Shirley Jackson’s house in North Bennington, Vt., unlike the nearby Robert Frost Stone House, has not been made into a museum. There isn’t even a sign that says that Shirley Jackson used to live there. It stands magisterially, with its four columns, up the knoll on Prospect Street. But if you stop to take a good look at it, you will realize that, despite its white grandeur, the overall impression it gives is one of inadequate upkeep — it could do with a new coat of paint, and the roof is crumbling in some places. The dysfunctional family in Jamaica Kincaid’s novel See Now Then lives in “the Shirley Jackson house…in a small village in New England.” (Kincaid, too, is a resident of North Bennington). From a window of the house, the mother Mrs. Sweet in the novel “could look down on the roaring waters of the Paran River as it fell furiously and swiftly out of the lake…and looking up, she could see surrounding her, the mountains named Bald and Hale and Anthony, all part of the Green Mountain Range; and she could see the firehouse where she sometimes attended a civic gathering…” The new owners of the house seldom come out on the porch; I have walked past it many times but never seen anyone walking in the yard or sitting on the steps. It is not very surprising then that Kincaid chose this house for her novel; its anonymity only fuels its quiet power to command everything in its view. As you walk up the hill and see the house emerge slowly, you feel as if you had stumbled upon the axis of the whole village.
Shirley Jackson was walking up the hill to the same house as she worked out in her mind what would become her most famous story. “The idea had come to me,” she writes in the “biography” of “The Lottery,” “while I was pushing my daughter up the hill in her stroller — it was, as I say, a warm morning, and the hill was steep, and beside my daughter the stroller held the day’s groceries — and perhaps the effort of that last fifty yards up the hill put an edge to the story.” Shirley Jackson left New York City and moved to North Bennington in the ’40s when her husband, the literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman, accepted a teaching position in the literature department at Bennington College, which is only a short walk from Prospect Street. One question that would come up persistently in the deluge of fan- and hate-mail that Jackson received after the publication of “The Lottery” in The New Yorker in June 1948 was: “But where is this fictional village located, whose habitants participate in the cruel ritual described in the story?” In her delightful essay “How I Write” in Let Me Tell You, a new collection of Shirley Jackson’s unpublished and uncollected short stories, essays, and other writings, she writes: “For a while I tried telling them that I was just thinking of my neighbors, but no one would believe me. Incidentally, no one in our small town has ever heard of The New Yorker, much less read my story.” North Bennington is the setting for many of Shirley Jackson’s short stories and for her novels We Have Always Lived in the Castle, considered by many her finest (it was also her last) and Hangsaman, which is about a Bennington College student. Yet, Shirley Jackson never mentions the name of the place; it could be any small village in New England.
It is this effacement of place that makes Shirley Jackson’s writing so astonishing. Nowhere in We Have Always Lived in the Castle does Shirley Jackson mention the name of the hostile village from which the Blackwood sisters are hiding away, but as soon as you start walking around North Bennington, you realize how she was deftly transforming the space around her with her abundant imagination. She explains this process in “How I Write:”
I had been reading a book about choosing a victim for a sacrifice, and I was wondering who in our town would be a good choice for such a thing. Also I was wondering what would happen if they drew lots by family; would the Campbell boys, who haven’t spoken to each other in nearly twenty years, have to stand up together? And I was wondering what would happen about the Garcia boy, who had married a girl his parents couldn’t stand — would she have to be admitted as a member of their family? I was so fascinated by the idea of the people I knew in such a situation, I thought that when I got home I might try writing it down and seeing what happened…Because I was interested in the method, I called the story “The Lottery”…
In the fall of last year, Ruth Franklin, who is working on a new biography of Shirley Jackson to be published next year, contacted me for help with some local research. As I read through old issues of the Bennington Banner from 1957 preserved on microfilm, I stumbled on a trove of local gossip that the newspaper, unfortunately, no longer publishes: “Several local residents caught a glimpse of Mrs Roger W. Tubby Thursday afternoon as she, accompanied by her husband’s sister and husband visiting from England, was on her way home to Saranac Lake.” In one of the issues, the newspaper reported how a Mr. Williams had been admitted to the hospital, but the next day it also published a correction saying that after being contacted by Mr. Williams, the newspaper had realized its sources had been faulty. Who knows what Mr. Williams’s secret afflictions were, or what life-altering effects the noteworthy visit of Mrs. Roger Tubby, wife of a former White House Press Secretary, had on the village? Either of these could easily be the premise for one of Shirley Jackson’s stories.
