Monday, September 19, 2016

she has followed her instructions to the letter

Near the end of Shirley Jackson’s Hangsaman, 1951, the character Natalie follows her friend into a dark forest where she realises that this good companion has been employed all along by a presence that somehow wants to abduct her. “She has done as she was told then, Natalie thought; she has brought me here with friendship and without force, she has followed her instructions to the letter and will probably be commended.” What is the presence? Earlier on the bus the two friends guessed that the other passengers might be agents of “them,” but the conversation is so ambiguous that it’s possible for the reader to understand “them” as something fairly routine: a power of convention that wants to repress an imaginative high school student; that sort of they. Now, though, when Natalie anticipates the presence in the woods, it is as if she is expecting a murderer. It is not the powers of society, it is a phenomenal force that draws her specifically away from society in order to approach her. Its strength does not seem to be located anywhere outside her belief in it: not in any institution or animal physicality.

Hangsaman is always discussed as if that event is a manifestation of the trauma that was repressed after a sexual assault in chapter one. Why is it necessary for trauma be shaped like a magical serial killer? This seems like a key question in Jackson and the answer must lie unanswerably outside the books as well as inside them. If you can say why Natalie’s family ignores the evidence of the assault then you might know why Eleanor in the Haunting of Hill House, 1959, has to steal a car, drive away, and be mentally possessed by an unfamiliar structure, why it is necessary for the structure to seem (supernaturally) familiar to her; why, in other words, the exposition of her character has to happen there, and not in the home where she has spent eleven years caring for her dying mother. All of Hill House can be read as a return to the last fifty pages of the earlier book.

(I think that by publishing Hangsaman Jackson found the other story.)

When I started writing this post I was wondering how Jackson might have changed her work if she had been able to read Elfriede Jelinek. Specifically I wondered if she might have lost the magazine archness veneering her sarcasm, if she might have looked at Otto, Gretl, and the twins in Wonderful Wonderful Times / Die Ausgesperrten, 1980 and recognised her own cynicism towards families, the conviction of Natalie’s father that his desires are best and that his disdain for his wife is justified, the wretchedly obedient self-hatred of the wife herself which Jackson makes as unpitiable as possible, for both authors will prickle at benevolence. I was disturbed by what I interpreted as the author’s voluntary or habitual defanging of herself. In Jelinek’s translated sentences play and anger are the same thing: the sentences are negatively energised, the play is jeering, whereas Jackson’s play is play apart, in a place where people have time to sit comfortably every now and then, writing calm, wry statements about the little things in life: a leisure place, and as such it exists apart from the anger or panic or disgust that supply the sentences with their meanings. But there is always something theoretical to appeal to in Jelinek when the characters act on that sarcasm: there are patriarchal mores or the denialism of postwar Austria; there is no ghost they. Jackson is unsealed, more careless, she hides (Jelinek exposes); she is (idea) not writing Hangsaman to reveal a fictionalised sexual assault but to conceal one, as if some wound, not necessarily sexual, has already happened and now it needs obfuscation to hide it away.

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