring at the eyeball'd skulls, though now that I have begun writing about his lordship I remember more of him; there is a gigantic floating face that stares through his window, again this is in Book Five, "an enormous face, a full bay wide | peered into the room" so he glares and it vanishes -- and after that (now he is surging in, he is occupying several scenes in my mind, Muneyasu has nothing more to add, he wasn't around for very long, his father was around for slightly longer but I forget the rest of him; they are defeated) I recall his death. He was sick, he had a fever so hot that his skin made water boil, he lay in agony, blaspheming against his enemies and steaming; this torture was explained when his wife had a dream about hell spirits. All these hundreds of characters mark ye and he is the only one who attracts this kind of sustained attention from the spirit world. The skulls and the giant face are not significant parts of the plot, they don't contribute to the diplomatic shoving that occupies the first part of the book where they occur and yet their role is emotionally important, they are a warning and a premonition, they tarnish and complicate Kiyomori's worldly success, and when I realise that two of the illustrations that come with this book are pictures of the skull-staring incident by different artists then I start to think that it has been memorable to more human beings than just myself, that the sheer startling arrival of those skulls is a memory-glue with universal potential, that this may even, over centuries, have become the skulls' most important role in the Heike machinery, this fish-hook snagging of the audience's attention, the ability to leave a scar behind after the functional plot points have sunk away and gone as they have for me, I know, I barely remember them.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

he made slow progress

The Heike is a long historical epic, seven hundred and ten pages in the Tyler version (hardcover, Viking Penguin, 2012), made of twelve books that have been divided into nine to twenty chapters each, two clans going to war over the Japanese sovereignty at a period of time that corresponds roughly to the 1100s in Europe, lots of major characters, masses of minor characters uncounted by myself but they appear so often that there must be several hundred of them; and many are only there long enough to obtain a name, a distinguishing characteristic, and a death, like the young soldier who is so plump and lax that his warrior father comes back to salvage him during a retreat: the son chuffing slowly away from the enemy, the fit father charging off, the father realising what has happened, the father turning back, and both of them perishing. "Although still a young man in his early twenties, Muneyasu was too fat to run even a hundred yards and despite having discarded his equipment he made slow progress." Run away father, he says.

"No," said his father, "my mind is made up." As they waited,
Imai Kanehira bore down on them at the head of fifty howling riders.
Seno-o shot his last arrows,
seven or eight of them, rapidly --
five or six riders fell, stricken,
dead or not, there is no telling --
drew his sword, beheaded his son,
and charged into the enemy,
slashing at every man around him.

Death in the Heike usually strikes a person after the story has explained a set of overwhelming odds, either mobs of enemy soldiers or a series of events that has crushed the character's emotions until they're so distraught and shamed that they whip out a sword and do the necessary. I know this is not unusual in literature, a character suffering, suffering, then dying, but the volume and detail of these deaths in the Heike seems noteworthy, a tapestry of little described deaths summoned together to produce the larger picture of an entire clan's death, like miniature scents in a huge smell, as in the Iliad you have a mass of soldiers dying in their specified ways until finally the atmosphere of destruction swallows the city, that large death the retrospective echo of the smallest, the force of one being pressed down or up the food chain and shoving the elements above or below, one man in the Heike hearing about the deaths of several other men and sinking into anguish, shaving his head and leaping into the depths from a humble sea-going boat -- the repercussions from that death leading to the very last death in the story, the final act of demolition, one corpse, the bulge of deaths dwindling to a solitary dot.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

oodle ardle wardle doodle

A character performs a small action and becomes memorable, the rest of this character's behaviour could be anything but the detail sometimes drives itself into my memory, the man Essex in Shirley Jackson for example, touching the older woman's elbow, or a number of characters in The Tale of the Heike, which I read in a translation by Royall Tyler who lives in rural NSW and if he had made his translation at home would have done so with the magpies going, "Quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle," outside the kitchen window or the study window or wherever he works. I am not the man's interior designer but I know what magpies sound like though that bit of euphony was not invented from life but borrowed from a poem.