Jackson had a penetrating eye for the absurd and the horrific in everyday lives, whether in New York City or in a quiet Vermont village. In the story “Paranoia” in Let Me Tell You, a New Yorker happily returning home from work, having remembered his wife’s birthday and carrying a box of candy for her, starts being chased relentlessly by the image of a man in a light hat. Even his home will not be able to shelter him from his pursuer. Let Me Tell You is divided into five sections — unpublished and uncollected short fiction, reviews and essays about work and life, early short stories about the Second World War, humor and family remembrances, and essays on the craft of writing. Some of the short fiction in this collection — like “Paranoia,” “The Man in the Woods,” and “The Lie” — was previously published in magazines like The New Yorker, Tin House, and McSweeney’s. Much of it, however, is wholly new, such as “The Arabian Nights,” in which a girl insists on accompanying her parents and their friends to a nightclub the day after her 12th birthday, but the events following Clark Gable’s appearance at the club make her feel uneasy in the world of adults and want to take refuge in her childhood once again. The stories in Let Me Tell You are not Jackson’s most detailed, and sometimes they’re only one or two pages long, but as Ruth Franklin points out in her illuminating foreword, many of the stories that reappear in this collection were supposed to be part of a short-story collection that Jackson was trying to put together in the ’40s. However, they weren’t included when she found an organizing principle for the collection and it took the form of The Lottery and Other Stories.
Nobody was a more astute chronicler of the post-war crisis of the female mind in America than Jackson. In her novels The Bird’s Nest, Hangsaman and The Haunting of Hill House, the horrors that visit the female protagonists are psychological rather than supernatural. More opportunities were available to women after the war, but they were still shackled by domesticity and their lives continued to revolve around their husbands and children. Stanley Edgar Hyman’s career overshadowed that of Jackson in her lifetime, she was often dismissed as a mere faculty wife, and her neighbors suspected her of witchcraft (though it must be admitted that Jackson took an extraordinary interest in the paranormal). In the story “Mrs. Spencer and the Oberons,” the immaculate housewife Mrs. Spencer’s compulsion to keep everything in her household in order turns into mania, and then into loneliness when everybody in town, including her husband and children, desert her to attend a picnic at the less priggish Oberons’. In “The New Maid,” Mrs. Morgan remains untouched by the arrival of spring because she takes the train to work very early in the morning. Her husband is jealous that she has an important job.
Jackson knew how difficult it was to manage a teeming household and a writing career at the same time, and the pieces about family life in the collection show Shirley skillfully turning her misadventures and imperfections as a homemaker into art. In “Questions I Wished I’d Never Asked,” Jackson’s innocent question, “Who left the hose out to freeze?” is met with confessions of other mischief going on in the house. These writings are of a piece with the hilarity and hysteria of her memoirs Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons. Yet, enjoyable and amusing as these pieces are, there is sometimes an uneasiness about them, as if she were negotiating with the Angel in the House. They often come across as stoic concessions of someone who, as the heading of one of the sections in the book says, “would rather write than do anything else.” In “Here I Am, Washing Dishes Again,” she talks of entertaining herself by making up stories about her kitchen utensils while she washes them. The reader is jolted when after these droll pieces about her household she declares in “The Real Me,” “I am tired of writing dainty little biographical things that pretend that I am a trim little housewife in a Mother Hubbard stirring up appetizing messes over a wooden stove.” The most interesting pieces are the ones where her family life merges with her creativity and work. In “Private Showing,” she takes her children to a viewing of the film Lizzie, based on The Bird’s Nest, and they are delighted to go to “Mommy’s movie.” In “The Play’s the Thing,” Jackson writes a play at her children’s behest that they can stage, but they make the play their own, and in the end Jackson gives them the copyright. The piece on poltergeists in the house on Prospect Street makes for a truly spine-chilling moment in the volume, when the Hymans sit down to dinner and find a still-warm pumpkin pie on the table, prepared by one of the spirits in the house.
