July 2013

Nicholas Vajifdar

The Forgotten Twentieth Century

Parting the Clouds: On Shirley Jackson's "The Bird's Nest"

Anyone who experiments with the various registers of English prose discovers quickly that two particular effects are the easiest of all to implant in a piece of writing: frenzy and flatness. A writer sowing frenzy takes care to include as many twitchy phrases and lurches of syntax as taste will allow, or won’t allow; this is all to suggest a psychological intensity waiting under the foam, which may or may not really be there. 

Alternatively, to execute the flat style, pare away anything that would enliven the monotone. Adhere to overreaching rules like “No adverbs” when really what you mean is “Be Concise” or, even better, “Be Memorable.” This flat style is also meant to suggest depths of thought and feeling, which are admittedly sometimes there. This is one of the best styles for anyone who considers writing to be an inherently shameful activity, like many Americans, including not a few American writers, for reasons known only to them. The flat style soothes the shame of writing because the emotion is supposedly hidden away and can’t be directly attacked, as it could in the more effusive style above.

Both of these styles, considered as broad phyla, have turned out true literature, but in their mannered and lazy incarnations they have also contributed disproportionately to disappointing essays and fiction. They’re the easiest to get into, the easiest to ape.

As for the hardest style to ape, I'm not sure it has a name, but by my lights its exemplar is the prose of Shirley Jackson. At first glance, she seems to be writing in a flat style, with a Strunk and White sobriety and forbearance. But then you hear the frenzy congealing underneath like a sustained, broken chord that, with its last note, makes your heart chambers expand like parachutes. I have to say, I rarely feel scared by novels. Life is plenty scary, and so are the movies. But novels? Novels at their best are funny and sad, but not scary, or so my prejudice goes. Shirley Jackson, however, scares me. Just as a Charles Portis or a Flann O’Brien can describe someone tying a shoelace and have you cackling like a coyote, Shirley Jackson (no slouch herself in the comedy department) has the poet’s sense of timing and economy, a pounce of phrase. Here she is in her novel The Bird's Nest, as a Polonius-like psychiatrist interrogates Elizabeth Richmond, a young lady of twenty-three with not much going on besides perhaps a murderous split personality:

“And the headaches?” I repeated, a little sharp.

She looked at me squarely for the first time, dull, uninterested, stupid, turning her hands one within the other. “And the headaches?” I said. As though I had reminded her, she put one hand to the back of her neck, and closed her eyes; “And the headaches?” I said, and she looked at me, her eyes wide and aware of me, and said loudly, “I’m frightened.”

“Frightened, Miss R?”

This would be a good time to note that Harold Pinter's first play appeared in 1957, three years after The Bird's Nest's publication. The ineffable menace that results from the repetition and interplay of superficially harmless phrases -- Pinter made this his specialty, but someone else got there first. If you think of the phrase "And the headaches?" as being like a thwack on a timpani, Jackson's skills as a composer of music are well on display in this passage as she times the entry of the phrase precisely. A few extra words here and there could have ruined the effect, making it seem strained instead of what it is, an organic sort of terror.

Psychiatrists, split personalities, darkness in a small town: this is the stuff of The Bird's Nest, and, by now, this is the stuff of cliché, a forgotten script in one of the cabinets of Hitchcock’s dust-choked development office. But just as Hitchcock's editing and cinematography could give life to scenes that would read stupidly in the script, Jackson's ear and style turn the split personality narrative into something lithe and remorseless as a Velociraptor:

Bad old woman, Elizabeth thought, and then was surprised at herself; Aunt Morgen had been very kind to her. "Bad old woman," and she realized that she had spoken it aloud. Suppose she hears me, Elizabeth thought, and giggled. "Bad old woman," she said, very loudly indeed.

"Did you call me, kiddo?"

"No, thank you, Aunt Morgen."

This is neither flat nor frenetic. There is something disquieting about her clarity and lack of surface volubility. Like clouds parting in an arctic sky, her prose gives everything away only to reveal an unplumbable depth. Le style, c'est l'homme: the author of such a style must attract curiosity. People in her books have a more sinister manner than they do in many other books. But her bluntness is refreshing, her honesty is tonic. Here is how Jackson introduces her young heroine:

Elizabeth Richmond was twenty-three years old. She had no friends, no parents, no associates, and no plans beyond that of enduring the necessary interval before her department with as little pain as possible.

It's brutal, but who could honestly deny that millions of people live like this? And who could justify avoiding writing about them? It's psychologically sustaining to know that you're in the presence of an author who will give it to you straight, instead of glazing things with pleasant lies.

The Bird's Nest deals with her favorite theme of latent insanity that keeps irrupting into polite society. Like Dostoevsky, she excels at "scandal scenes" in which the mind is asked for sane politeness but is powerless to deliver up anything but the irrational, and perhaps the violent. This would appear to be a narrow focus, until you realize that most of the high peaks of literature also focus narrowly on these kinds of social scandal: Achilles sulking in his tent, Banquo's ghost at the feast, Don Quixote asking an innkeeper to dub him knight.

In The Bird's Nest, as the various latent personalities emerge from out of Elizabeth like clowns out of a car, Jackson serves up internal monologues and puts to dramatic use the various means by which characters give themselves away. Like Hamlet, her characters have the desperate urge to be understood by those around them, but at the same time not to be understood, even by themselves. Jackson is aware of the antennae quiver that most people feel when slighted even implicitly. Here is the psychiatrist Doctor Wright again:

Again [Elizabeth] burst into her wild laughter, and -- although Miss Hartley, my nurse, must surely by now be accustomed to loud noises from my office -- I was half-afraid that Miss Hartley might conclude that I was being laughed at by one of my own patients, since the laughter was clearly not hysterical.

It's hard here not to hear echoes of Browning’s Duke and his self-pitying will to power. (“She had / A heart—how shall I say?—too soon made glad, / Too easily impressed...”)

Shirley Jackson was famously at the center of one of the strangest episodes of author-reader “feedback.” She wrote a story, "The Lottery," about a mob overcoming an individual with violence. One doesn't have to be René Girard to see the universality in this story; in fact, as with Pinter, her story preceded Girard's theory of the scapegoat by many years. The hate mail came pouring in from her readers, who disliked the implication that nice folks weren't entirely nice, and that even the nicest folks harbor a good deal of nastiness; some of the mail contained violent threats. The message was clear: don't talk about latent violence in human culture, or else we'll subject you to that violence. As Larkin would say, “Useful to get that learnt.”

I suspect that “The Lottery” would not have stupefied the readers of The New Yorker had it been written with a hammy emphasis, or if Jackson had not shaped the story to pull the reader along softly before sticking in the knife at the very end like Maupassant. But it was the eerie clarity and unassuming strength of the prose that really got under readers' skins. If she had, so to speak, raised her voice, her voice would not have been heard; but by speaking softly and distinctly, she got her message across, in the way that everyone automatically listens in a restaurant when someone at a neighboring table begins to whisper.

I really have to emphasize the eeriness; who, besides Emily Dickinson (another New England woman, it occurs to me) was ever this eerie in her writing? The effect is like talking to someone, having a perfectly normal, even bland conversation, when all of a sudden you're no longer able to suppress the idea that your partner is conversation is psychotically insane. It so happens that Jackson knew that this was the effect of her prose, because she wrote a story with exactly that premise, called “The Witch.”

To appreciate her achievement, it’s necessary to return to Jackson the master stylist. Because without her infallible ear, her stories would seem not just impoverished but cut off at the legs. It would be like reading a libretto without the music, and she was one of the best prose musicians of the last century.