There might be a more convincing way to write magpie noises but for now I will borrow, so that anyone who has read the poem may identify those words with magpies immediately and submit to their memories of a depressing piece of verse, a very helpless submission, if they have it, and I will tap into the power or habit of their minds and inflict upon them this memory which seems fair enough if my aim is to fill them for one moment with a nebulous magpie-impression, which it might be, I haven't seriously examined my intentions in this regard, and why should we specify real ones when literary ones will do well enough very quickly while I go on to the next thing, which will be the Heike? Human characters suffer in the magpie-poem, they age, the magpies are detached Fates having a good time in a tree, or a bad time, or some sort of enigmatic time, and like this Europe encounters the southern hemisphere in those mono-aural and Nornish idea-birds, which would possibly not have occupied the same position in a piece of poetic art if the poem had been written by someone else from somewhere else; by correlation an Australasian Heike would have had less ritual suicide since it is not a local habit in that region, nor is listening to magpies a local habit in Japan thanks to lack of opportunity which in this instance means lack of magpies, though you will note, however, that the phrase "lack of opportunity" does not always means that magpies are lacking but sometimes something else. This could be the only time in your life that you read the phrase "lack of opportunity" and understand that it means also "lack of magpies." That is speculation and I will add that Japan is not deprived of birds in general. There are many crows there, a lot of them, having witnessed some myself, one specific group of about four or five walking on an asphalt path and staring with alert head-movements at the grass or at their feet, which were doubtless sharp-nailed and craggy-black, and in them mites, mites by the toenails, mites between the scaly armours, and on those mites other mites, and so on down in dizzying seclusion, inside a middle-sized industrial city to the left or west of the Pacific Ocean.

It is also true to say that the magpies possibly would not have occupied that position in the poem if another person from the poet's own country had written it, therefore see that people are like nations with a new culture in each, along with warfares, petty battles, and other terrors, and that they live by planting their flags, now magpie-this, now magpie-that.

Speaking of flags, I had one Year 5 teacher who showed us a scar across the top of his scalp, a scar that had been made, he said, by a magpie, but we had been reading a book about a boy who put an ice cream bucket on his head to protect himself from magpies while he climbed a windmill which makes me wonder now if the story might have been an attempt to make the head-scar relevant to our learning processes. Yet we used to cover our heads with softball gloves when we went under the magpie nesting tree by the decaying netball courts with their rotting soft edges so we all knew that genuine magpie scars were an entirely feasible development of our skins as well as his.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

primarily a politician

When I think of the crowdedness of The Sundial, and the overstocking of characters I wonder if it is a sign that Shirley Jackson did not know what to do to feed the plot so she threw more people in to keep the meat-grinder going with introductions and minor permutations, but very minor; Arabella, Julia, Gloria and Maryjane could have been merged somehow I ween or reckon, a nudge and one could have taken on the plot-functions of another, the other could have been dismissed, the initial one could have been written to explain the new behaviour. What if Julia had been eliminated and Maryjane had run away instead? Is Captain Scarabombardon essential? Why did she bring in this mob, why didn't she stop where she began; she began with a small group of well-delineated people in a closed space, a house, the setting for a closet drama, tensions there, etc, but then she draws more people to the house, a woman and her daughters, then another man, then introduces the reader to the people who live in the village outside the grounds of this mansion, and then diverts away into the story of a murder among the townspeople decades ago; everyone who was involved is dead, including the acquitted woman who might have been the murderer and this, although the readers at the time didn't know it and possibly not even Shirley Jackson herself when she inserted the murder-story in the book, was going to be the seed of We Have Always Lived in the Castle, published four later in 1962, with two women living in the house instead of one, sisters, one of them accused of the murder, and the townspeople whispering about them as they do in the story Jackson has inserted into The Sundial.

