- - Thursday, September 10, 2015

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

LET ME TELL YOU: NEW STORIES, ESSAYS AND OTHER WRITINGS

By Shirley Jackson

Edited by Laurence Hyman and Sarah Hyman DeWitt

Foreword by Ruth Franklin

Random House, $30, 416 pages

To most people the American novelist and short story writer Shirley Jackson will always be associated with her shocking story “The Lottery” which appeared in The New Yorker magazine in the summer of 1948. Although she published half a dozen novels, several collections of short stories and two family memoirs before her life was cut off far too early before she was 50 years old, she was all too aware that posterity would bind her indelibly with “The Lottery”:

“I have been assured over and over that if it had been the only story I wrote or published, there would be people who would not forget my name. Of the three hundred-odd letters I received that summer I can count only thirteen that spoke kindly to me, and they were mostly from friends. Even my mother scolded me.”

What the editors of this protean bouquet of Jackson’s unpublished and previously uncollected writings are trying to show is how much more to her there was than that celebrated and understandably controversial short story. And perhaps in this enterprise they are channeling the late author herself, for no industrious prolific writer wants to be known for just one piece, no matter how great.

And yet and yet. The towering achievement of “The Lottery” necessarily dwarfs anything else she wrote. It is not surprising that it discomfited so many readers, for its power is rooted in its deliberate intention to do so. Its mixture of the quotidian with the darkest of forces running underground in the most demure of settings puts its finger on a troubling aspect of society in the 20th century that kept poking its ugly head out for most of its years in a variety of settings with hitherto unimaginable consequences. And it also does so with a deceptively artless ease that translates into spare, hard-hitting immediacy. Compare its artistry with other similar works: say Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” or Friedrich Durrenmatt’s “The Visit.” Neither of them exactly slouches when it comes to exploring the sinister underside of ordered, civilized society, but they pale beside Jackson’s masterpiece.

“The Lottery” truly is that rare work that really does merit the overused appellation Kafkaesque. I think it bears comparison with one of Franz Kafka’s greatest stories titled “In The Penal Colony,” which says more about how one human being can impose unspeakable torture on another and how that individual can still sustain his humanity, than anything else I have ever read. But “The Lottery” out-Kafkas Kafka in that its conclusion’s finality is absolute, without any saving grace. And in this bleakness, she mirrors Kafka whose worldview seemed, when he was writing, far-out dystopic fantasy yet turned out to be a guide to some of the 20th century’s worst aspects. But Jackson takes those dark forces away from sinister old world castles and nameless ensnaring bureaucracies and into the pastoral, tranquil-seeming ordinariness of an American village. And this is what stamps her particular genius on her crowning achievement.

Which is not to say that these 400 pages aren’t loaded with all manner of treasures. Henry James may have damned the United States for having no castles, but Jackson was more than capable of inventing her own distinctly American version of the phenomenon. There are essays and shorter pieces that reveal glimpses of the woman who could write what she did as she did. As two of her children write in the afterword to this book, “Shirley repeatedly said that when she wrote, she expected the reader to complete the experience of making fiction; she assumed a certain literacy from her reader, or at least the ability to pay attention, because she considered the writer and the reader to be partners. With enormous care and energy, she honed her skill in a great variety of styles, with timeless characters and plots, creating memories for millions.”

“Let me Tell You” widens and enhances that dynamic partnership which is still alive and well a half century after all that marvelous writing ceased to flow from one of the most powerful and distinctive imaginations ever to enrich American literature.

Just how successful this collection is as a corrective to thinking of Jackson just as the author of “The Lottery” is an open question, beyond of course what was always thought of her based on her entire oeuvre. Is she one of those rare modern writers whose DNA implants her genius in even the slightest of her works, as is the case in, say, Evelyn Waugh? Readers will have to decide that for themselves after reading the salmagundi offered up in these pages. But for me, there is nothing to approach “The Lottery,” which is not only one of the finest achievements of American literature but one of the greatest literary works of the 20th century in any language.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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