Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Elsewhere . . .

In recent weeks, when I've mostly been failing to write in this space, I have at least made a couple of contributions to Open Letters Monthly. The first was a sheer pleasure to prepare for and write: a review of Ruth Jackson's excellent new biography of Shirley Jackson, the writing of which gave me an excuse to re-read the Jackson books I'd read before and dig up all the ones I hadn't.

One thing that's always surprised me about Jackson is that people have had trouble reconciling the light, loving manner of her family memoirs and the darkness of her other fiction. And perhaps I would have, too, fifty years ago, when boundaries between genres were more rigidly policed, preventing serious fiction and the light diversions of women's magazines from ever polluting each another. Seen from our vantage, however, the two styles are clearly kin: humor is shot through both--rarely do even Jackson's most frightening novels fail to have moments of black comedy--and they share an appreciation of oddity and an attention to language, and in particular its rhythms.

At the same time, though, there is a distinct difference in prose style, one that I didn't have room to get into in my review. Take a look at this, from early in one of Jackson's creepiest, least explicable stories, "The Man in the Woods":
The cat had joined him shortly after her entered the forest, emerging from between the trees in a quick, shadowy movement that surprised Christopher at first and then, oddly, comforted him, and the cat had stayed beside him, moving closer to Christopher as the trees pressed insistently closer to them both, trotting along in the casual acceptance of human company that cats exhibit when they are frightened. Christopher, when he stopped once to rest, sitting on a large stone at the edge of the road, had rubbed the cat's ears and pulled the cat's tail affectionately, and had said, "Where are we going, fellow? Any ideas?", and the cat had closed his eyes meaningfully and opened them again.
You can find pleasantly showy passages throughout Jackson's writing; this one is fairly sedate, but it serves my purpose. The sentences are long and fluid, clause following on clause as cause on effect, and an aphoristic phrase ("the casual acceptance of human company that cats exhibit") is thrown in with the air of an afterthought.

Now look at this, chosen all but at random from Raising Demons, Jackson's second volume of family memoir:
Usually, whenever Beekman drove, Sally wanted to come too. And whenever Sally came, Jannie thought she had better come along. And when Beekman and Sally and Jannie came, Laurie figured that we might just sop in at a movie or some such, and if we did he wanted to be along. As a result, whenever I went shopping in the new car, everyone came except my husband, who could not, for a long time, look at the new car without telling me how we were going bankrupt in style. One Saturday morning I almost got off without Beekman, who was learning from Sally how to cut out paper dolls, but before I was out of the driveway they were calling to me to wait a minute, and by the time I finally tuned the car and headed off toward the big supermarkets I had all four of them with me, Sally accompanied by her dolls Susan and David and Patpuss, all dressed entirely in cleansing tissue, and carrying--though I did not know it when she got into the car--a pocketbook containing four pennies and a shilling stolen from her father's coin collection.
Oh, how it builds! As each child is added, the sentences get longer and longer, trailing more impedimenta in their wake. Whereas the sentences in the previous passage were long, but explicit in their structure, these pretend to embody chaos: they just go. The book is like that throughout, written as if in the rush of conversation with children and the confusions of parenting, a hard task of writing made to look casually effortless. If you're looking for light entertainment this holiday season, you could do far worse than Raising Demons and Life Among the Savages.

The other bit I wrote for OLM was much less involved: a brief note on my year in reading, focused on Alexandra Harris's wonderful Weatherland: Writers and Artists under English Skies. "English summers take their identity from the stretches of grey on either side," writes Harris. In the depths of a gray and dark Chicago winter, I feel strong kinship. If you're looking for a holiday gift for a bookish Anglophile, your shopping may be done.

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