Sep 04 2015

Life Among the Savages by Shirley Jackson

Just shy of halfway through Life Among the Savages, Shirley Jackson relaxes and lets her characters — her immediate family, for this is a memoir — tell their stories without too much authorial interference. Before that, the set pieces feel a bit like set pieces, and it has a sense of an author putting on her best story to sell to the slicks.

That’s perfectly fine; it’s the style of the era she was writing in, and she was aiming for the top of the market. Further, there are probably many authors who would give their eye teeth to write a book as good as Shirley Jackson when she’s trying too hard. The book’s most famous episode — when her eldest child goes off to kindergarten and reports on the anarchic doings of one Charles — is from this section of the book.

Once she lets the characters take their natural courses, she mixes hilarity, generosity and insight in recounting the early years of her first two children, the birth and toddlerhood of her third, and the arrival of her fourth.

Like Raising Demons, Life Among the Savages begins with a move; in this case, their relocation from New York to a small town in Vermont. When Jackson and her husband are first investigating properties, the townspeople are crusty and reticent, emphasizing their hardiness by showing them houses that either don’t have heat or need to be introduced to the wonders of indoor plumbing. When they finally encounter the Fielding house (one of the oldest in town), they are nonplussed. But they take it, as it’s the only rental in the area, and their big-city landlord really is serious about having them evicted at the end of their lease.

Upon their arrival, Mr. Fielding says that he had fixed up the house a little.

I knew what he meant when I saw the house. It had been literally scraped clean, down to the wood in the walls. Mr. Fielding had put on new wallpaper, rich with great gorgeous patterns, the windows had been washed, the pillars straightened, the broken step repaired, and a cheerful man in the kitchen was putting the last touches of glittering white paint to the new shelving; there was a brand new electric stove and a new refrigerator, the floors had been repaired and varnished, a hornets’ nest had been removed from the farthest pillar on the right. …
“It’s beautiful,” I said to Mr. Fielding, almost in tears. “I thought it would look like it did before.”
“Needed some work done,” agreed Mr. Fielding. Then he nodded at the new kitchen stove and said, “Did the old place good.”

And thus do the city people encounter small-town generosity. The process of adapting to an old and large house is a bit 1950s feng shui, a bit darker hinting at the menace in some of Jackson’s other stories.

After a few vain attempts at imposing our own angular order on things with a consequent out-of-jointness and shrieking disharmony that set our teeth on edge, we gave in to the old furniture and let things settle where they would. An irritation persisted in one particular spot in the dining room, a spot which would hold neither table nor buffet and developed an alarming sag in the floor when I tried to put a radio there, until I found completely by accident that this place was used to a desk and would not be comfortable until I went out and found a spindly old writing table and set a brass inkwell on it.

Here is how she notes that a third child is on the way.

“A what?” said Jannie [the daughter].
“What for?” said Laurie [Laurence, the son].

The scene when it’s finally time to go to the hospital for the baby’s delivery is wonderful, catching both Jackson’s internal state and the family’s consternation along with their attempts to help, or at least get out of the way.

… I had no desire to eat, or in fact do anything which might upset my precarious balance between two and three children, or to interrupt my morning’s work for more than coffee, which I was still doggedly making in the frying pan. …
My husband asked politely, “May I help you with breakfast?”
“No, indeed,” I said. I stopped to catch my breath and smiled reassuringly. “I feel so well,” I said.
“Would you be offended,” he said, still very politely, “if I took this egg out of my glass?”
“Certainly not,” I said. “I’m sorry; I can’t think how it got there.”
“It’s nothing at all,” my husband said. “I was just thirsty.”
They were all staring at me oddly, and I kept giving them my reassuring smile; I did feel splendid; my months of waiting were nearly over…

After the baby has been around for a while, there is this about waking up in a household with three small children:

I lay in bed for a few minutes, wanting to get up but unable to exert the energy. From the girls’ room, small voices rose in song, and I listened happily, thinking how pleasant it was to hear a brother and two sisters playing affectionately together; then, suddenly, the words of the song penetrated into my hot mind, and I was out of the bed in one leap and racing down the hall. “Baby ate a spider, Baby ate a spider,” was what they were singing.

Something similar has surely happened to every parent. That scene is as good a marker as any for when the set pieces become less set and more natural developments of the characters as readers have been introduced to them. That makes individual events more difficult to excerpt, but strengthens the overall flow of recollection. As part of their further adaptation to small-town life Jackson becomes the first in their family to learn how to drive, and they also buy a car; both events transpire with minor property damage and droll description of sudden and unexpected yet unavoidable costs.

There’s another great tale of the first night when everyone is getting sick with the flu. Each person starts in his or her own bed, but in the course of regular sleeping times, everybody is either too hot, too cold, too crowded, or too lonely, and shuffles among the bedrooms and guest room such that by morning a few people are back where they started but everyone has been in a different place at some point during the night.

This particular quote comes from when she has taken the children shopping in a nearby town, but it’s another one that seems likely to be universal among parents:

I looked at the clock with the faint unconscious hope common to all mothers that time will somehow have passed magically away and the next time you look it will be bedtime. It was ten minutes to twelve, a good eight hours to go before the nightly miracle, but a legitimate time for lunch.

I don’t know enough about family memoirs from the 1950s to say if Jackson was swimming against the tide – certainly her take on domestic life is at odds with the common perception of how that was portrayed in the 1950s – but I think her jaundiced view is a reason the book reads so freshly in the 21st century.

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