Some of the finest pieces in this collection show a side of Shirley Jackson that the world does not readily associate with her — that of a generous writer who is willing to share her process with her readers and give meticulous advice. “Garlic in Fiction” is one such gem where Jackson illustrates how to hold the reader’s attention with the use of a set of symbols: “what I’m calling images or symbols or garlic,” she writes, “is actually a kind of shorthand, or evocative coloring, to a story.” Jackson shares her experience of the haunting, subconscious, and often adventitious aspects of writing in “Memory and Delusion,” where she says, “I cannot find any patience for those people who believe that you start writing when you sit down at your desk and pick up your pen and finish writing when you put down your pen again. A writer is always writing, seeing everything through a thin mist of words, fitting swift little descriptions to everything he sees, always noticing.” Her essays on Samuel Richardson and Dr. Seuss have the effervescent quality of the literary criticism in Virginia Woolf’s The Common Reader. This collection also reveals to us Shirley Jackson the illustrator; it’s dotted with her charming drawings of family life — stick figures of herself, Stanley, and her children. A vanquished Stanley lies on the ground while Shirley, perched happily on a swing, says, “Push me again, dear — it’s just like flying.”
Let Me Tell You is a welcome addition to the reissues of Jackson’s novels, and its publication is a good opportunity to ask why there’s been a resurgence of scholarly and popular interest in her in the last few years. As Jackson’s centenary in 2016 approaches, it might be important to investigate whether we, constantly being watched on social media, bear any resemblance to the paranoid man in Jackson’s story. Is the pressure of “leaning in” really any different for women now than it was in post-war America? The answers may not come that easily, but in the meanwhile we can go on reading Shirley Jackson and marveling at her unique ability to turn happy and stable worlds on their head.
Early summer 2007, I spent all my non-working hours sitting next to the warm, greasy swimming pool of my apartment complex listening to Hanson’s “MMMBop” on repeat through a crummy pair of earbuds. I was, admittedly, feeling a bit lost at this point in my life, so there was something comforting in recognizing and fulfilling my part in such a straightforward symbiotic relationship: my job was to listen to “MMMBop,” and the job of “MMMBop” was to make me want to keep listening. As long as I kept hitting repeat, something in the world was working exactly how it was supposed to.
Around this same time, I was getting serious about writing fiction, and one day a question occurred to me: Is there a literary equivalent of pop music? Is it even possible to reproduce that catchiness, that playfulness, that danceability with the written word?
I certainly want it to be possible, so I’ve been kicking the question around ever since. It’s a tough one to answer, though. One big challenge lies in defining pop music, a genre that encompasses everything from “We Belong Together” to “The Twist” to “Shake It Off.”
Most broadly, pop music is music that’s popular. Based on that definition, the answer to my question is obvious: The literary equivalent of pop music is literature that’s popular. Pull up The New York Times bestseller list, see what’s at the top, and there you go — nice and easy. But to paraphrase the great Tina Turner, we’re not going to do this nice and easy. We’re going to do this nice and rough — to understand how pop music works, we’re going to look at an explanation of how popular movies work according to Roberto Bolaño’s “The Return,” a short story which itself might be the literary equivalent of a pop song.
At the beginning of Bolaño’s story, the unnamed narrator dies — “death caught up with me in a Paris disco at four in the morning” — and then, as a ghost, follows his corpse around to observe its postmortem fate. In describing the experience of dying, the narrator invokes the 1990 Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze movie Ghost. When he saw the movie in theatres, the narrator dismissed it as kitsch, especially the scene where Patrick Swayze’s character dies and “his soul comes out of his body and stares at it in astonishment. Well, apart from the special effects, I thought it was idiotic. A typical Hollywood cop-out, inane and unbelievable.” However, much to the narrator’s chagrin, on dying he finds himself, a disembodied soul, staring down at his own corpse: “I was stunned. First, because I had died, which always comes as a surprise, except, I guess, in some cases of suicide, and then because I was unwillingly acting out one of the worst scenes of Ghost.” The movie’s depiction of dying may be completely inane, but it also turns out to be true.