So one book has fed on the other; the Sundial has this first draft in it and so many things about it feel like the first sketch of a story, the jotted flattened characters, the dialogue of the arch young man that could have been lifted from a stock character in a movie, say one of those 1940s comedies with quick to and fro. But then the way he keeps tapping or scratching on his love's defenses without any apparent hope of actually getting in, like a dog with its door nailed shut, this habit that acts like a nail, nailing him into my memory, poor arch young man (whose name is Essex, the sad bastard), stuck with his love and his stereotypical lines, until the stereotypical lines feel like the well-worn social thing he resorts to because appeals for affection do not work.* A sign, not of lack of imagination in the author but of deprivation in the character. So my imagination works on him, I concoct a character for the man, and I had a similar reaction when I had to read L.P. Hartley's The Go-Between in Year 12 English and over the course of six months became fixated on the extremely minor character Denys, the lead woman's brother, who does virtually nothing except offer to play tennis and I resented the young lead woman, the protagonist-boy, and the annoying lover, who were taking valuable page-room away from forgotten Denys and depriving him of any chance to display the personality I had invented for him in private.

I disliked the boy-protagonist even more after I had seen the movie by Joseph Losey, whose scriptwriter Harold Pinter (though I like his Proust adaptation) had parenthesised the plot with future scenes in which the adulted boy-protagonist visits the now-elderly lead woman and engages with her sadly because the thing he saw in that garden shed thanks to her scarred him for life, her betrayal made him frigid forever, moped this mournful stoic as I sat there throwing objects mentally at the screen and invisibly shouting unsympathetic mottoes I had learned from my time in the world, eg, "Build a bridge," though my feelings I believe were more complicated than those phrases suggested, a mixture of my psychological depths which I evidently preferred not to recognise, signalling this absence of recognition with brief abuses.

*If you have read the book and you want to argue that Essex is only being diplomatic not genuinely affectionate ("Essex is primarily a politician," the older woman says) then I agree with you to and I can see all the evidence for it.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

anything to get her own way

"Aunt Fanny is a ghost," was what I thought when she appeared in the book, because she was standing in a corner and talking to a pair of characters who were holding their conversation without answering her, "she is a ghost who doesn't know she's dead, that's why she keeps talking to the living," but Aunt Fanny is alive. And The Sundial is seeded with hints that there is more to the characters than they're allowed to show in their milieu, where nobody listens to them or asks them to elaborate themselves even when they might be trying to tell them that they like them or love them, or even when the little girl keeps informing people that she can't wait to inherit the house from her grandmother and subsequently (the reader can guess it was her) leaves the grandmother figure from her dollhouse on the sundial with pins through it. Maybe she is a murderer by the end of the book but nobody notices. Shirley Jackson I think is doing us the honour, if that's the word, of testing us so that we can prove to ourselves that we're more observant than the characters, whose uncaring habit of ignoring one another is so profound. We receive no reward for it, just the question. Tested again and again. (We are the standard that the characters will never be able to learn from or try themselves against, we are the observant ones, denied them who need us most. They want to be happy, "Aunt Fanny specifically promised us happiness," but they doubt that it will ever happen, "Aunt Fanny will promise anything to get her own way." Any book is a tragedy for its characters. They need us so badly and we never can reach them.) And that terrible dread throughout the book, a sort of dreary tension, waiting with these people who will never flex.

Will you be a little flexible, will you remember that Aunt Fanny mentioned Italian lessons so many pages ago and that must be why she gives her new friend a nickname out of comedia del arte, Captain Scarabombardon?

It is a cold still surface tickled with hints, very austere and doubting us, a challenge.

She didn't like to give interviews when she was alive, Shirley Jackson, nor did she like to talk about her work or what it meant, and she extends the aura of those feelings over her characters, she does not dive into them, she writes about them as if it would not be polite to let the reader know them too well. They hide behind the stereotypes and depths peek out. She is the chill that assails them. Like little iceberg-characters: you look at the tip and guess. Those moments when they drop some remark that lifts them away from their stereotypes; the arch young man has feelings that go deeper than archness. He makes a comment, the others brush past it, the author herself rushes on, she does not dwell, the scene ends. She doesn't often approach her characters closely, she surrounds them with a huge cast that keeps her withdrawing from one to the other, she hands one a line of speech then moves away to someone else, and the longest interior monologue, which belongs to a scared woman stuck in a fog, is there for the sake of suspense, not because we're supposed to love the woman from now on, or know her. The suspense is resolved and the author returns her to a light and well-populated chatter-arena. She's armoured herself with distractions, Jackson. The characters are hopeless and we can't hope for anything from her either, alone, allone, she's testing them too, they fail, they fail, not having our advantage: we know we are reading a deliberate piece of engineering with a purpose behind it: if I look at my hands I can see the book.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

