Last year Penguin republished Shirley Jackson’s first four novels; I blogged about The Road Through The Wall last year and now I’ve just read her second book, Hangsaman.
Hangsaman is a strange novel by any standards; as if trying to remember a dream I feel the urge to write this blog quickly as I can, before it’s unique internal logic fades from my mind. Its central character is Natalie Whaite, a seventeen-year old American girl on the verge of going to college. The surface level events of the story are mundane, trite even: Natalie has bourgeois parents, and goes to a respectable girls-only college. But what happens externally is not really the point; this is a story about Natalie’s inner life, and how she reacts to and absorbs the world around her: parties thrown by her parents; the machinations of cliquey and spiteful college girls; the strangeness of returning to her family abode after months away. Transformed by Jackson’s inimitable prose, these mundane events seem vividly odd; sinister even. How much of this sense of threat is real and how much projected onto the world by Natalie’s precocious yet vulnerable psyche is one of the central ambiguities of the book.
Right from the start it is clear Natalie has a vivid imagination; much like Eleanor from The Haunting Of Hill House, Natalie is someone whose propensity for daydreaming and fantasy seems alarmingly strong. If her urge for escapism is so dominant, what is she escaping from? Early on in the story a potentially traumatic event is hinted at, and it is clear that Natalie is repressing something – but exactly what occurred is opaque, repressed by Jackson’s narrative as much as by Natalie’s mind. Exactly what Natalie is thinking and feeling is often obscure – it certainly isn’t revealed directly in her chirpy interactions with a college professor and his young wife, or in her playful letters home to her father. But what the reader becomes alert to is the brief glimpses that Natalie might actually feel unbearably lonely and distanced from the world. And it’s easy to understand why Natalie might be so alienated, when it and the characters it is peopled with are presented with satirical humour by Jackson. In part this works so well because isn’t this how we see the world as a teenager, as something faintly unrealistic, as a joke being played on us? Because everything is focused through the character of Natalie, the differences in tone (the novel can be cruelly humorous one minute, and disturbingly sinister the next) don’t seem to jar. It shouldn’t work, but it does.
As the book reaches its final third, it darkens considerably, and the exact extent of what is real and what Natalie imagines is unclear, with double and triple bluffs confounding the reader. It’s a compelling read, and despite similarities to The Bell Jar and The Catcher In The Rye, a unique experience. There’s no one quite like Shirley Jackson andHangsaman seems to me to be her first queer, twisted masterpiece.