Though initially dismayed that such a meaningful moment in his own life so closely resembles the death scene from Ghost, the narrator’s opinion of the movie improves after some consideration. Though he prided himself in life on being a man of refined taste, he concedes after his death that “there is sometimes more to American naiveté than meets the eye; it can hide something that we Europeans can’t or don’t want to understand.” The narrator discovers that in Ghost, the truth about death is hiding in plain sight, obscured not by layers of symbolism or ambiguity, but by its own kitschiness. Because it resembles so many other lazy Hollywood depictions of death, it might seem meaningless, but banality and truth are not mutually exclusive, an idea that’s key to understanding pop songs.
Take the lyrics of “MMMBop,” which manage to be completely bland, and at the same time, deeply preoccupied with some heavy existential ideas. About a third of the way through the song, the brothers put forth the following proposition: “Plant a seed, plant a flower, plant a rose / You can plant any one of those / Keep planting to find out which one grows / It’s a secret no one knows.” That last line signals a preoccupation with the unknowability of the future that only increases as the song continues, reaching an apex with the final insistent refrain: “Can u tell me? oh / No you can’t ‘cause you don’t know / Can you tell me? / You say you can but you don’t know / Say you can but you don’t know.” Amid all the ba duba dops, then, Hanson is wrestling with a relentlessly ambiguous universe and a completely unknowable future. These are big ideas — truly — and I’m not cherry-picking lines, either. Take a look at the full lyrics of the song, and the existential preoccupations become even more apparent. Ghost-like, Hanson’s song obscures its insights by stating them so unremarkably. The larger insights are also obscured by the fact that the lyrics are nearly unintelligible as sung, and while that may be completely appropriate to their larger thematic interest in the incoherent, it does mean that they lose their frightened edge for listeners and fail to create contrast with the song’s sunny melodies.
A better and more recent example of a pop song grappling with big ideas that we “can’t or don’t want to understand” is Carly Rae Jepson’s “Call Me Maybe.” Where “MMMBop” focuses on unknowability, “Call Me Maybe” explores the frighteningly compulsive nature of infatuation. Again, there’s an occasional triteness to the lyrics, especially in the verses, that belies its weighty preoccupations. A line like “I trade my soul for a kiss” may be hackneyed enough to blow by unnoticed, but it’s still describing a willingness to make a Faustian bargain. Adding to the singer’s angst is her self-awareness that the infatuation in question is just that — an unexpected (“I wasn’t looking for this”), unshakeable (“but now you’re in my way”) obsession with a near stranger (“Hey I just met you”). The singer finds herself in thrall to forces beyond her control, but what delights and disturbs me most about “Call Me Maybe” is the way it replicates that same compulsion in its listeners, just as Ghost’s depiction of dying is mirrored in the narrator’s own death.
In a 2013 interview with Mashable, Taylor Hanson (of Hanson) lays out his criteria for a great pop song: “Does it get in your head? Do you sing it over and over? Do you wanna sing it?” That last question gets at one of the more unsettling qualities of a catchy pop song, that sometimes, even if we don’t want to, we might find ourselves not only replaying a song again and again in our minds, but actually singing it out loud and maybe even dancing. It’s such a commonplace occurrence that it’s easy to think nothing of it, but really there’s a kind of possession taking place, a mysterious outside force commandeering our minds and compelling us to use our bodies (to sing or to dance) in ways that are not always voluntary. A catchy song is not unlike that creepy fungus that hijacks the brains of ants and compels them to climb higher and higher and higher so the fungus can sprout from the ant’s head and spread its spores.
And that compulsion brings us back to “The Return,” where the narrator’s dismay arises in large part from the fact that he’s “unwillingly acting out one of the worst scenes of Ghost” (my italics). He’s become an active participant in a piece of art which he disapproves of, and it’s happening against his will. At this point, though, the effects of pop music diverge from the dynamic in Bolaño’s story. In “The Return,” there’s no indication that the narrator’s death resembles that scene in Ghost because he saw the movie; there’s no causality there. Instead, the movie is accurately (and probably accidentally) describing a phenomenon that the movie itself has no direct effect on.
