Book Review by Ian Singleton

A book review of The Library of America’s Shirley Jackson

Here’s the original of this review, published in Ploughshares, Winter 2010-2011:

SHIRLEY JACKSON Novels and Stories, edited by Joyce Carol Oates. The Library of America, $35.00 cloth. Reviewed by Ian Singleton.

The Library of America’s new anthology of Shirley Jackson’s work includes a chronology of the writer’s life, the story collection The Lottery, two novels, several uncollected or unpublished stories, and a “Biography of a Story.” Surprisingly, Joyce Carol Oates’ role as editor did not include writing any introduction or preface to the volume.

One important note from the chronology illustrates Jackson’s literary disposition well. As a young girl, she believed she was clairvoyant and had glimpses of other worlds. In her work, such an outlook is omnipresent and necessary for the meaning of most of the stories.

The Lottery; or, The Adventures of James Harris—which includes the famous title story and nearly fifty other pieces—uses recurring characters, similarly passive and observant narrators, and frightening detail to illuminate reality as if through the imagination of a child stricken by fear, with monsters lurking inside every shadow. Of course, that fearful reality is often our own neighborhood and those monsters are often we ourselves.

The story “Daemon Lover,” in which nothing strictly supernatural happens despite the title, begins with eerie details of a woman’s preparations on her wedding day. Soon, the jilted bride hurries along the streets of Manhattan seeking out her intended, a literary aspirant by the name of James Harris who shows up throughout the collection. During the hunt, mystery builds as her wedding day comes undone. When she finally locates what she believes is his other apartment, the fantasy of nuptials has evaporated: “She knew there was someone inside the other apartment because she was sure she could hear low voices and sometimes laughter. She came back many times, every day for the first week. She came on her way to work, in the mornings; in the evenings, on her way to dinner alone, but no matter how often or how firmly she knocked, no one ever came to the door.”

Jackson’s talent for revealing everyday nightmares is well suited for depicting the discreet code of suburban American racists in the story “Flower Garden.” In the story “Elizabeth,” a literary agent lives between the humdrum of full-time work and a world rife with textual meaning. In “The Tooth,” surreality seeps in, culminating in this haunting moment: “She stood on the corner waiting for the light to change and Jim came swiftly up to her and then away. ‘Look,’ he said as he passed, and he held out a handful of pearls.” This detail does not directly evoke fear, but the oddness of it disrupts one’s sense of the familiar context.

Jackson uses a horrifying defamiliarization. Instead of rendering the world strange, she writes ordinary events into terrifying ones. Without explicitly employing the supernatural, through sharp and slightly incongruous details she reveals how frightening the quotidian world can be.

In the novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Jackson’s skill for rendering the plain world wondrous and terrible has fully manifested. Her narrator possesses a viewpoint similar to the writer’s approach. She is aware of the violence hidden behind the main street façade of a small town and is unable to shutter her vision. Meanwhile, the people of that town are both fascinated and enraged by the eccentricities of the protagonist and her family.

Her “Biography of a Story” tells about writing “The Lottery” and exhibits several responses the author received. Many of them resemble the attitude of the small town public in the novel mentioned above. One drawback to being the author of such a story as “The Lottery”—labeled an allegory and fulfilling whatever interpretation a reader likes—is that readers tend to ignore other work, much of which is superior to the “hit” story. Indeed, there can be a curse to this blessing of prestigious publication (New Yorker) and widespread readership. When asked in a letter if she will write more “revelatory” work such as this, the writer remarks, “I’m out of the lottery business for good.”

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