withouten any compaignye

At the beginning of Lilith the world is not discovered yet, we need to break into the world or wake up to it, George MacDonald serious with religious joy, and so there is the Everyman Mr Vane going through the mirror for us all, therefore hope, the book ends with a hopeful tone from the author, but in The Sundial by Shirley Jackson (which I read a short time afterwards -- hence the mention -- the primary heart's-blood connection between books on this blog is not country of origin or sex of author but the fact that I have read them -- in the zoo they make their cries to one another --) in Jackson's book there is all surface and no hope; nobody breaks through into anything even though the world is due to end, there will be fire, the wind will scatter branches, the windows will need to be sealed with the backs of wardrobes. But Jackson has the desperate attitude of Mikhail Zoshchenko who gives his people nothing to be aside from selfish and petty. These people in the Jackson are not materially poor like Zoshchenko's people but they don't have any other model to follow and so they are all selfish because this is how the author (you assume) feels that people are, incurably and forever: the story extrapolates that forever.

Jackson is somewhat like the characters herself but not quite, she pays attention to them but her attention is cool and covert and she is not sympathetic even towards Aunt Fanny, sad and brittle, who is bullied by the rest of the cast.

Nobody listens to Aunt Fanny until one day when her dead father appears and tells her how to save them from Armageddon. The characters are only a short distance from stereotypes (so they are distanced from any illusion of being real people, you cannot feel that you are touching them); you could sum them up quickly as the arch young man or the domineering matriarch or the vapid wife -- they are ideas about people -- the arch young man's dialogue is typically arch, and the domineering matriarch domineers and the vapid wife mulls through the book eating chocolate and talking about the last movie she saw, which was the story of a doctor saving a tribe in a jungle. She spends days talking to different people about the acting and the romance but she never realises that her own tribe is sick in a different way, and so she can't do anything to heal them, she can't say, "We are sick." That the people are lonely and sick like this is Jackson's main point I think.

Aunt Fanny's dead father is preceded by warmth, warm marble arms and human statues; she panics, the living are not this warm. There is a confusion of warmth and fear. The arch young man in a roundabout way lets the domineering matriarch know that he loves her or likes her; she is thinking about her house. Shirley Jackson writes a huge house, as usual, overlooking a village, as usual, and people in the house, then the sundial on the lawn with "What is this world?" written across the disc, which is Chaucer, The Knight's Tale:

What is this world? What asketh men to have?
Now with his love, now in his cold grave,
Allone, withouten any compaignye.

Allone is the book's key word, the word that opens the rest, all lone, all one, the characters are a collection of ones, and even after Armageddon when they are going to live in a beautiful garden, the domineering older woman is going to ensure that she is allone: she orders a crown and a gold dress to make sure that nobody in Eden mistakes her for anyone else. Shirley Jackson believes that they will not change even after the world has ended, nothing will convert them, for, "you," says a little girl on page one hundred and thirty-two, "all want the whole world to be changed so you will be different. But I don't suppose people get changed any by just a new world." They will accept the end of the world, they will not accept the ends of themselves, their selfish selves, they will not sprout into new selves, they will not change. The tone of the book is dread but what are they dreading? The same state they ensure, which is loneliness. Or the contact that would end it. O prevailing chill of stasis. This chill the same chill I've felt in all of the Jackson books I've read, this bitter ice that clenches itself around the characters and stops them ever moving too far in mind or limb. She writes about houses and her characters do not move.