In contrast, a song like “Call Me Maybe” not only describes the frighteningly compulsive experience of infatuation (just as Ghost depicts the experience of death), it also generates a new compulsion in its listeners, a compulsion to sing along and dance along and, at the height of the song’s popularity a few years ago, to produce lip-sync tribute videos. This last phenomenon is pop music possession at its most explicit. If you haven’t seen any of these videos, here’s how they work: A group of people, sometimes famous, sometimes not, films themselves lip-syncing to Jepson’s song, and then they post their video on YouTube. These videos are then viewed (tens of millions of times, in some cases) by people who, in turn, create lip-sync videos of their own, and so it goes, on and on and on.
Unlike the narrator of “The Return,” these lip-syncers go out of their way to channel a piece of popular art through their own bodies; there’s a palpable eagerness there to be a conduit for the song. This is where Taylor Hanson’s third criteria is illuminating — plenty of pop songs might get stuck in your head, but a great pop song is one you want to get stuck in your head. It’s a form of voluntary possession in which the makers of these tribute videos capture — and create — a very public form of ecstatic experience, of being swept by something big and incomprehensible.
Because there is something big and incomprehensible about songs like “MMMBop” and “Call Me Maybe.” I just checked and, three years after its release, the official music video for “Call Me Maybe” has over half a billion views on YouTube. Granted, it’s a plenty catchy song that holds up on repeat listens, but who can fully account for that degree of widespread enthusiasm? There’s something majestic and frightening in the scope of its popularity which for me pushes “Call Me Maybe” into the territory of the sublime. To borrow 18th-century essayist Joseph Addison’s description of the Alps, Jepson’s song, and others like it, “fill the mind with an agreeable kind of horror.” That seemingly irreconcilable tension — agreeability and horror — is essential to great pop music.
This is why, for instance, Michael Jackson’s Thriller is the greatest pop album of all time. Jackson and producer Quincy Jones astutely foreground that tension between agreeability and horror throughout, creating music and lyrics (and music videos) that are catchy and danceable, and at the same time, preoccupied with discomfort. In “Billie Jean,” the tension arises from a baby’s disputed paternity. In “Beat It,” it’s knife fights. In “Thriller,” it’s werewolves. And start to finish, the album is compulsively listenable. Even the train wreck of “The Girl is Mine” (the doggone girl is mine — what?) is hard to turn away from.
So, to return to our initial question — if these are great pop songs, then what are their literary equivalents? (I’m going to exclude poetry at the outset as being too close to music to be an equivalent.) We’ve already looked at some key concerns and characteristics of pop music — compulsion and tension, agreeability and horror, banality and truth. I’d also add that pop songs are short, usually under five minutes, so their literary equivalent needs to be short as well. For that reason I’m excluding novels. Short stories, though, can be read in one sitting.
And of course, great pop songs have great hooks, so their literary equivalent needs to be both attention-grabbing and memorable. For a perfect case in point, here are the first lines of “The Return:” “I have good news and bad news. The good news is that there is life (of a kind) after this life. The bad news is that Jean-Claude Villeneuve is a necrophiliac.” It’s a memorable opening — and premise — that in lesser hands might produce a story that coasts on shock value. Instead, Bolaño develops a complex and surprising relationship between the narrator’s ghost and (fictional) French fashion designer Jean-Claude Villeneuve.
Like “MMMBop” and “Call Me Maybe,” “The Return” capitalizes on a tension between the agreeable and the horrible. While certain elements of the story — death, necrophilia — might inspire unease or distaste in readers, other elements — the story’s humor, its compassion — make the story not just palatable, but pleasant. It’s a fun read that also grapples with overwhelming concepts like death, compulsion, sex, and loneliness.
