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.