Archive for January, 2014

Hangsaman

Thanks to Penguin Classics, many of Shirley Jackson’s long out of print eary novels are being reprinted. Written in 1951, Jackson’s second novel, Hangsaman ,is a coming of age tale with the psychological hauntings one finds in her later works. Lacking the subtle, but unnerving chills of The Haunting of Hill House, or the macabre humor of We’ve Always Lived in the Castle, the novel rather foretells the greatness to come.

The book revolves around Natalie Waite- a young woman with a vivid imagination, whose father is training her to be a writer. Stressed by her father who seems to want to turn her into a mirror image of himself, and terrified of becoming like her neurotic mother, Natalie seeks her own identity inside of daydreams.

But a traumatizing event occurs which nearly shatters her already fragile persona.

“The danger is here, in here, ” Natalie thinks, “just as they stepped inside and were lost in the darkness.” Assaulted shortly before going away to college, she admonishes herself, “I don’t remember, nothing happened, nothing that I remember happened.”

Determined to move on, Natalie enters the liberal college with enthusiasm, but soon finds herself surrounded by cliques, hazing, and petty cruelities. Snubbed by the other girls, she slips further and further into her own mind until the reader wonders how much is of her own willing, her imagination- or whether she is truly suffering from mental illness.

“Remember, too, that without you I could not exist: there can be no father without a daughter. You have thus a double responsibility, for my existence and your own. If you abandon me, you lose yourself,” her father writes in one of his letters to her.

It is shortly thereafter that she begins to wonder if she is real at all. ”Perhaps- and this was her most persistent thought, the thought that stayed with her and came suddenly to trouble her at odd moments, and to comfort her- suppose, actually, she were not Natalie Waite, college girl, daughter to Arthur Waite, a creature of deep lovely destiny; suppose she were someone else?”

The only one who understands Natalie, and shares her visions of the world, is the strange girl named Tony whom she befriends. Ethereal ,and cryptic in speech, it is up to the reader to decide whether Tony is real or not.

“Will you come somewhere with me?” Tony asks her. ”It’s a long way.”

Whether Tony is an imaginary friend or not, hardly matters, for it is Natalie’s trust in her, and/or in herself that gives her the courage to embark on a surreal trip through the city and into the woods where she faces her greatest fear- being alone- and comes out triumphant.

Elegiac, yet also brimming with an undercurrent of optimism by its engaging protagonist, Hangsaman unfortunately falls short of what Ms. Jackson semed to be aiming for. Elements of it working better than the whole. A fantastic read for people already fans of Jackson, but not a good place to start.