For all its pop-musicality, though, “The Return” is not an especially well-known story, at least not yet. And while we have rejected popularity as the sole defining characteristic of pop music, it is an important element. For that reason, Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” serves as a useful case study. Like “The Return,” it’s a story with a horrifying core — the random and ritualistic selection of a small-town resident for stoning — made agreeable by its engaging narrative elements — a stunning concision, a compelling sense of mystery. The story has also achieved the ubiquity of a “Hey Ya!” or an “Imagine.” Everyone reads this story in junior high, and with the possible exception of “The Most Dangerous Game,” no other 20th-century short story has insinuated itself so completely into the pop culture lexicon.
“The Lottery” also shares with “The Return” a counterfactual, high-concept premise that resists easy allegorizing. This play with realism correlates to another widespread characteristic of pop songs, the nonsense lyric. The chorus of “MMMBop” is fun to sing along with and it also means nothing, at least in a conventional sense. What’s more, you’re not going to find a lot of people puzzling over what mmmbop ba duba dop actually signifies, because signification isn’t the point.
No story exemplifies this dynamic better than Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings,” in which a winged old man shows up outside the house of a poor couple where he’s caged and examined until, at the end of the story, he flies away. The story’s characters, as well as its readers, find themselves asking questions that listeners of “MMMBop” don’t bother with — what does this nonsensical figure mean? But the story’s refusal to yield any clues as to the old man’s provenance or nature makes a strong case that we should read the story the same way we listen to the chorus of “MMMBop.” It matters less what the old man means, and more how his enigmatic presence fits within and affects the rest of the narrative.
Of course, some readers will persist in being frustrated by “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings,” just as many listeners are enraged by pop songs like “MMMBop” or “Call Me Maybe.” I think that’s true, actually, of all three stories I’ve mentioned, that they’re just as likely to inspire consternation as admiration.
Part of the reason for that is their ability to get under a reader’s skin. You may hate “The Lottery,” but if you’ve read it, you’re likely to remember it for a very long time. Similarly, people who hate “MMMBop” don’t hate it because it’s forgettable, they hate it because they can’t get it out of their head. Even that hatred, though, is a remarkable artistic feat. Love and hate are, after all, both forms of devotion, and the ability to inspire that devotion is, the more I think about it, the most essential characteristic of a truly great pop song.
When, in 2007, I fell in love with “MMMBop,” I felt an irresistible urge to share the song with others, to ask them to listen and to consider if maybe, like me, they’d dismissed it too readily when it first came out 10 years earlier. We’ve already discussed how that compulsion to share is a strange, overwhelming force, and it’s a compulsion I feel again now. As I’ve thought through the possible criteria for determining the literary equivalent of a pop song, I’ve thought of so many stories that fit the bill, stories that have gotten under my skin, stories that I have to share. Unable to resist that urge, I’ve put together a Thriller-sized playlist of nine pop-musical short stories:
1. “The Lottery,” by Shirley Jackson (from The Lottery and Other Stories)
2. “The Return,” by Roberto Bolaño (from The Return)
3. “Good Country People,” by Flannery O’Connor (from A Good Man is Hard to Find)
The names alone of the two main characters (Manley Pointer and Hulga) are worth the price of admission, and the story just gets better from there. Its jokey setup — a woman with a PhD in philosophy sets out to corrupt a naïve-seeming bible salesman — serves as a funny vehicle for a troubling exploration of condescension and pain.
4. “UFO in Kushiro,” by Haruki Murakami (from After the Quake)
After the Kobe earthquake of 1995, Komura’s wife leaves him, explaining in a note, “you are good and kind and handsome, but living with you is like living with a chunk of air.” What follows has the feel of a verse/chorus/bridge song structure as seemingly disparate narrative elements — the accusing note, a package whose contents are unknown to Komura, an extended conversation with the sister of a colleague — trade back and forth until they all come together, more-or-less, at the end of the story.
5. “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings,” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (from Collected Stories)
6. “The Cats in the Prison Recreation Hall,” by Lydia Davis (from The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis)
A prison recreation hall is infested with cats and then the warden gets rid of them — that’s basically the whole story. But the simple premise yields an engaging pop-song-short two-page narrative about power, cruelty, and the passing of time.
7. “End of the Line,” by Aimee Bender (from Willful Creatures)
“The man went to a pet store to buy a little man to keep him company.”
