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Shirley

Shirley - Susan Merrell Shirley Jackson is like Jane Austen: she only lived to write six novels and she died in her forties, leaving the tantalizing beginnings of a novel unlike any other she'd written. Both authors have shelves of their very own in my apartment, because I have multiple editions of everything they ever wrote as well as lots of books about the writers and their work.

Austen is the greater writer of the two, but I have to say that Jackson is my favorite. Not just of the pair, but of all time. Austen taught me to read; Shirley Jackson made me think I could be a writer.

So of course when I saw this novel about her, I was conflicted. I wasn't sure I wanted to read it, but I felt as if I had to, if only so I could tear the author a new one if she screwed up portraying my Shirley.

I'm a cranky old lady when it comes to novelizations of the (fairly) recently departed. Historical figures don't bother me, because nobody can know what they were really like, so such novels are obviously purely speculation; but when, for instance, all those novels about Sylvia Plath came out, I want to have a head-smacking party. (Other people's heads, not mine.) I mean, her kids were still around when those were written, you know? And her kids were in those novels. Being potty-trained, in one instance. I'm fascinated by Plath too, but that's just rude.

(Told you I was a cranky old lady on the subject.)

Really, though, I'm not just being righteous for the sake of the poor wittle children. That sort of novel just strikes me as presumptuous. Where do you get off thinking you're the one who knows what it was like to be Plath? Especially when, if you know anything at all about her, you know she was ferociously prickly and proud. She would hate to be the subject of such a project.

Shirley Jackson, on the other hand...given her sense of humor and her catlike self-assurance, I'm not sure she'd mind this kind of novel at all. I can imagine her ghost answering such a summons – leaning against the kitchen counter, smiling and lighting an incorporeal cigarette. Think you know me, do you? Well, by all means, have at it!

Susan Scarf Merrell keeps a respectful distance from her subject, and it works. Although the book is called Shirley, the main character is entirely fictional – Rose Nemser, who is 19 and pregnant when she arrives at Jackson's house. Her husband Fred has just become a teacher at Bennington College, where Jackson's husband Stanley Edgar Hyman is a popular professor. The Nemsers are boarding with Jackson and her family until they can find a place of their own, but very quickly everyone wants the arrangement to be a more permanent one.

I don't want to talk much about the plot of this novel, partly because it's a largely character-driven work and partly because it's the writing that smacked me over the head and dragged me off to its lair. I will say that anyone who knows anything about Shirley Jackson will understand immediately that this novel is set in the last year of her life, though she was only in her forties, and that Merrell really captures something about Shirley Jackson.

Merrell has also clearly read the eff out of Jackson's work. She knows her stuff, and she also knows how to weave this knowledge into her writing rather than bludgeoning the reader with it. I think her only blunders are early in the novel, where she treats Stanley as a sort of biographer of his wife who spouts paragraphs about The Famous Writer:

"Hill House," I murmured, thinking of the novel in my purse. It occurred to me then that I'd never seen evidence before this of how a novelist constructs a world from fog and fact.

Stanley smiled approvingly but shook his head. "Shirley will show you the one everyone thinks is that house. Perhaps it is; perhaps it isn't. She claims a house in California as the source. The wise man would wager that Hill House came straight from her imagination."


Stanley Edgar Hyman was a brilliantly odd duck by all accounts, but I don't think anyone talks like that.

Or like this:

"James Harris is folklore's proof that man has never been trustworthy. We're not alone in our preference for that ballad; it's Shirley's favorite as well. D'you know, her book The Lottery and Other Stories was supposed to be subtitled The Adventures of James Harris?"

Well, not exactly. First of all, see above re nobody talks like this. And second, the book in question was subtitled The Adventures of James Harris, originally. I have a 1949 second edition, and it says it right there on the cover. The subtitle fell away in later editions, but it was there at first. Stanley would have said "used to be," not "was supposed to be."

As you can see from the four stars I gave this book, these are minor quibbles. I was updating constantly as I read, because the prose is so gorgeous I had to share. Rose is haunted long before she meets Shirley Jackson, and Merrell perfectly captures this sense of a lost young woman seeking a mother only weeks before she herself becomes one.

She also captures a sense of Shirley Jackson herself:

She was in the kitchen, leaning against the sink with the water running. Yesterday's dress again. A cigarette trailing smoke. Her hair caught up in a limp ponytail. She was watching something out the window, staring intently.

...and of the time, so recent yet so unlike our own – a time when you went to the supermarket and told the clerk what you wanted and he went and got it for you, as Jackson uses to memorable effect in her story "Just Like Mother Used To Make" and her far creepier novel We Have Always Lived In The Castle:

When we got to the market, Shirley had already called; the chops were cut and the string beans and potatoes had been set aside. We took a container of milk, and some apples, and a bag of farina, as she'd asked the grocer to tell us.

...a time when men were men, and women were cute and decorative and useless:

We'd not talked about whether I would work, Fred and I. His mother never had; she was pretty and helpless and hardly knew how to open and shut the windows in their apartment. Her job at the store was little more than a social position, a way of visiting with her friends, keeping an eye on their children. Fred's father – most of the fathers I knew, my own the sole exception – would have been embarrassed if his wife had to contribute to ongoing expenses. A wife could work for something specific; if she wanted to buy new furniture she could take a job in a department store and reap the discount, without shame. Though most of the women I knew had been forced to work on and off over the years, no one ever talked about it.

Merrell also understands, and expresses, the kind of work and sacrifice it takes to be a great writer:

"It takes more than wanting," she said cruelly. "You don't have the language. You don't want to share. You hoard your past. You clean it up. Withhold the details that make you what you don't want to be."

..."You change your stories all the time – you do, you've told me so yourself!"

"I clean them up to make them read better. I don't care what the hell I look like, or anybody else."


And she knows how to be spooky as hell:

My mother. A slivered moon night, that part of winter before the snow has fallen, cold hits the body like a shock and we are outside, my fingers frozen, and those are her limbs by the crumbling stucco wall: her arms, her legs swept into a pile by some insane and diligent gardener. Her eyes are closed; her mouth is peaceful. I want to wake up, I admit it, I'm not ashamed. Wake up. Wake up! I tell the truth, confess it here: Momma, I saved myself instead of you.

That's chapter fourteen in its entirety, and it represents the tone and content of this novel perfectly.

I don't know if this is the kind of novel that will make people unfamiliar with Jackson's work run out and read it, or if you should read some of Jackson's stories and novels first and then read this. I can say that if you enjoyed the understated terror of such novels as Rebecca and The Haunting of Hill House, you will enjoy this book.