Monday, August 18, 2008

Shirley Jackson - Life Among The Savages (1952)

Although I tend to think her best known story, The Lottery, is over-rated in comparison to the rest of her work, Shirley Jackson is, in my opinion, one of the finest practitioners of the art of the short story. That her work tends to the darkly-inflected makes it even more of a treat. I also can't praise the novels of hers I've read, The Haunting of Hill House and the neglected We Have Always Lived In The Castle too highly.

So I tracked down her book Life Among The Savages, a lightly-fictionalised, humorous book-length memoir of family life. The pieces were first published individually in women's magazines (Jackson was determined to live by her writing) - in tone, the work compares to some of the 'light' stories which have been published in Just An Ordinary Day. To be honest, though, LATS hasn't really stood the test of time. Jackson's spare, understated prose style is very much in evidence, and it works well in a comic setting, but the material is very light and sometimes repetitious (befitting its provenance). In particular, what seemed an amusing, self-deprecating story in the 1950s looks like a tale of the acceptance of misogynistic conditions and family structures in the present day; and that acceptance makes the reader (or at least this reader) consistently frustrated - especially considering Jackson's gifts in comparison with her husband, who comes across more as selfish than endearing, as well as the fact that Jackson also worked to earn a wage through her writing, therefore stepping outside any view which might see equity in the choice for one partner to be a breadwinner while leaving domestic and childrearing duties to the other.

One point of interest is the inclusion of material that can also be found elsewhere, and the way its tone is shaped by the context - here we find a section which is included, as a short story, in The Lottery and Other Stories under the title Charles (the small print tells us that it's included at the request of her son Lawrence, who is the main character); but while in the context of The Lottery it has a sinister, 'bad seed' air, here it takes on a 'kids say the darndest things' air - an interesting comment on the ways in which the reader is subtly guided by factors outside the work itself; and of course, Jackson's work is premised on the unspoken, on meaning constructed through context.

Overall, however, even as a huge Jackson fan, I found LATS more of a curiosity - and an evocation of a particular historical era and its attitudes - than a rewarding read as such.

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