Another killer hook, this time for a story that takes a whimsical premise and follows it to dark places. By the end, the reader is left with the troubling question of whether the big man subjects the little man to a series of cruel humiliations because he can’t see his pet’s humanity or because he can.
8. “Eisenheim the Illusionist,” by Steven Millhauser (from We Others: New and Selected Stories)
Nineteenth-century Austrian magician Eisenheim stages increasingly audacious illusions that captivate the public and trouble government officials. It’s not just the descriptions of the magic tricks that captivate, though. The narrative itself contains flourishes and reveals that, rather than feel cheap or contrived, organically grow out of the story’s interests in spectacle.
9. Dormitory, by Yoko Ogawa (from The Diving Pool)
Tiny mysteries accumulate in this story, creating a tone both haunting and precise. The narrative’s indelible physical details — a stained ceiling, omnipresent bees, rigorous five-item to-do lists — ground the reader in a distinctly tangible world, which makes the dread-filled, disorienting effect of the story’s conclusion all the more affecting.
Image Credit: Flickr/modomatic.
When I pick up a new piece of fiction, it’s hard to resist a story of girls gone bad. Stories of young women, brimming with newfound beauty and sexuality, and lacking means of escape, make for fascinating fiction. Just think of the desperately sad and self-destructive Lisbon sisters of The Virgin Suicides, who one by one chose to remove themselves from a world that wouldn’t let them fly free. Their allure is in their violent and completely comprehensible exit strategies: as the boys who loved them later said, “We felt the imprisonment of being a girl, the way it made your mind active and dreamy, and how you ended up knowing which colors went together… We knew, finally, that the girls were really women in disguise, that they understood love and even death, and that our job was merely to create the noise that seemed to fascinate them.” These dreamy girls hold a special place in the hearts of all female readers, right next to the girl gang of Joyce Carol Oates’s Foxfire, the scorned Abigail Williams and her band of pretenders in The Crucible, and in the residents of McLean hospital in Susanna Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted. The tendency towards violence, towards rebellion, is the same tendency as a caged animal would throw against the bars. For readers, no other circumstances are required to make the actions of these women plausible — and heartbreaking.
It seemed, initially, Mary Stewart Atwell would take the same direction in her novel, Wild Girls. Focusing her narrative on the small Appalachian town of Swan River, Atwell gives us a community famous for its regular outbursts of violence, destruction, and death — all propagated by terrifying teenage girls. Kate Riordan, our protagonist and mild-mannered resident of Swan River, is willing to concede that the history of violence is the strongest thing the town has to recommend it. “It was our thing, our trivia fact, and it occurs to me now that if the Chamber of Commerce had known what they were doing, people could have come to us the way they go to the Massachusetts town where Lizzie Borden axed her parents.” The town has a significant economic and privilege divide, between the residents able to send their young daughters to the posh Swan River Academy and the residents from the wrong side of town, the part that includes the Bloodwort Commune, a small community of down-on-its-luck former hippies who dabble in illicit drugs, sex, and even the occult. Kate is a local girl attending the Academy, and so she regularly fluctuates between a resentment of the Academy’s elitism (and its queen bee cliques, lead by her wealthy friend Willow) and a fear of the threats emerging from the Bloodwort compound, which suffers from its own wild-girl initiated violence at the beginning of the novel.
Each girl in Swan River is a ticking bomb — with the lore of the wild girls comes the assumption that every girl is at least a little bit susceptible once she hits puberty. “When you turned sixteen everybody started to look at you as if you were the suicide bomber at the checkpoint, the enemy in disguise.” Crystal Lemons, a girl from the Bloodwort community, was always a bit of a threat; she had, Kate says, “an interesting ripeness about her, an early voluptuousness…grown up too soon.” When Crystal becomes a wild girl and burns down a huge portion of the commune, it comes as no surprise. For if what makes a Swan River girl go wild is her circumstances, then it makes everyone in the town and academy an accessory to the violence. Kate’s friend Willow is exceptionally pretty and popular, but her chameleon-like tendency to adapt to please others raises a red flag. Changing her eye color with contacts, talking about summer homes and dressage with the Academy’s trust fund babies — Willow is playing roles with everyone, including Kate, and the sense that all girls have to negotiate their identities carefully in this community would drive anyone to madness. The threat of going “wild,” of exploding under the pressure of performance, is more powerful when Atwell treats the conditions as the cause. Gossip, prejudice, extreme poverty, and limited opportunities — all are present in Swan River, and so there’s plenty of fodder for a hotbed of violence and insurrection. In building up an Applachian crucible of backstabbing and suspicion, Atwell seems to be dabbling in the territory of Daniel Woodrell, Bonnie Jo Campbell, and Donald Ray Pollock. The Swan River setting, by turns bleakly abandoned and claustrophobically crowded, makes for a perfect prison for the girls to rail against.
If Atwell had stopped right there, Wild Girls would be a treatise on female rage, a rage justified by years of subjugation and humiliation. But on top of this sociological mystery, she spreads a thick layer of supernatural schmaltz, neutering the real-life explanations for the violence and taking away the female agency in it. When Kate’s older sister, Maggie, shifts from being a motivated student and driven young woman to a wild girl, it is attributed not to a condition, but to a sudden supernatural occurrence. Kate awakes one evening at the Academy to find her sister glowing, “not focused like a flashlight beam but diffused, sourceless…the room got as hot as a sauna. Maggie knocked over the bookcase, smashed the CD player, and grinned up at us from the wreckage, hands on hips.” A few seconds later, she takes a leap out the window, the glass holding “the outline of Maggie’s body, the lines clean as if cut by a torch.” Maggie had no incentive to flee, to act out, to become a “wild girl” — she had her whole future ahead, and yet Atwell has her saddled by a glowing light and a sudden desire to destroy property. When Atwell lays out the rest of the mystery, linking the Academy girls together in a cult-like plot to destroy the town, she gives too much credit to all the wrong forces: to a handsome and manipulative Academy teacher, a series of suspicious clues at the Bloodwort commune, and multiple acts of horrifying violence. All the circumstances about poverty, education, and female expression come to naught.
It may be that true-to-life stories of teenage rage don’t interest Atwell — and it’s problematic that, regardless of their execution, stories like these can quickly fall into Lifetime movie-of-the week territory. (After all, where would Drew Barrymore and Tori Spelling be without their “good-girls-gone-bad” miniseries?) But substituting supernatural forces for real circumstances removes what was initially, for me, the true delight of Wild Girls: the exploration of how small communities can become pressure cookers for young women, and how the roles we’re expected to play during the journey from little girls to teenagers could drive anybody to violence. The supernatural and mundane can live side by side; writers like Karen Russell and Shirley Jackson manage to do this in all their stories, imbuing small towns and Florida swamps with mythical, lyrical language and extraordinary possibilities. But they all begin with supernatural launching pads: we know, when we enter Karen Russell’s Swamplandia, that it’s not merely economics contributing to the Bigtree family’s woes. But I believe more in natural horror, the gut-wrenching retreat we long for at the end of Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery, when we discover that human failure can be just as violent, as cruel, and as devastating as anything that might emerge from a deep dark cave or a scorching wildfire.
A few weeks ago, in many towns like Atwell’s Swan River, Halloween brought a special attraction to town: a fundamentalist Christian tradition known as “Hell House.” This “scared straight” performance is designed to keep teenagers away from sinful behaviors by showing off their dangerous consequences. The tableaus of horror and gore require no monsters and demons — instead, we see a girl lying in a pool of blood, the victim of a botched abortion after having premarital sex. Or a girl takes drugs at a rave — she is later raped, and then commits suicide in despair. After each of these tableaus, Satan appears and drags the victim off to hell. One in five attendees at a Hell House vocalized a renewed commitment to Jesus. If Atwell contributed a tableau to a Hell House, it might go like this: a handful of girls giggle and gather over an old spell book or Ouija board, prodding each other to up the supernatural ante. Dabble in the occult, and you’ll later be served up as a human sacrifice.
Granted, this tableau has a lot of flash to it, but I personally find the horrors of real life to be far less giggle-inducing. Why build a hellmouth when you already have high school?